“The Cello in Britain: A Technical and Social History”

Mel Bay - Celtic Groove for cello duet
Mel Bay has a whole range of traditional tunes arranged for cello and cello duos including the Celtic Groove collection above

The titled of this blog post is an article published by Brenda Neece in The Galpin Society Journal (Volume 56, June, 2003).  I had downloaded it some time ago (JSTOR is my friend!) but in between lessons yesterday I decided to skim the contents.  Some very interesting tidbits here, and I had already learned a bit about some of the usage of the cello in Scottish folk music through an article written by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas in the Strings Magazine.  In particular, the opening two paragraphs:

In Scotland, the fiddle and cello reigned supreme as the dance band of choice in the golden age of Scottish music and dance—the second half of the 18th century and even well into the 19th.The famous dance fiddler Niel Gow (1727–1807), the doyen of Scottish fiddlers, was in great demand to play for village dances and society balls often with his brother Donald on cello. There are eyewitness accounts of the dancers having to leave the ballroom because of the excitement created by the musicians.

Scottish music publishers did a thriving business printing collections of reels, jigs, strathspeys, and other dance tunes that included not only the melody, but also a bass line for the cello, or “bowed bass” as it was known. The written bass line was often quite rudimentary, serving only as a guide; as the publishers often assumed that cellists would prefer to improvise their own accompaniments.

really intrigued me.

Brenda Neece’s article

the Scottish fiddle tradition may provide a clue about the function of this system. In this tradition, boys seem to have learned to play the bass fiddle first-even though it might have been cumbersome for a child, it had the simplest parts-and then they moved up to the treble. By learning the easiest part first, a player could perform in a group earlier in his training, and thus gain the most performance experience possible. Some bass players then reversed the process and, after learning the tunes on the fiddle, played them on the bass fiddle.  Such a pedagogical tradition might help explain some of the unusual fingerings in early cello treatises.

The author goes on to explain how many of the early 18th century cello treatises in Britain included what we would normally associate with violin fingerings.

I’m not sure how the Scottish pedagogical tradition helps to explain the unusual fingerings since violin fingerings have been pretty widespread enough throughout Europe that the French cellist, Martin Berteau, is credited with the development of what we can refer to as standard cello fingerings.

What I find remarkable about the above quote is how that tradition 1) allows young and old; inexperienced and experienced to perform together immediately, and 2) allows those in the tradition to be multi-instrumentalists.  Which is very different from an model of music making built on skill level through audition.

Granted, you will find a relatively wide variety of age levels in, say, a Symphony Orchestra.  But the lower limit is usually set at having had enough time to build up a skill level appropriate for winning an audition into the Orchestra.

The article is fascinating, and I look forward to finishing it but it has already sparked many questions to my mind about what we mean by making music.  I think Abby Newton, another cellist that plays Scottish folk music, gets to the core of that:

For 18 years Abby has been going into inner-city classrooms in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens to introduce children to traditional music. As part of a program sponsored by Symphony Space she makes two visits each to about 30 classrooms a year. Many of the kids she works with have never seen a fiddle or cello and have had contact with traditional tunes and songs only through the distortions of popular media. Her presentations parallel the American history curriculum. Her music brings history to life in the classroom.

Some audio samples for the above artists may be found at NPR piece, Sounds of the Highlands: Traditional Scottish Music.

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