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

Origins of Bowed Stringed Instruments

Sambuugiin Pürevjav of Altai Khairkhan playing a morin khuur near Centre Georges Pompidou in 2005.

The Wikipedia entry for the Byzantine lyra states this about its history:

The first recorded reference to the bowed lyra was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911); in his lexicographical discussion of instruments he cited the lyra (lūrā) as the typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe)[5]. The lyra spread widely via the Byzantine trade routes that linked the three continents; in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments[6]. In the meantime, the rabāb, the bowed string instrument of the Arabic world, was introduced to Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments such as the medieval rebec, the Scandinavian and Icelandic talharpa, and the Celticcrwth. A notable example is the Italian lira da braccio[6], a 15th-century bowedstring instrument which is considered by many as the predecessor of the contemporary violin[2][7].

While it’s never a good idea to take Wikipedia as the final say about any topic, it’s usually a great starting point for research.  Being adequately sourced helps, obviously.   The entry for the Chinese erhu states that:

The erhu can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed to have evolved from the xiqin (), which was described as a foreign, two-stringed lute in Yue Shu (樂書, yuèshū, lit. book of music), an encyclopedic work on music written by music theorist Chen Yang in the Northern Song Dynasty. The xiqin is believed to have originated from the Xi people of Central Asia, and have come to China in the 10th century.

Bowed strings seemed to have originated as a whole in the Middle East and/or Central Asia–regions of the world that share a lot of overlapping cultural ties–and then spread West and East into Europe and Asia.

Meaning that there are bowed string traditions in the world that predate the Western traditions by a few centuries.  The irony being that after the Cairo Congress in 1932 (as well as the subsequent follow ups) the formal re-introduction of Western bowed strings have resulted in the replacement of many of the native instruments with European violins, violas, cellos and basses. Continue reading “Origins of Bowed Stringed Instruments”