Implications on Literature in the Early History of 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)|
|violone da Brazzo||Vitali (1666)|
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.'
viola - one - cello
violin 'large' 'little' family
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".
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Editor: Tim Janof
Director: John Michel
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