The Cello as an Accompanying Instrument in the 18th Century

By Dimitry Markevitch.


Baroque musicians playing a trio sonata, 18th century anonymous painting. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/TrioSonata.jpg

For years, it has generally been accepted that the usual, normal, and preferred accompanying instrument for 18th-century music is the harpsichord. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, in his well-known Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, states that “the best accompaniment to a solo, one which is free of criticism, is a keyboard instrument and a cello”. Most modern performers assume, especially when confronted with figured basses, that a keyboard instrument with a cello is the only possibility. The reality is different. If you study early editions and read contemporary reports of 18th-century concerts, you will discover that the cello is often mentioned as the accompanying instrument to a soloist, whether violin, flute, voice, or another cello. Of course, much iconographic evidence shows a poor cellist sitting next to the harpsichord, struggling to read the score over the harpsichordist’s shoulder. However, the cellist in this scene is usually depicted with an orchestra or large ensemble.

The term “basso” causes some confusion. As a general rule “basse” and “basso” mean the cello. Even today a French luthier will always call the cello a “basse”. Furthermore, the term “basso continuo”, or figured bass, does not necessarily mean that a harpsichord is called for. Any type of chordal instrument, such as theorbo or lute, could be used. In large ensembles the continuo is played by several instruments. In church music the organ is most likely involved.

When the composer specifically wanted the accompaniment of the harpsichord, he usually specified “cembalo”, “cembalo e violoncello”, or something similar. Even when a composer specified “cembalo” and provided a figured bass, these specifications were often ignored. Sebastien de Brossard says in his Dictionnaire de Musique from 1705, that “Basso continuo is often played simply and without figures on the bass violin”. (There was also a practical side to the question, as good harpsichords were not always available, and a cello, even if cumbersome, is still easier to carry than a harpsichord.

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