Tag Archives: baroque cello

Violoncello Bridge Design. Crafting Tone as a Passageway to the Baroque

The standard violin bridge has evolved over many centuries from what would to our modern eyes be seemingly rather crude pieces of wood beneath the strings, finally towards very elegant, yet sometimes poorly understood parts of a bowed instrument. Luthiers generally order bridge “blanks” from a tool supplier, and refine these during setup, fitting feet, and tuning the hearts, kidneys, ankles, waist, to be a final finished product.Generic bridge blanks A very finely made instrument will sound terrible if the bridge is not right. The problem with this approach is that modern, factory bridge blanks are often made from kiln-dried, or even chemically treated wood. In the past, more organic solutions such as animal urine were used to ammoniate and hence harden the wood stock, the theory being that this would be easier to cut, and produce a clearer sound. 

While the general shape of the violin bridge has over the years become standard, the situation is quite different for violoncello bridges. 

Thoughout history, different regions produced variations in shape, waist height, position of hearts and kidneys. All of these variation can make a profound difference in sound. This has been an area of fairly wild expiramentation in the past. Making an experimental bridge only takes a few days, so makers were willing to do absolutely crazy ideas. If you have a cup of coffee already made and some spair time, there is an online archive of historical bridges here.French baroque cello bridge







Let’s try and get a very basic understanding about the function of the bridge. Violin bridge actionA rocking motion is formed by the vibration of the strings, which in turn forces air and sound outwards through the soundholes. The feet are supported by both bass bar and soundpost, otherwise, the top would collapse and shatter from the pressure of the strings. Usually, by “tuning” the heart and kidneys, the maker searches for optimum sound. 

Having a commission for a baroque violoncello after Celoniato, and in preparation for arrival of the musician in the Vienna workshop, I decided to cut a minimum of three different bridges. Two of the designs were taken from historical violoncello bridges, the final being of my own design. This is to insure to that maximum sound potential is reached for this instrument. The historical designs were also chosen for a reason. Both my own and the others were based upon input from the customer and moving towards a portrait of tone which began on the very first day of the creation of the cello.Old bridge tonewood I begin with a stock of bridge wood aged over 20 years in my workshop. One can see the patina of age and know from tap testing that this wood stock was ready long ago. The more time however, the better. Wood looses moisture over time. When you examine the rays of the wood, one can get a sense of the density needed to be a violoncello bridgePatina old bridge stock


Once my surface is planed and flat, I can begin with probably the most fanciful of the three bridges, creating a stencil from a photographic image.





I begin by trimming away the excess wood and hollowing out the “hat” shape, and the connecting bar to the ankles and feet.French baroque cello ponticello This bar essentially stops the pressure of the strings from expanding the bridge feet when on the instrument, and also acts as a (perhaps!) desirable damping mechanism.Baroque violoncello luthier





Every musician has probably at one point in their lives used a wooden mute, which also vary in shape, design, and construction. The metaphor for a mute is an apt one in understanding why some bridges can deliver a “sweeter” sound. This is something you can try at home on your instrument. Take a wooden clothes pin, and clamp it to your violin bridge carefully. Now play. Does it sound terrible? Well yes!  Now adjust the pin so that it is in different places, further out, or inwards, on both the bass and treble sides. The difference is sound is quite dramatic. Keep in mind, this is merely a simple metaphor to understand how weight ratios effect sound. It is absolutely crucial that your luthier understands this when your ordering an instrument, otherwise it is quite possible that the full potential of the instrument is lost. 

Baroque cello bridges unfitted

Three baroque violoncello bridges. On the left, my own personal design.

Note here that the final trimming of the feet, and essentially most of the work is done over a 3-5 day period with the musician present, responding to their demands, suggestions, removing wood, testing, playing, etc. Although this is of course time consuming, I have found it essential in delivering the exact sound which was communicated to me by the performer beforehand. 

In the end, my own design worked the best. This took several days to figure out, but in any case was hardly a waste of time. This is why not only in the beginning the consultation period of discussing tone, corpus and string length, arching, stringing choice, is essential. I make a rather bold requirement for every musician ordering a violoncello from me; a minimum of five days must be reserved for setup!!!!

Endless solutions and avenues of sound can be found during these final days of tinkering. the question is, where do we want to go? The possibilities are endless. Ornate violoncello bridge Hill design

Five String Violoncello Piccolo – Confusion and Reality in 17th and 18th Century Performance.

Most often when I engage in dialogue using the term Violoncello Piccolo and those with either small corpus, or any five string violoncello, the musician will often say… Oh you mean the instrument created by Bach to play the 6th Suite!

The reality regarding violoncelli with a petite corpus and their relationship and context within performance is just a bit more complicated. Bass Instruments with five strings can be found in both iconography and texts, and would served an important and complex role within musical performances of the time.

The first use of the term Violoncello comes not surprisingly from Italy, ca. 1660’s in Giulio Cesare Arresti’s Sonate A 2.& a Tre Con la parte di Violoncello a beneplacito. One may note that this coincides with the Bolognese invention of wound strings. His predecessors in Italy before the mid 17th Century used a wide variety of terms for bass instruments: violoncino, bassetto viola, basso di braccio, violone……

Before the invention of silver or other metal wire wound over gut string, bass instruments would have most often been quite large in corpus and string length, due to the large amount of tension needed with pure-gut strings. A Corpus of around 77- 80cm was common, however not always the case. Smaller corpus instruments certainly existed if we are to go from iconographical images.

In this image from 1609 we see pure gut strings on a 5-string bass instrument which is remarkably close in outline to violoncelli of that late baroque and ones we are used to today. Note the unique playing position. Female musicians certainly could not be expected to play with the instrument between spread legs(!)

Wound strings allowed luthiers to experiment with smaller corpus instruments, and the new clarity of voice of these strings allowed musicians to use the violoncello with more virtuosity, no longer relegated to the first position by the need to support the weight of the instrument with the left hand. After Bologna, the news would have spread rapidly of these strings. First within Italy, then in France, Germany, England, etc. A kind of wild west period of experimentation  then ensued, with corpus lengths and string lengths seemingly haphazard.baroque cello 5 string  

It is true that  J.S Bach and J.C. Hoffman were close friends , however the surviving instruments present something of an anomaly in relation to the performance of repertoire composed by Bach.  Later in the 19th Century, it is understandable how a semantic confusion could have developed, as this actual instrument has a corpus size of only 45cm.  Indeed, it is not much larger in body than a tenor viola, thus the erroneous later moniker of “Viola Pomposa”


5 string violoncello piccolo

The Hoffman violoncello piccolo made in 1732.

On first glance, the instrument simply appears to be a typical five string violoncello. When you examine the actual dimensions of the instrument however, it becomes clear how the instrument could have developed the name Viola Pomposa, Here you can see that the actual length of the neck of the Hoffmann instrument is not much longer than a modern viola neck 19th Century expansion of the string length at the neck, along with regraduation of the plates has unfortunately transformed the 1732 instrument into a curiosity which offers no tangible evidence towards further clarification of its original use and tuning. 

Only after Bach’s death did the misnomer Viola Pomposa occur in printed sources, and several 19th Century authors mistakenly refer to Bach as the inventor of the violoncello piccolo. When one begins to study paintings of baroque and late Renaissance instruments, it becomes fairly clear that piccolo violoncelli of 5 strings were a more than common occurrence in the musical life.viola pomposa neck

It is important to realize that Bach’s instrument in the Suites was a true bass/tenor instrument, and surprisingly, the original instrument made by Hoffmann has a very rich bass range, albeit with a touch of the “bassoon-like” quality which is inevitable with such a small corpus length. While there seems to be a peculiar inclination towards middle-range instruments in Germany and Saxony in particular, the Hoffmann anomaly shares more traits with the common tenor viola.  When we consider the wide variety of names for bass, (and bass/tenor) instruments in Germany, the situation becomes very confusing….Bass Geig(e), Faggotgeige, Bas-Geige de braccio, Violonzell, Bassetl…among others.

When we understand that 5-string violoncelli were more common than one would think, and that the choices for controlling tone with arching, wood selection, air volume of the corpus, and vibrating string length, an entire new world opens up for the baroque luthier. in my mind, Stradivari’s general standardization of the cello corpus at around 75cm was no great boon for cello performance, or lutherie in general. These voices, once important parts of musical culture, have essentially been lost to us today.

Lost voices. Combinations of arching height, tension, vibrating string length to corpus, wood with or without damping qualities… interior varnish treatments… strings with wound silver, or all gut…..bridge height and tuning of bridges in relation to all the above. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly exciting. What voice do we want to achieve? How do we get there. I am fascinated. And the fact remains, we have just begun.