Violoncello da Spalla by D. Rickert
Violoncello da Spalla by D. Rickert
Violoncello da Spalla by D. Rickert
Over the past year, we received a number of inquiries about the violoncello da spalla. Recently, we started making them on a custom basis. We, in fact have a healthy backlog of commissions for these instruments. We decided that the time is right for the violoncello da spalla as a standard product offering. Ours is a meticulously replica of an 18” violoncello da spalla after the famous instrument (1732) by Johann Christian Hoffman pictured here. This 5-string instrument is powerful and sonorous, regardless of whether it is strung with modern strings, gut strings or a mix, such as gut for the high three with modern lower two string.
Background: What is a Violoncello da Spalla?
The violoncello da spalla (Italian for “cello of the shoulder”) was, until fairly recently, a 5-string instrument of the violin family from the Baroque period that had fallen into obscurity. It is a small instrument, about the size of a modern 1/10 size cello, that is tuned to C, G, d, a, e’ (i.e. like a cello with an additional string on the treble side that is tuned to e’, which is an octave lower than the e” string on a violin)
It is thought by many that the violoncello da spalla was invented, or at least perfected, by the German luthier, Johann Christian Hoffman, a contemporary and probably a close friend of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s purported close relationship with J. C. Hoffmann has led to a now popular theory that Bach had a hand in the invention of the violoncello da spalla. This belief continues to be debated by experts who study the history of musical instruments.
Anyway, what is now widely regarded as the primary candidate for distinction as the original violoncello da spalla, having been previously misclassified as either a viola pomposa, viola da spalla or piccolo cello, was made in 1732 by Hoffmann. It is this instrument that, today, is the de facto “gold standard” for a proper violoncello da spalla.
The modern resurrection of the violoncello da spalla, and widespread attribution of the instrument’s invention to Hoffmann, is due largely to the Russian-Dutch luthier and media celebrity, Dmitry Badiarov. Badiarov, based in The Hague, introduced his first violoncello da spalla in 2004, essentially after Hoffmann, albeit, considerably more refined than the original 1732 instrument. While Badiarov, and his collaborator, Sigiswald Kuijken, are more well-known, it was earlier research by the Dutch violinist and violist, Lambert Smit, that laid the groundwork for Badiarov and others involved in the resurgence of the violoncello da spalla. Smit is regarded by many as the true father of the modern revival of the violoncello da spalla. Indeed, it was Smit who first posited the involvement of Bach, himself, in its invention. It was Smit who surmised that Bach’s Cello Suites and Cantatas were written, not for the full-size 4-string cello, but rather for the much smaller 5-string violoncello da spalla.
Since 2004, the violoncello da spalla has grown exponentially in popularity, largely due to Badiarov’s tireless ongoing research, teaching and publishing. Of, and he also has made quite a few of these unique and very cool instruments for world-famous musicians.
How is the Violoncello da Spalla played?
The violoncello da spalla has been described as a bass for violinists. Unlike the 5-string chin cello, a.k.a. the 5-string octave viola (see image below),
the violoncello da spalla is held across the chest, secured with a strap around the shoulder and neck, as you can see in in the photos below of Lambert Smit and Dmitry Badiarov.
The violoncello da spalla is easily (a relative term) played by violinists and violists. Indeed, experts believe that the instrument was invented in the early 1700s in order to minimize the learning curve of accomplished violinists and violists desiring to play a baritone range instrument.
Learning to bow the Violoncello da Spalla does not take much time at all. That being said, any, if not most, experienced violinists and fiddlers, whose experience is primarily in playing the lead melody, will probably need to brush up on their music theory, particularly the principles for improvising baritone/bass harmony and chords. Put another way, they will have to learn the mostly lost art of basso continuo. Of course, there are many fully-scored solo pieces for violoncello from the Baroque period, especially by J.S. Bach.
Interest in these newly re-discovered instruments is growing as part of an overall re-discovery of Baroque music and Baroque instruments, particularly those played with a bow.
Description of the Violoncello da Spalla by D. Rickert and its Options
Our violoncello da spalla is based on measurements taken from the surviving instrument by Johann Christian Hoffmann (1732). As would be expected, our Violoncello da Spalla is 5-string instrument with a body length of 18 inches (14.5cm). It is tuned to C, G, d, a, e’. In other words, the tuning is the same as a full-size cello, but with an additional string on the treble side that is tuned to e’ (an octave lower than the e” string on a violin). It is held across the chest, suspended by a strap around the players neck, not unlike a modern guitar, but much closer to the chin (see the images above).
Approximate Critical Dimensions
- Overall length: 30” (75cm)
- Body length: 18” (45.5cm)
- Upper bout width: 8.25” (21.5cm)
- Lower bout width: 10.25” (26cm)
- Ribs: 3.15” (8.0cm)
- Playable String length: 16.53” (42cm)
- Note about string length: The playable string length of this instrument requires a slightly disproportionately long neck length when compared to the “ideal” string and neck lengths of a modern 1/10 size cello or an 18” viola.
- Nut width and string spacing: 32mm with; 25mm spread with average of 5mm between strings
- Bridge string spacing: 2 3/8” (60.32 mm) string spread
- Top: Alpine or Carpathian Spruce
- Back and Ribs: Bosnian Maple
- Neck and Scroll: American or European Maple
A number of varnish options are possible. In all cases, the varnish is old-school hand-rubbed oil over an insulation layer of collagen (hide gelatin) and various mineral grounds.
Some players prefer the minimally pigmented varnish treatment of the surviving Hofmann instrument, which is shown at the beginning of this listing. Other possibilities are illustrated in the images of some of our other Baroque instruments shown below. The varnish on these instruments is achieved by various combinations of amber, brown and red pigments.
|Alternative 1||Alternative 2||Alternative 3|
Historically Correct Middle to Late Baroque Period (1700 to 1750) Setup
Micarta synthetic ivory nut and saddle
- Micarta is a synthetic material that has the appearance of ivory. It is slightly softer than ebony and, thus, much kinder to gut strings. Further, ivory is absolutely banned worldwide!
Baroque type pegs (no ivory ring!)
- If you want an “ivory” ring, it will have to be painted on, as even mammoth (i.e. “fossil”) ivory is illegal in many states as well as foreign countries.
True veneered spruce Baroque fingerboard
A proper Baroque fingerboard is not made from either solid ebony or maple. Rather, it has a core of quarter-sawn spruce, which is then clad with thick veneers (2mm to 3.5mm) of various woods, including ebony and figured maple. The fingerboard options are illustrated in images of our Baroque violins below.
|Plain Ebony||Ebony w/Maple Border||Dark Maple w/ Natural Maple Border||Natural Maple w/ Dark Maple Border|
True Baroque tailpiece
A Baroque Tailpiece can be made from solid ebony or boxwood; however, Baroque tailpieces are more often made from maple, which is then veneered to match that of the fingerboard (see the images above).
Correct bridge for a violoncello da spalla
The correct bridge is best described as a hybrid between an extra-wide (for 5-strings) viola bridge and an extra-wide cello bridge. There are no commercial manufacturers of blanks for such bridges; therefore, we make them for each individual instrument in our workshop.
Standard String Set
The standard string set for our Violoncello da Spalla is designed to achieve a balance between period authenticity and the expectations of the modern player with respect to sonority/playability/practicality, as well as reasonable cost. As one should expect, we also offer premium replica real gut strings.
Included in the price of your instrument is any combination of the following modern strings listed below. We will work with you to determine the best combination for your needs. String configuration is a matter for post-purchase discussion.
- Chromium-wound high-carbon steel strings (a to C only) by Dogal (Venice, Italy)
- These strings have a tension and feel that is quite similar to gut; however, they—
- Are much more flexible (easier on the fingers)
- Have a significantly smaller diameter than gut (affords superior left-hand playability as well as bowing)
- Are noticeably more responsive and sonorous, with very even balance between the lower two and higher three strings.
- Custom-gauged Sensicore (synthetic core) strings by SuperSensitive
- This string set is quite similar in feel and response to the extremely popular SuperSensitive Sensicore Octave Viola and Octave Violin strings used on 4-string and 5-string “chin cellos”.
We know that some players want to play a Baroque period instrument replica that is strung only with the type of strings that were available in the early 18th Century. We understand the appeal of gut strings, despite their high cost and typically short life. So, if you are committed to gut, we’ve got you covered. If you indicate that you may want gut strings, we will contact you to discuss the best string set to meet your requirements. We get our strings from the premier maker of historic reproduction gut strings, Gamut Music, Inc. (Dan Larsen). The additional cost for gut strings can range from $150 to $550!
The typical all gut string configuration for our Violoncello da Spalla is as follows:
- e’: plain gut
- a and d: Pistoy gut (rope twisted gut)
- g and C: gimped or wound (copper or silver) gut
- Note: Please be mindful of the fact that even wound gut C and g strings for a baritone range instrument of this small size have very large diameters (up to 3mm+) and are prone to breakage. The quest to reduce string diameters was a driving force behind the invention of modern strings.
As part of the purchase, we provide two cases:
- A high quality padded soft case
- Hard shell case for a ¼ size cello. This is the smallest hard shell cello case made by ANY manufacturer. We modify the ¼ size case to fit the proposed instrument perfectly by adding foam padding.
Optional Custom Case
A modified ¼ size cello case has outside dimensions that are much larger than those of a custom-sized case would be. A custom case for this instrument is certainly possibly; albeit, expensive (in the price range of $800 to $1,000 if for an instrument we make for you – more if not). The modified 1/4 size cello case we provide works just fine. It is just larger than it needs to be. About 50% of our customers opt for a custom case that is "right-sized".
- A custom case for this instrument has a plan (front) profile slightly larger than a shaped viola case. Of course, it is considerably deeper than a viola case. The case weight depends on the materials, and generally weighs less than 10 lbs.
- We can make custom a case from durable and beautiful heavy saddle leather, molded composite wood veneers or Kyvex™ (a very attractive and lightweight thermoplastic material). We also sell custom-sized flight cases, which weigh about 25 lbs.
If you wish to discuss a custom-made perfectly sized case for this instrument, let us know.
- The bow is your responsibility. If you like, we will find you the best deal possible for a Baroque cello bow in whatever price range you desire. We sell some very fine modern bows, should you wish to go modern with the bow. The least expensive suitable bows start at about $450. As with modern bows, you can spend a huge amount of money for a Baroque bow.
Where is the Instrument Made?
The most critical work in making our Violoncello da Spalla, including graduation, carving and setting the neck, varnishing, authentic Baroque fingerboard and tailpiece, peg fitting and setup is done in our workshop, which is located in Hiawassee, Georgia, USA. Some special work, such as computer assisted plate tuning, is usually done in the workshop of our affiliate lutherie in North Carolina, USA.
Some work, notably the partial completion of the body, if performed by one of several highly-trusted lutheries in Hong Kong or Beijing. The materials are the highest grade. The top is tightly-grained spruce, either Alpine or Carpathian. The back and sides are well-flamed maple, usually Bosnian, which is especially-prized for fine string instruments. The neck and scroll are generally flamed American Maple.
Our utilization of proven master craftspersons in China for the initial body construction saves us about two weeks of work. This is why we can offer our Violoncello da Spalla for of price of only $7,500. If you wish to have an instrument made entirely in our Georgia, US workshops, please feel free to contact us. The base price is about $15,000 and the minimum wait currently is 6 months, but can be up to a year.