Implications on Literature in the Early History of the Cello

by Robert Jesselson

The following article has been re-printed with permission of Strings Magazine.

As string players and teachers using the words 'violin', 'fiddle' and 'cello' with great frequency, how often do we stop to consider the origin of these words? It is perhaps intriguing to uncover the relationship between the term 'violin' and the Roman Goddess of Exaltation or Victory! It is probably even more surprising to discover that there is an etymological relationship between our stringed instruments and the device used to torture slaves. Research into the early names of the instruments, however, is not idle intellectual curiosity. Rather, the implications are profound with respect to the early literature for the cello.

The word 'violin' originates from the Latin 'Vitula' (see chart). The word 'vitulare' meant 'to sing or rejoice'. 'Vitula' also referred to a fiddle, as well as a calf or heifer (were these words related by the fact that the heifer was used for making the gut strings of the fiddle?). The word 'vitula' became 'fides' (meaning string or lute) and evolved into 'fidula' and 'fithela' (Old English), finally becoming the modern English 'fiddle.' The Latin word 'fidicula' referred to a small lute or a mechanism to bind slaves in order to torture them!

The word 'Vitula' evolved separately into the Old French word 'vielle', which became the Medieval word 'vyell.' Much of the confusion in terminology between the violin and viol families stems from this source-word. Instead of developing two separate names for the two very different families, both groups of instruments derive their names from the same word. 'Vyell' became 'viol' and ultimately 'violone' as the generic term for the viol family. 'Vyell' also served as the source for the Old Provencal term 'viola' which was the prime term for the violin family ('viola da braccio'). The diminutive instrument became the 'violino', while the larger instrument took the augmentative term 'violone' ('large viola'). Since both families of instruments employed the ambiguous word 'violone' the potential for confusion is enormous.

Part of the importance in determining the correct interpretation of the word 'violone' is in being able to ascertain when music began to be written specifically for the cello. Much early music specifies performance on a 'violone.' If it can be established that 'violone' referred to the violoncello as early as the sixteenth century, then it can be appreciated that some literature which was thought to have been written for the viol family may in fact have been intended for the cello.

Although it is known that the cello existed as early as 1535 (in a fresco painted by Gaudenzio Ferrari showing an angel playing the cello) current knowledge finds the instrument emerging as a solo instrument more than 150 years later. Numerous different names were used for the instrument and it is often unclear whether a 'violone' or a 'bassus' referred to the cello or some other instrument. At various times the violoncello has been called a variety of names, indicated below with the source and dates of usage:

bas de violon Jambe de Fer (1556)
basso di viola da braccio Zacconi (1592)
basso da brazzo Monteverdi (1607)
bass vio de braccio Praetorius (1619)
Gross Quint-Bass Praetorius (1619)
basse de violon Mersenne (1637)
violoncino Fontanna (1641)
violoncello Arresti (1665)
violone da Brazzo Vitali (1666)

Other terms known to have referred to the modern violoncello include:

franzoesische bass
bas-geig / bass violin / Bass Geige
bassel/ bassetl/ bassetto/ Bassetchen
viola de basso
violoncello da chiesa (larger size)
violoncello da camera (smaller size = modern cello size) violonzino
violonzelo violoncelo cello (used as early as 1765 - C.P.E. Bach)

Other cello-like variants have included the following:

violoncello piccolo (called for in Bach cantatas, Boccherini quintets)
violoncello alto
violoncello d'amore (a small cello with sympathetic strings)
violoncello da spalla ('Spalla' means shoulder in Italian. This refers to a manner of holding the cello by a strap (referred to by Jambe de Fer in 1556))
arpeggione (also called guitare d'amour, guitar violoncello and bowed guitar )
gardon (a folk instrument of Transylvania, used as a rhythm instrument, with three or four strings)
baryton (a South German instrument with six bowed strings and 20 sympathetic strings)

The first unequivocal reference to the violoncello was in Jambe de Fer's Epitome Musical in 1556, where he indicated that the Italians call the family 'violon da braccia ou violone' and referred to the cello as 'le bas' or 'le bas de violon'. Monteverdi calls for cellos in the score to Orfeo (1607) under the name 'basso de viola da braccio' or 'basso da brazzo.' The most confusing term is the above-mentioned 'violone.' In Volume II of his Syntagma Musicum (1619), Praetorius states that the violone refers to the contrabass (double bass) viola da gamba. Although this may have been true for Germany, it does not appear to have been true for Italy, where violone seems to have referred specifically to the cello. Giovanni Battista Vitali, a recognized cellist, signs himself in his Op. 1 and Op. 5 as "Musico de Violone da Brazzo" thus equating the violone with the cello.

The first appearance of the term 'violoncino' came in 1641 on the title page of a score by G.B. Fontana. The suffixes '-ino', '-elo' and '-ello' are simply diminutives in different Italian dialects. Hence the term 'violoncino' is a cognate for 'violoncello' and translates as 'little large viola.'

viol - on - cello

viola - one - cello

violin 'large' 'little' family

The first appearance of the term 'violoncello' was in the Sonatas by Arresti in 1665. By the 1680's the name was increasingly accepted in Italy, although the term 'violone' was still used. There are even examples where 'violoncello' is on the title page and 'violone' appears on the parts, or in another section of the score.

The question of nomenclature and terminology is confused still further by the fact that there was little standardization with the instrument itself. It was made in several sizes, with either four, five or six strings and with a variety of tunings. In his Syntagma musicum Praetorius referred to a five-string cello which he called the 'bass viol da braccio'. The tuning also varied, since he wrote:

"Take heed, now, it is of no great import how this or that person tunes his violin or viola if only he can perform on it accurately, clearly and in tune".

Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS Staff
Tim Janof
John Michel
Copyright © 1995- Internet Cello Society