The cello is one of the more unusual instruments in the orchestra. It’s got a big, rich sound that you can’t get from any other instrument. But do you know what makes the cello so interesting? This post will explore some cello legends, cello disaster stories and take a light-hearted look at some fascinating, less well-known cello facts that we think will surprise even some experienced musicians.
1. The Cello is a lot Like the Human Voice
Of all the instruments in the orchestra, the cello is said to be the most like the human voice.
The range closely resembles that of the human voice, encompassing all four registers – bass, tenor, alto and soprano.
The cello does this with excellent sound quality at every level and can go far beyond.
But the similarity goes deeper than that – the expressive, rich and mellow tone of the cello has the power to sing and touch the heart like the human voice.
2. Booted by Napoleon Bonaparte
All cellos made by Antonio Stradivari in the 18th Century have ‘names,’ and one of these, The Duport, made in 1711, has quite a story attached.
By 1812, the cello belonged to Jean-Louis Duport, known as the father of modern cello technique.
He performed for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at the palace, and the legend is that afterwards Bonaparte was determined to try the instrument.
He found it very awkward, exclaiming, ‘How the devil do you hold this thing, Monsieur Duport?’
And it is said that to this day, the cello has a dent in it, supposedly made by Napoleon’s boot!
Renowned 20th Century cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch also played this distinguished cello from 1974 until he died in 2007.
3. What is the most Expensive Cello Worth?
In 2008 the Duport Stradivarius cello was bought by the Nippon Music Foundation for $20 million.
This is the most expensive cello ever sold and possibly the most money ever paid for a musical instrument (the MacDonald Stradivarius viola went for sale at a reserve price of $45m but did not sell).
However, you do not have to be really rich to play a priceless instrument – just really good!
Many of the named Stradivarius cellos are on loan to noteworthy cellists, such as The Davidov, on loan to Yo Yo Ma.
4. The Cello has a Lead Role in a Bond Film
A Stradivarius cello called The Lady Rose features prominently in the Bond movie, The Living Daylights, based on a short story by Ian Flemming.
The cello really is the star – the case is used as a human decoy, weapon holder, sled, the spike as a rudder, and the cello even gets shot (of course, it is really a ‘stunt double’ student instrument).
The cellist is a sniper, and the humor is cello-centric, such as, ‘Why couldn’t you learn the violin?’ whilst cramming it into an Aston Martin.
Flemming’s inspiration for the short story was probably his half-sister Amaryllis Flemming, a cello teacher, and performer who owned a 1717 Stradivarius cello, known today as the Amaryllis.
Note too that the orchestra used in the film was actually the Austrian Youth Orchestra, and the second cellist can be glimpsed playing the solo part for real.
5. Cellos can be very Fashionable
Cellos often feature in artworks and fashion pictures – romantically dressed cellists with colour-themed cellos.
But sometimes valuable instruments have also been used, with disastrous consequences.
In 2012, a 1694 Stradivarius cello known as ‘the Spanish’ – worth $20 million – was used for a fashion shoot.
While being positioned alongside 2 violins and a viola from the ‘Spanish Quartet’ set, it was knocked off a table and the neck broke off!
Luckily, in the hands of a skilled luthier, repair was possible – although the Spanish Royal Palace didn’t reveal the cost!
Fashion Designer Louis Vuitton’s company, MHLV, has gone a step further from ‘fashion-shooting’ cellos; it owns a number of priceless musical instruments, including two Stradivarius cellos, which it loans out to great players such as Yo Yo Ma.
6. You can make a Cello out of Rubbish
Cellos are traditionally made of wood – spruce or pine for the top, maple or poplar for the back, and ebony for fingerboards, pegs and tailpieces.
But artisans have made them from many more materials including ice, glass, metal, natural fiber and carbon fiber.
Some are more ornamental, but most are fully playable, and cellos have even been made from rubbish!
The Landfillharmonic Orchestra in Paraguay was founded using instruments made of recycled materials.
The orchestra founder wanted to stop the Cateura village children from playing on the mountainous landfill site, so he helped them make instruments and formed an orchestra with cellos made from oil drums and large containers.
7. The Cello is a very Peaceful Instrument
Some cello music is very peaceful, but cellists have also been associated with campaigns for peace or human rights.
Pau (Pablo) Casals, the Catalonian cellist, was even awarded a United Nations Peace medal.
Casals, who popularised the Bach Suites, transforming them from play-at-home studies to masterpieces for public performance, was awarded the medal at the age of 94.
At the United Nations General Assembly, he played in public for the first time in 40 years, and introduced ‘Song of the Birds’ emotionally, saying that when birds are in the sky, they sing: “Peace, Peace, Peace”, and, ‘it is a melody that Bach, Beethoven and all the greats would have admired and loved.’
Mstislav Rostropovich received an award from the International League of Human Rights in 1974, and Yo-Yo Ma, the Chinese-American cellist has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2006.
8. The Cello is Played by a lot of Royals
The following examples show that cellos have some royal connections!
Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, played the cello as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and took part in orchestral performances (although Charles thought he was ‘hopeless’).
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle chose 20 year old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason to perform Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis at their wedding in 2018.
King Frederick the Great of Prussia, was also a musician, composer, and owner of the Stuart Stradivarius cello, now thought to belong to Vladimir Putin’s friend Sergei Roldugin.
Lastly, the oldest cello in the world is called ‘The King’, and bears a crown.
9. The Oldest Cello in the World is Almost 500 years old!
The world’s oldest cello, known as ‘The King’, made by Andrea Amati in the mid 16th Century, has undergone a CAT scan – and has recovered well!
The King was examined by researchers from the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota to help them identify which parts are original, and what has been altered – it is the oldest surviving cello in the same form we use today.
Lavishly decorated in red, green and gold paint, this cello even bears a picture of King Charles IX of France.
It seems to have been played standing up – perhaps for processions, as it is adapted for strapping.
It is rarely played but you can hear its rich tone on recordings.
10. Cello’s were Considered ‘Unladylike’
In the past playing the cello was sometimes considered ‘unladylike’, in which case ladies could ‘turn both legs to the left, sinking the right almost to a kneeling posture’ or ‘if found more convenient, rest upon a stool which is concealed by the dress, at the back of the instrument’! (From the Handbook of Violoncello Playing by Carl Shroeder).
This dates from the late 19th century, when ladies would have worn long dresses full enough to hide a stool behind!
Shocking now, but funny to look back on.
11. Cello can Cause some Pain
Endpins were not always used to rest the cello on the floor.
In fact, although cellos have existed since the 16th century, the spike only became common in the early 20th century.
Belgian cellist Adrien-François Servais, who probably had really sore and aching calves, was the first to use a spike in around 1845, but the calf workout was preferred for quite a while after that!
These days almost anything goes – some still use their calves (Baroque experts), some play standing up, some have the cello strung around their neck, e.g. the cellist in The Dead South (seen standing in a fountain to play), but most are glad to use the endpin for support!
The cello can ‘harm’ the player in a few other ways – beginners will know all about sore left hand fingertips from pressing strings, and thumb position is probably the worst culprit for being a pain – the player has to hold the strings down against the fingerboard by pressing hard with the side of the thumb.
The pointy endpin is hazardous, (rubber stoppers recommended), then there’s the inconvenience and difficulty of transporting the cello.
On foot it is huge, awkward and heavy – shoulder straps or wheels help but it’s not easy.
By road it’s a challenge – not easily fitting into many small cars, causing frowns and inevitable jokes by train or bus, and by air your cello will require a seat of its own – so it will ‘hurt’ your pocket!
12. The Cello Actually has a Different Name
Cello is actually a shortened version of its full name, Violoncello.
This is translated as ‘little violone’ , because a violone (not violin) was actually the direct ancestor of the double bass and much larger.
Living in Wales, my personal favourite word for cello is the Welsh word – ‘Soddgrwth’, a soft word pronounced ‘so-the-gr-ooth’, and it is appropriate that in welsh you do not play the cello, you ‘sing’ the cello, ‘Dw i’n caru canu’r soddgrwth’ – (doo-ween cah-ree can-ear soh-the-gr-ooth) – I love ‘singing’ the cello.
Summing Up Some Cello Facts
So that’s it for this post – a brief selection of personal highlights about the cello.
Many more interesting facts and stories could not be included here, but hopefully this post has made you want to find out more and perhaps become a part of your own cello legend!