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Development of the Violoncello

The violoncello (cello) is the bass instrument of the violin family and developed along the same historical path as the violin and viola. The name literally means "small violone" or "small large viol" in Italian - cello meaning "small." From the 1550s to early 1700s the instrument was called by various names (basse de violon, bass viol de braccio, etc.) and makers experimented with several sizes and tunings. The name "violoncello" did not come into use until after 1665.

Stradavari's designs from around 1707 for his "forma B" cellos became the standard dimensions for those that followed. Five-string cellos were sometimes used until the mid-1700s (Bach's Sixth Cello Suite was written for a 5-string instrument) and some experimentation with two sizes of cellos continued into the 19th century.

The instrument was commonly held between the legs (see lower image) without using an endpin for support in the 18th century, and many cellists continued to hold the instrument in the old style well into the 19th century. The use of an endpin to provide support for the instrument began in the 18th century, gained increasing popularity in the 19th, and became standard by the early 20th century. Many modern cellists use a bent endpin to increase the instrument's angle and allow for the use of greater natural right arm weight.


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