The cello has existed in its present size and shape for almost three hundred years. Modern concave bows have been in use for about two centuries. The transition from the viola da gamba to the cello as a solo stringed instrument, encompassing a range from the bass to the soprano register, was virtually completed by the middle of the eighteenth century. What, then, can be said that is peculiar to the 1970s about the sound to be coaxed from a musical instrument so long in use, so thoroughly explored and exposed?
I do not intend in this essay to attempt a compilation or to suggest the best cellistic realization of the numerous new sound effects with which contemporary composers try to enrich their color schemes. The devices are many, some representing only modifications and some real innovations, some being mere gimmicks and some essential to a new musical language. It seems to me to be premature to classify them according to the prospects of their being of lasting value. I have not encountered any effects so radically new in technique as to require prolonged separate study. Their difficulties concern for the most part the player’s ability to decipher the sometimes quite complex tables of instructions on unconventional ways of plucking and bowing the string or redefining portamento, vibrato, and fractional pitches or asking for percussive sounds on and off the fingerboard. Most of this can be learned quite readily, and the composer’s indications can be carried out faithfully in letter and in spirit as long as the resulting wear and tear on bow hair and strings does not force the player into bankruptcy, and a beautiful cello’s varnish, which may have lasted in all its original glory for centuries, is not damaged in the process. In any event, it is not the tricks that will be important ultimately but the spirit that they are supposed to clarify or enhance. And it is this Zeitgeist, the spiritual meaning of our time, that so far has occurred in too many styles and with too much inconsistency in notation to allow us to arrive at anything but a personal value judgment of what will survive and what will fall by the wayside. One does not view a storm most objectively from its vortex.
What I consider more useful here is an assessment of the mechanics and esthetics of cello sounds as they are, or might be, heard in our day and age relative to that large body of music written between 1750 and 1950, which makes up the bulk of the current concert repertoire. In addition to those two centuries, I shall discuss Bach in some detail; the style of his works demands its own technical solutions. At the other end, the string music of the last 25 years, as noted above, is still following too many unpredictable paths to be included here. But from Haydn to Bartók, cello playing has developed quite organically. Numerous and momentous changes in musical esthetics have called for new instrumental attitudes, virtuosity, timbres, and accents, but cello technique was already established to a great extent when radical musical changes took place. Being able to play Beethoven’s Great Fugue well is instrumentaly surprisingly relevant to a successful performance of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet. If you can master Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata, a Milhaud concerto ought not faze you. Where, on the other hand, the cellistic problems are rather special, as in Kodály’s solo sonata, nothing but a specific analysis will do. Observations of a general applicability would seem more appropriate in this essay, which does not purport to deal with the question “How do today’s cello compositions sound?” but with “What sounds may one expect from today’s cellists?” There are at least three basic reasons why such an assessment from the vantage point of the 1970s would differ significantly from one made prior to the rather sharp dividing line of World War II.
To begin with, factionalism according to nationalities and separate schools of cello doctrine is rapidly diminishing. Just as the astronauts were able to view the Earth a few years ago for the first time as an unbroken entity, so the conquest of space through radio, television, worldwide availability of the same records, and the easing of traveling conditions have created a unified stage on which the leading artists are on constant display everywhere. Likewise, many students, aided by various grants, have ceased to regard distance as a hindrance in seeking out their favorite places of study. A school like ours at Indiana University is filled with young people from all continents. The proverbial melting pot of New York City is now found operating happily not only here in Bloomington but in any place where artist-teachers are able to nourish the imagination of students who had heard them perform in person or on records or had met them in master classes around the globe. Furthermore, a significant redistribution of artistic talent has accompanied the mass migrations taking place around the time of World War II. And new focal points of cultural activity have attained global importance in places like Israel and Japan, which not only have contributed to the pedagogic knowledge of the musical world at large but also continue to send a stream of enormously gifted students to the centers of musical studies.
Small wonder, then, that a constantly expanding process of internationalization is taking place among artists and students everywhere. Whereas up to the 1940s some artists could be labeled quite readily on the basis of national idiosyncrasies, today the differences are more and more the result of individual temperaments rather than the product of climate and schooling. Some ensembles, especially orchestras with long, distinguished traditions, still retain these vanishing regional characteristics collectively, although one finds even in them considerably more heterogeneous elements than heretofore. But what of the old clichés associating American music making with fast and glossy, French with elegant and glib, German with ponderous, Italian with cantilena-obsessed, etc.? Often enough they had no validity, anyway, when they concerned some of the great creative musicians—how glib is Berlioz, how ponderous Mozart? Now such associations are becoming ever more obsolete with regard to performers, too, and will be completely meaningless when the artists straddling the mid-century have disappeared. As a result, the successful cellist of today may well continue to display a special stylistic affinity to certain types of compositions. But in terms of what constitutes good cello playing, he will have to be able to travel on an internationally valid artistic passport.
Secondly, there are the acoustical problems of today’s performances to be considered. I imagine that at the beginning of the cello’s soloistic existence, Boccherini played in about the same light way at his public concerts as in the environment of the salon. His manner of holding the bow, as depicted in his portraits, seems to preclude any weightiness in his style of playing. Even as concert halls grew larger, a single manner of projection for all locations, at least in solo recitals, may have held true well into the beginning of the twentieth century, when the world’s most renowned string players still played for audiences of only a few hundred people in such illustrious places as Vienna’s Boesendorfersaal and London’s Wigmore Hall. But today’s performers have to be ready routinely for the differences in sound production demanded by the extremes of hypersensitive modern microphones, on the one hand, and cavernous halls, seating several thousand people, on the other. (I am not thinking here of London’s Albert Hall and New York City’s Madison Square Garden, which occasionally house a misplaced string soloist, but of what has become the average main auditorium in one of the new art centers.) Many great string players have commented on the dualism of performance this necessitates: giving the requisite amplitude of volume and phrasing to their playing in large halls, while avoiding excesses of any kind before the microphone. The first obviously invites looking for a forcefulness inimical to the stringed instrument’s limited capacity for loudness, “forceful” turning into “forced” and strident, and the scientifically unsound effort becoming counterproductive. The fear of not being heard involves, moreover, the great danger of monotony: unrelieved loud playing, with the same gorgeous vibrato, the same heavy bow pressure, and the same emoting pretty soon amount to the same dullness. Monotony also lurks at the other end: the taboos before the microphone all too easily shift the emphasis from achievement to avoidance and result in overly careful, sometimes technically unobjectionable but expressively bland performances, which crop up on recordings in all musical media. Perhaps there is less cause for worry on this score today than in the cool 1950s. The ever-changing winds of musical taste currently seem to be veering from the Apollonian toward the Dionysian.
Although these problems of sound production have been especially aggravating for cellists, who have an inherent difficulty in projecting low-pitched passages with clarity and power, they seem to have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Imaginative cellists have known for a long time that it is just as shortsighted not to develop the maximal tonal capacity of their instruments as to use it all the time. But the contradictory demands of very large halls and of electronic sensitivity have forced them into ever more critical listening and the discovery that optimum sound benefits little from scraping and crunching; that it is rather the unconditionally focused, freely vibrating sound that helps their playing to be potent. Today’s audiences will no longer let flimsy or scratchy sounds go unchallenged just because they are, as a rule, to be expected from a cello. It has, therefore, become the unavoidable concern of every professional cellist to divest himself of old cellistic habits of sliding around on the fingerboard and using unsupported, stifling bow strokes. He must learn to produce notes that immediately establish with fullness and clarity their dead center, whether it be with a viola da gamba’s lightness in mind or with the sonorities appropriate to Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. Failure to achieve this will make a cellist appear anachronistically clumsy before the microphone and unintelligible in the concert hall.
This challenge and the very happy way in which it is being met nowadays lead me to point number three in the appraisal of current cello playing: the undeniable fact that many more cellists play the cello superbly than ever before. It goes without saying that there must have been at all times a few outstanding cellists who performed at the highest level conceivable at their time. Their extraordinary talent simply enabled them to play much better than most of their fellow cellists. Such a feat does not seem to suffice today. The broad base of cello playing is so very high that it is no longer a question of excelling by being outstanding just by cellistic standards; today the cellist must be able to match the accuracy and fluency of a top-level violinist note for note. The previously mentioned factor of focusing the sound plays a great role. A well-focused sound has presence, body, and carrying power and also offers the best opportunity for discerning whether the demands of good timing and pitch have been met. And here is where the crux of the improvement lies: cellists today produce not only cleaner bow strokes but also a much higher percentage of the right pitches at the right time.
The ability to define the correct pitch, instantly, frees the playing finger from heaviness during the remainder of the note and right away offers three great benefits that extend far beyond the satisfaction of smoothly working mechanics to the realm of Art itself: first, the intrinsic beauty of finely honed pitch; second, the possibility of individualized articulation in the left hand by means of a constantly shifting weight, from the daring firmness of initiating a pitch to the utmost lightness in moving away from it, a differentiation indispensable for the clear enunciation of every note and for a vibrato adaptable in width and speed; and, finally, the restriction of the portamento to being an expressive device instead of a cumbersome means of transportation.
Good pitch depends on many factors: obviously, on familiarity with the map of the fingerboard; also on an aptly placed, compact left hand; on the supple use of the left arm in carrying the hand to the right places without tension; on the aforementioned individualization of finger weight; when shifts coincide with bow changes, on good coordination between the two arms; on constant readiness to correct a faulty finger placement so quickly that the change is not perceived as a separate action. But even when all these conditions are fulfilled reasonably well, the most important factor, it seems to me, is the acute expectation of the coming note. This means a sensation encompassing a keen anticipation of its pitch, of its placement within an independently known hand position, and of the timing and nature of whatever arm movement is necessary to reach or shift toward it. I cannot readily believe that more cellists play in tune now because of better ears or fingers in our time. It must be a little like the breakthrough in the four-minute mile. Once Mr. Bannister had conquered not only the stopwatch but also the psychological barrier, in a rather short time several others achieved the previously impossible. Perhaps it was Casals who demonstrated that, with extraordinary talent and diligence, consistently good pitch on the cello was possible if one expected it and fought for it. So the dream of playing in tune was raised from wishful thinking to the reality of a goal already reached by another. And now the achievement is just as difficult as ever but not as rare, and the unwary public is callous enough to demand not only clean bow sounds but good intonation as a commonplace.
Here we are, then, with better-functioning cellists in great numbers. In string quartets they are able to make even their C-strings respond in time to match the attacks of the higher instruments. They can produce basses that are reliable foundations for chordal tuning and passages in high registers that do not sound awkward next to those of their colleagues. In the orchestra they can give a fiery conductor all the warmth of expression he asks for and produce the lean articulation demanded by a precisionist. Young players are hardly fazed by rapidly changing time signatures, skip nimbly through the erstwhile feared Rite of Spring, and are remarkably secure in the much greater complexities that confront them in contemporary works. Of course, there seems to be no end in sight for how much more razor-sharp their rhythms will have to become. Much of the very essence of “Third Stream” music, for example, would be lost without the most meticulous timing. But sometimes I ask, Quo vadis, compositore? I know that some of Brahms’s syncopations used to be difficult, and then came the rhythmic intricacies of Ravel and Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Carter, and they were all mastered in due time. But if a really precise performance of 13 against 22 is wanted, why not give it to a computer? It won’t have any trouble.
I am considerably less charmed by the lack of rhythmic discipline displayed by some young cellists in older soloistic compositions. A lack of stylistic awareness may account for a performance of a Haydn concerto that has neither a basic tempo nor exact rhythms. But with all of our vaunted technique, is it not more likely to be mental inertia than muscular awkwardness that prevents a cellist from playing dotted rhythms correctly, particularly those within a triple meter, like ? Failure to synchronize a passage like Ex. 1, at the beginning of the Dvořák Concerto, with the orchestral passage in Ex. 2 seems as sloppy to me as scratching or playing out of tune.
After finding so much to praise, I see that I am drifting from discussing the cello sounds as they are heard in our day to the ones that might be heard. Having gone so far in developing the potential of cello technique, for what further purpose should we now use our achievements? At a time when life is so free of conventions and regulations, what fascination can the discipline of our art hold? Where instant gratification is the watchword of the day, what beacon may be lighted by infinite patience on the way toward a cherished goal?
The answer for me is the same as the one which made me choose my profession in the first place, which has made me enjoy it year in and year out, which has kept me laboring at better understanding and improved skills in spite of the never-ending search, the professional frustrations, and the utter lack of assurance of ever having mastered the definitive. It is simply this: the reward has justified the effort. It started with a hope and grew into the conviction that what I am doing is time well spent, the prize worth waiting and fighting for. It is the intoxicating love that I have for a piece like Beethoven’s Op. 131 that makes boundless patience a joy, the fascination with its workmanship that precludes disenchantment, the reverence for its creator’s lofty status that mandates the utmost discipline and perseverance in its service.
Not many compositions have the worth of Op. 131, to be sure, but there are hundreds of others that are similarly capable of recharging the vitality of the cellist at every turn, keeping him loving and fascinated. It may mean participation in a glorious piece of chamber music here, in a resplendent symphony there, shining as a soloist or being an indispensable contributor in an operatic production. If the player will just give himself up to the excitement of a piece in all its aspects, its beauty will not pall and the ugly specter of routine will not kill his joy.
Reverence for the composer’s wishes is another matter. In the orchestra, the cellist is subject to the discipline of a section under the watchful eye of the conductor. In small ensembles, the alert ears of one’s colleagues will keep one honest. Later I would like to discuss a few instances, however, in which the cellist performs under conditions of maximal initiative and responsibility, and state concretely what I mean by faithfulness to the composer and how the cello might sound if the attitude of goodwill toward the composition were always the fountainhead of one’s labors.
But first a few general observations are in order for the benefit of those rugged individualists who feel that their artistry is not sufficiently challenged by having to make myriad decisions on tempi and their fluctuations, on balancing sonorities, on emphases and nuances, which even carefully marked scores leave unspecified. They are always clamoring naively for the freedom to express themselves before they have absorbed a composer’s ideas and can act, freely and cocreatively, as a catalyst of his music.
Goodwill toward the composition—the German composer Hans Pfitzner thought this subject of sufficient importance to make that selfsame phrase (“Der Wille zum Werk”) the focal point of his book Werk und Wiedergabe. But how relevant is it in our time? I have met all sorts of composers, from the liberal ones (“Anything you wish to do is all right with me”) to the stern ones (“I wrote down what I wanted and don’t need to have anyone’s personal viewpoint added”). Between these extremes I would hope for an interpreter with the basic willingness to function on a plane congenial with the composer’s grand design and, insofar as that is possible and essential, to obey detailed instructions as well. But suppose he is unwilling to undertake this basic commitment. Suppose that not only musicians declared their artistic independence but editors rewrote old books, poems, plays; suppose every work of art were in the public domain to be altered at will. This is what might happen:
A museum decides to commission an illustrious painter to produce a replica of one of the world’s most famous frescoes, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, because not everyone can travel to Milan to see the original. The artist, justifiably proud of his craftsmanship and his powers of imagination, has no intention of delivering a photographic copy. He finds Leonardo’s formal design somewhat old-fashioned and decides to move the figure of Christ from dead center to the side, placing the characteristic figure of St. Peter more toward the middle. This necessitates cutting off one apostle at the end, a minor matter considering the advantage that the all too obvious halo effect of Christ’s head against the bright window in the background has now been removed. After all, nobody uses a dove in the last scene of Parsifal anymore, nor would anyone be so amateurishly literal as to put a lilac bush on the stage when Hans Sachs sings his heart out about its sweet fragrance.
Some members of the board of directors of the museum are disturbed by the willfulness of the painter, but his draftsmanship is immaculate and his colors are so much more brilliant than the fading ones on the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie. So they give in.
Time magazine devotes a lengthy article to “The Case of the Missing Apostle.” It points out that historically there were twelve, not eleven, disciples; that Leonardo based his whole design on creating four groups of three apostles each, with the resigned figure of the lonely Christ in the middle. Nobody mentions that after five hundred years Leonardo may still have a copyright on his work.
But a painting is, of course, so much more definitive than a score can ever be. When it is finished it is there for all time in only one form, and only a vandal would tamper with it. Music, however, is forever flexible. Beethoven probably presented his pieces differently every time he re-created them. So do every mature musician’s performances vary, dictated by a different pulse, an altered environment, the desire for a new emphasis. But how far may these deviations go? When does a legitimate new perspective turn into a silly ego trip?
We are in a class on symphonic literature. The professor is lecturing on the “Eroica” with eloquence and wit and an endless stream of “don’t you see?” Not since “The Emperor’s New Clothes” has anyone been able to make so much visible that was not there. He expostulates on the two opening chords: “These two loud crashes of sound, don’t you see, are quite out of harmony with the sinuous character of the melody starting in the third measure. But you must understand that it was necessary for Beethoven, in front of a gathering of aristocratic amateurs, to halt their disrespectful chatter with an attention-commanding gesture. Having shocked them into silence, he could proceed with gentler sounds. Today we have much better-behaved audiences. The two introductory chords, if they are needed at all, should be brought into line with what follows, don’t you see? Two arpeggiated string chords with perhaps a touch of sustained high woodwinds would be so much more musical. You could not do this in Boston’s Symphony Hall, of course; Beacon Hill audiences are so conservative. But it has been tried with great success by the Attaboya Philharmonic. The music critic there raved about never having felt closer to the true spirit of Beethoven.”
Absurd. Utterly absurd, figments of some wild imagination, the missing apostle and the civilized “Eroica.” Everybody knows these masterworks and no one could get away with these “improvements.” But how much more absurd than, in a lesser-known composition, Schumann’s Cello Concerto, turning the transition from the second to the last movement, which is logically marked “faster and faster,” into a majestic ritardando? Where was the outcry by the music critics when one of our most beloved artists committed what could not be called anything but a mortal sin? Didn’t they care about anything but sweet fluency? Didn’t they know the difference? Because it is here that the answer to respect for the creative mind lies: to know what is written; even, one hopes, to understand why it was written that way; and to care enough to ask oneself humbly every time one contemplates a change whether one really knows better.
Obviously, an attempt at textual fidelity does not guarantee an eloquent performance any more than any other form of accuracy does. But it is often an indispensable prerequisite to ultimate success and always an initial moral obligation.
Now to some concrete examples from the core of the cellist’s repertoire by the three Bs.
Let us start with Bach. I have heard some cellists talk in a derogatory way about Haydn quartets or Beethoven sonatas or Schumann or Brahms, tearing down in turn just about all the gods that one would think unassailable. But every cellist, without exception, loves the Bach suites, must play them, and is profoundly convinced that no other cellist has fathomed their essence. How is it to be found?
Many good and wise people have written thousands of words about what is in good or bad taste in the interpretation of Bach, which of his pieces are freely rhapsodic or strict in rhythm, which are to be viewed as holy altarpieces or as products of his lively humanity. It is easy enough to agree on certain traits of Bach, such as his ever-present awareness of the Deity and the orderliness in his music that this implies. But when one wishes to define his style, it becomes apparent again and again that this most readily dissected genius is the most difficult one to pin down. With Bach, as with every composer, one must come to grips with a basic definition of what befits his style and what must be excluded. With some composers we feel quite at ease in assembling such a list of characteristics. A recent record jacket quotes Mr. Rostropovich as having expressed his deepest feeling of identification with the music of Tchaikovsky. I might say a similar thing about myself with regard to Schubert. Another person may profess a special affinity to Stravinsky. But Bach is so remote in time and the magnitude of his works so extraordinary that no one may claim him as his own. As I think of the disagreement that even the utterances of such luminaries of yesteryear as Landowska and Casals evoke nowadays, I just wish to thank those two giants devoutly for the tremendous involvement and skill with which they have contributed to our knowledge and appreciation of Bach; but then I must keep on searching for “The Truth” according to my own lights.
To understand the structure of Bach’s cello suites, one need but turn to the painstaking analysis by Diran Alexanian. A little later I shall discuss their language and how this language might live in our day. But as to the esthetic of the suites, the history of Bach interpretation seems to mandate that every faction be permitted to produce its own share of scholars and visionaries. If this results, as it always has, in performances of the cello suites so radically at variance that they can barely be recognized as the same pieces, this might turn out to be quite harmless: we would have five hundred different versions of the suites but since they are masterpieces of a unique kind, the cat would probably always land on its feet, no matter from what height it was dropped. Except there is, alas, this drawback: it is sad but true that the uninitiated general public all too often views the appearance of the cello suites on recital programs with marked suspicion. How can something so widely revered evoke so little love? How can the term uninitiated include in this case a super-musician like Toscanini, who asked Piatigorsky in all earnestness why he was programming such awful music? My theories on this run along these lines: just as the aforementioned Haydn concerto will not succeed when one takes it out of its style, so this mass of black notes, which make up the Bachian dance movements, will not speak to naive audiences when not rendered in their original language. Hamlet in Edwardian clothes, Romeo addressing Juliet as “you” are of interest only to those theatergoers whose surfeit of standard Shakespeare makes them crave new sensations at all costs. For a naiver audience, the original is more poetic and therefore more appealing.
In the case of Bach’s cello suites, a departure from the Baroque language of alternating détaché strokes with brief legatos toward an indiscriminate slurring means, in my opinion, such a loss of rhythmic vitality that the tepid waves of unrelieved or arbitrarily interrupted legato should by rights put everyone to sleep; only the solemn and unquestioning awe with which the suites are regarded by the connoisseurs can act as a preventive. In those smoothened renditions the love for the composer is certainly fervid and the fascination with his mastery intense; but the reverence for his markings is minimal. Some reasons for such a lack of faithfulness are quite obvious: First, there is no original manuscript by Bach extant, in contrast to the violin sonatas and partitas, for which Bach’s calligraphically immaculate manuscripts present a compelling point of departure for all “interpretations.” (Incidentally, I would like to suggest to those people who maintain that the manuscript usually attributed to his second wife, Anna Magdalena, was in fact written by Bach himself, that no composer would make the kind of mistakes—so many obviously wrong notes, parts of phrases omitted altogether, the word “Courante” written as the heading for an Allemande—to which a copyist is prone.) Second, the early copies of the cello suites differ in bowings and even in pitches. (Some, but not all that much. Only in the fugato section of the C minor Prelude do I find phrasings that seem so haphazard that I feel forced to adopt a logic borrowed from Bach’s works with analogous structures. Where the copies do not enlighten us about every detail, the knowledge of Bach’s bowing practice gained from the Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral suites, violin partitas and concertos, and cantatas ought to make a choice of stylistically acceptable solutions possible.) Third, and perhaps most important, it is difficult to make short détaché strokes in low registers speak freely on the cello and to combine them into unbroken phrases. All of these have contributed to an attitude of “anything goes.”
If, by contrast, a hundred violinists were to perform the beginning of the Allemande in Bach’s D minor Partita, there probably would not be a single one who would slur the six sixteenth notes from the e to the c sharp in the first measure of Ex. 3.
Bach marked them detached and that is how they are played, distinct from the legato of the following groups of two and three notes. Immediately the grave spaciousness of the movement is documented, and the listener can say happily to himself: I can see what this music is all about. I am willing to bet that most cellists would slur these notes, presumably to help the smooth forward motion of the phrase, as they do in their D minor Allemande. Here all the manuscripts of Anna Magdalena Bach, Kellner, and Westphal show clearly a great many phrasings of two slurred sixteenths (), which help to determine the mood of this Allemande equally convincingly and represent, incidentally, a bowing very common in Baroque and early classical music. But ever so many cellists choose to use an overall legato. It is easier. It has the negative virtue of avoiding potentially clumsy bow changes. But smoothness, so often desirable in a physical sense, can sometimes turn out to be a superficial and boring trait, in music as in people.
If a Toscanini was perhaps put off not only by a lack of rhythmic incisiveness but also by unappealing cello sounds, I can sympathize with his distaste: these suites have long suffered from floundering between the Scylla of swishy sounds and the Charybdis of scratchy ones. But if my optimism regarding present-day bow control is justified, that does not need to be the case anymore.
To begin with, it ought to be established—before one concerns oneself with the very controversial problem of stresses and groupings in Bach—that “a phrase is a phrase is a phrase,” governed by immutable laws of harmonic progression and melodic structure, applicable to music of any time. If we cannot play phrases as cohesive entities we shall not make music. In terms of cello mechanics this means that for as long as the breath of the phrase lasts without interruption, the motion of the bow arm ought not be stopped. However many bow strokes a phrase may encompass, continuous motion and smoothly anticipated new bow angles and levels can give the illusion of an endless breath. If the demands of articulation and phrasing, on the other hand, ask for the separation of certain sounds within the phrase, we have to devise ways of achieving this, not by stopping the bow, except where an outright staccato effect is in order, but by diminuendos, to a zero pressure where necessary. One simply has to learn to keep the two functions of drawing and of pressing independent of each other. The beautifully defined gamba strokes, so characteristic of Baroque articulation, which move on the heavy beats from the tip on down and work with bow-speed accents rather than with pressure accents, have to be transformed into a mechanism suitable to the bigger sonorities required by larger halls. This is quite feasible by assigning to the bow a permanent function as an integral part of the bow arm, to be carried at will into contact and out of contact with the string. In this way one can use as much bow and stay on the string as long and as firmly as the situation demands without becoming “rosin-bound,” like a fly on flypaper. Only in very rapid détaché strokes can the bow be led back and forth in close contact with the string without the risk of stickiness or a lack of definition.
Moreover, the liveliest left-hand articulation ought to be used in the performance of the suites. While this music offers the opportunity and, indeed, the necessity of practicing the most meticulous legato style in both arms—involuntary portato ought to be avoided like the plague!—I would suggest that the initial phase of left-hand practice consist of a totally individualized vibrato on every note, for the benefit of clarity, evenness, and intonation. Personally I would be just as happy never to hear any shifts in the fast movements of the suites. Anyone who thinks he has to use a slide should ask himself honestly not only how such a practice is regarded now but, especially in the case of a recording, how he is going to like it a few years hence.
The playing of double-stops and chords, the quality of which is of paramount importance in the rendition of Bach’s works for solo violin, is much less prominent in the cello suites. They do seem to be problematic in the Sixth Suite, however, and earlier in such isolated movements as the first Gavotte of the Fifth Suite. Since their use increases in later compositions for solo cello, such as works by Reger, Hindemith, and Britten, and most recent cello literature is full of them, one might mention here that their appearance is often noticed with dismay in otherwise satisfactory performances. While I have suggested before that, with a very finely trained ear, the anticipation of coming pitches can make the fingers sniff out the right places on the fingerboard like hunting dogs a scent (let anyone who believes he can always hit the right pitches without the help of the ear try recording himself with his ears plugged up), the possibility of minute adjustments is considerably curtailed in multiple stops. Corrections seem to be more difficult when two or more fingers are pressing down instead of only one.
Playing double-stops in tune requires a perfect visualization of a position plus the constant insistence on hearing the resultant pitches, called “Tartini’s tones.” But not only the pitch of double-stops is frequently inferior to that of single notes, but their vibrancy as well. How very rare is the cellist who can make them truly sing in the cadenza of Shostakovich’s First Concerto! And rarer still, perhaps, is one whose double-stops enhance a musical line instead of interrupting it. In this department, cellists have a long way to go to catch up with the achievements of the best violinists, such as the thrilling glow of Fritz Kreisler’s double-stops.
As to chords, on the other hand, the lower and more expansive sonorities ought to make life easier for the cellist than for the violinist, as long as he avoids clutching the bow too tightly, directs his energy at firmly stroking the string instead, and follows the curve of the bridge steadily. Particularly in Bach I dislike the sharp break from the bass to the top note of a chord. Emulating the roundness of an arpeggiated pizzicato chord and using a middle note as a connecting link between low and high can do much to increase the resonance and fluency of chord playing.
Empirically speaking, the fusion of sounds of the cello and the piano is not easy to achieve. The problem is not insoluble if the cello sounds are clear and firm and the piano touch remains limpid. I do not mean to suggest in the least that I favor flaccid piano playing in partnership with a cello, but some concepts must remain exceedingly flexible. It seems particularly necessary here to strive for the most lucid presentation of the score, stripped of instrumental fetishes, because amalgamation by the two instruments is much more difficult to achieve, even by quite sensitive musicians, than by an ensemble within the string family, where mutual reactions will be more automatic. Here, as everywhere, the conquest of a composition ought to start with a definition of its character in one’s mind, from the whole on to the large sections and down to the details, followed by an attempt to find the appropriate technical means of carrying out these concepts. To bring them to life and to create a harmonious whole of a cello and piano ensemble will involve a redefining not only of dynamics but of legato, staccato, accents, and even tempo. Each player may feel he has hit upon the meaning perfectly suited to his instrument, but now the two need to be accommodated. Some samples from the sonata literature may help to clarify this point more succinctly than would piano trios, quartets, and quintets. In the latter the writing is predominantly antiphonal between the piano and the strings, and the problems of meshing and balancing all sounds are often much easier to solve.
Let us first consider the nature of cello-piano melody with an example by Beethoven. The main theme of the first movement in his Sonata in A major, Op. 69, can be very beautifully realized on the piano through the bell-like quality of all the unhurried half, quarter, and eighth notes (see Ex. 4).
Even though the pianist cannot resort to some of the expressive devices available to the cellist, the effect can be very songful and touching. The cello, which precedes the piano with the same melody, ought to operate, it seems to me, in the same framework of expression. The piece is too young at this time to make a virtue of contrasting styles. The piano’s instrumental realization ought to be anticipated in the cello’s noble and clear tone production. Only a cellist interested exclusively in his own sensualism and unconcerned with the structure of the composition will claim the right to use fat slides and a luscious vibrato here and let the pianist fend for himself. In contrast, I would take the cue for the melody of the last movement’s introductory Adagio, where the theme is introduced by the piano, from the cello’s natural warmth.
The inward expressiveness so typical of Beethoven can here unite the cantabile statements of both instruments in a beguiling linkup of sonorities that might have been scored for a string trio.
Whereas under those circumstances the reaction to each other’s kind of sound is the determining factor, in the Adagio of Brahms’s Sonata in F major the length of the piano sound will have to influence the choice of the tempo. The wide spacing of the melodic notes (see Ex. 6) on the piano will make the melody unintelligible when the playing is too slow or too pale. Of course, meanwhile the audience may have a wonderful time with some ringing pizzicato on the C-string and never know that there is a melody in the piano part. But such a result would be quite out of line with the approach I was advocating before, which was supposed to start with a study of all the elements of a score. The same consideration is also applicable to the development section of the first movement of this sonata. Though the cello’s sextolets have to be clear and even, they also have to be fluent enough that the main voice, i.e., the augmentation of the movement’s first motif on the piano, is understood (see Ex. 7).
When one melody is evenly divided between the two instruments and there is no question of wanting a break in the expression, the attempt at a close matching of sounds must be especially determined. An example may be the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Sonata, in C major (Ex.8), in which the cello intones the ascending half and the piano completes the arch. How very disappointing when the cellist ends his part of the statement, below which the piano has already entered softly, with an irrevocable calando, instead of handing it to his partner, and thus breaks the arch in two.
These problems of matching timbre, speed, and structure to unify the two instruments are relatively easy to solve with a little imagination, compared to the discrepancies in articulation. For example, in the third theme of the opening Allegro of Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, the piano’s dotted rhythms (shown in Ex. 9), have an individual percussiveness even when played as legato as possible. The cellist will have to strive consciously if he wants to achieve that same character or, for that matter, would like to have his articulation understood at all. That is not easy against the turbulence of the piano’s sixteenth notes, an effect that may have to be achieved more by suggestion than by what one may be tempted to describe as “only playing forte as prescribed by the composer.” I often feel that dynamic markings ought to be scrutinized as indicators of emotional intensity as much as for their denoting the degree of loudness. Pianissimo may mean, in addition to “very softly,” also “hushed” or “felt deep within.” (Schubert marks so many of his melodies pp, simply asking, it seems to me, for the utmost loveliness of expression.) One has to beware, therefore, of always attaching absolute meanings to dynamics indications. Absolute, as far as it is possible, should be the empathy with the composer’s concept as intuition is reinforced by the intellectual absorption of the score. Absolute should be the clarity of a main voice. The notion of an absolute forte in the above example is quite unrealistic, however, especially since it is followed by a fortissimo. The discrepancy between Beethoven’s and today’s pianos furnishes further food for thought. How might the Alberti basses of the First Sonata for cello and piano have sounded on his piano? Or the repeated notes of the opening of Mendelssohn’s Sonata in D major or of the C minor section in the exposition of Chopin’s Cello Sonata on nineteenth-century instruments? These are the places where the ears have to be especially alert.
While we are at absolutes, may I caution young cellists that very fragile pianos and pianissimos will not project on the low strings in the company of keyboard figurations. And pizzicati played softly in a low register have even more difficulty being heard. An absolute piano is useless under these circumstances.
Let us return to Beethoven’s Sonata in A major. In the legato scales of the second theme of the opening movement the problem is twofold. The piano has a difficult time, especially when the right hand plays octaves, in maintaining a legato that does not sound inferior to the string player’s. The cellist has to contend with string-crossings and position changes that will in turn make him look like the pianist’s poor cousin if they are not completely inaudible.
As a final example of a problematic legato match-up I would like to cite the opening of the finale of Brahms’s Second Sonata (see Ex. 10). The phrasing slurs are very long here. On the piano they are realized easily, on the cello less so. The difficulty of maintaining a long legato line in spite of the unavoidable bow changes is compounded by the problem of executing the fingering smoothly. Often a very undesirable fragmentation of the theme is created—sometimes it sounds as though it were phrased in half measures, which is a real disaster—along with a heavy-handed tempo, which makes the later triplets sound elephantine. This would not seem to accord with Hugo Becker’s recollection that Brahms liked to play this movement very fast.
A superior ear and a fine technique can usually take care of the problems involving legato phrases. But the problems of matching abrupt sounds often remain as they never should in front of an audience: obviously difficult. The theme of the last movement of Brahms’s Sonata in E minor is taken from the Art of Fugue. The first section of this movement, written as a triple fugue, ought to retain the clarity of a Bach fugue in spite of its Romantic development. This means that one ought to perceive each of the three themes clearly every time (that can be done by assigning to each theme a different part of the measure for its climactic stress); that the first theme and its inversion, played simultaneously, must both be intelligible; and that, in short, power must not vitiate transparency. There is a well-known story that Brahms replied to a cello partner who complained that he could not be heard that it was all for the better. I think we would rather stick close to the sensitive composer than to the rude pianist, an attitude I also like to adopt when listening to Shostakovich’s own, very rough, recorded version of his beautiful Sonata for Cello and Piano.
In the Brahms fugato we have to match notes in length and strength, particularly in the triplets. There is not a chance in the world that the pianist can duplicate a cello sound produced on the string. A strong spiccato in the middle is still likely to be lacking in power and to be impure to boot. A broad arm stroke in the lower half, leaving the string on a flat arch (No. 3 below) seems to me to be the proper solution, matching a détaché finger action on the keyboard. I would recommend a similar stroke for the groups of three notes in the Scherzo of Brahms’s Sonata in F major, but suggest for the opening groups of two bass notes a snappy finger action at the frog (No. 2 below), which propels the bow from the string into the air. I have a horror of hearing bows clattering down onto the string in this kind of situation.
Generally speaking, I think that abrupt sounds are the bane of string players and bother cellists perhaps more than violinists and violists because of the difficulty of response on the low strings. I am grateful that some strings currently on the market have alleviated this problem considerably.
But the difficulties really start with questions of performance practice. In the long and important period from the disappearance of the vertical staccato sign ('), as a mark of ending a note abruptly, to the introduction of compound signs like the dot-dash (-), that is, from about middle Beethoven to the beginning of the twentieth century, the dot was virtually the only symbol to mark a separation of two adjoining sounds. It was left up to the player’s sense of style to decide how short was short. Moreover, it was understood, especially in older music but applicable well into modern times, that even in the absence of a dot, notes not slurred implied a lift, the degree of which was regulated by nothing but taste. (I might cite as Brahmsian examples the coda of the first movement of the Clarinet Trio or the second theme of the finale of his Trio in C major. See Ex. 11.) That this is often not understood in our time results, for instance, in some mushy Mozart playing that not only robs melodies of their gracefulness but also clutters up performances with too many sustained sounds.
In the cello literature we may point to the opening of the first Allegro of Beethoven’s Second Sonata (Ex. 12). This movement abounds with dots but has none on the initial upbeat. If the cellist unthinkingly connects the upbeat smoothly to the downbeat, the answering phrase on the piano cannot help, because of the mechanics of the instrument, having a contrasting separation of sounds. A modern composer might have written — for both instruments. Certainly this is not one of the places where, in the course of many different illuminations of the same theme, one might have fun stating them differently. The Beethoven theme shows just one of thousands of instances where a stringed instrument can sustain the sound completely during bow changes but should not do so.
For whatever one is about to perform, I wish that the sound-concept would always be firmly established in the mind before one reaches into the toolbox and attempts to pull out the right tool. In the case of detached notes I would like to find this basic equipment in everybody’s box: (1) a martelé stroke on the string, in all parts of the bow; (2) a stroke anywhere from the upper middle to the frog, starting from the string and winding up in the air; (3) an arm stroke slightly off the string in the lower half; (4) the bow thrown onto the string in the middle; (5) a rubbing stroke in the middle, propelled from the string. No. 1 suggests a total cessation of movement after every note. No. 2 may or may not involve a continuous arm motion, depending on the tempo, combined with sharply defined wrist snaps. These from-the-string strokes seem to me to be particularly worth cultivating as an intermediary between the obvious on-the-string and off-the-string bowings; Nos. 3 to 5 entail uninterrupted pendulum motions of the arm that establish contact with the string at the nadir of an arch. The greater or lesser (or, at great speed, even exclusive) use of wrist and fingers and the variability of the arch can determine the brushier or more percussive quality of the strokes. One ought to be able to make use of the five basic short strokes with great flexibility, selecting them in accordance with tempo and character. It would seem very restrictive to me and putting the cart before the horse to have to choose the tempo of a piece on the basis of the limited availability of short strokes. Each has its speed limit but should lead seamlessly into the next faster one.
This is not the place to talk of the innumerable compound strokes that may be developed from these basic ones. My main points with regard to their use are just these: the problem of resonant short strokes is a very real one; too often the solution chosen is not in conformity with the stylistic requirements of the passage at hand. Let there be clarity of purpose before the choice of the means, and let these means be manifold and finely honed.
Among the orchestral instruments, the strings are the most richly endowed group. True, they require the longest hours of practice and their superior specimens are, next to the organ, the most expensive musical instruments. But they possess the divine gift of being able to express anything a human heart ever dreamt about and to say it better than words ever will. In addition, they are unparalleled acrobats and magicians. The cello is an indispensable and extremely versatile member of this family. It has worked its way up to a position of technical respectability, and nobody has ever doubted its eloquence. The fate of its great potential rests today in the wonderfully gifted hands of many first-rate artists. The next generation promises to hold its banner high with unprecedented skill, with ingenuity and devotion.
May the musician writing about the “Cello Sounds of the Year Two Thousand” feel as sanguine about his beloved instrument as I do today.