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Ask the Experts: obtaining a five-string cello

Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts

July 21, 2016

Three luthiers with experience of creating five-string cellos give their thoughts to an interested reader – and their answers throw up even more questions.

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The dilemma As an amateur cellist with a fondness for Bach, I am interested in finding a five-string cello in order to play the Sixth Suite as it was originally written. Before I do that, however, I would like to know more about the instrument: how would an original five-string differ, in terms of size, range and playing style, from a cello of today? And how feasible would it be to get my hands on one in the 21st century? I would also be glad of any advice regarding the strings, for example in materials and tuning.
Mai Nishiyama, Tokyo, Japan

Kai-Thomas Roth Today, most of the interest in the five-string cello derives from the matchless popularity of the Solo Suites for violoncello by J.S. Bach, in particular the Sixth, heard from a position of the 20th and 21st century sound ideal. This also overcame me before I started violin making college, but when I began to ask questions in earnest answers began to elude me. No original score of the Suites survives but Anna Magdalena’s manuscript copy is scored for ‘violoncello, senza basso’ and the sixth specifically for ‘vc a cinq chordes’.

The problem begins with nomenclature. Do we even know with certainty what was meant by ‘violoncello’ in Saxony before 1723? We know what we expect it to mean now but was that always so? When reading Bach scholars, we find mention of the names ‘violoncello piccolo’, ‘viola pomposa’ and ‘viola da spalla’. Early Bach biographer Forkel, who based his work on conversations with C.P.E. Bach, even stated that Bach invented the ‘viola pomposa’ in collaboration with J.C. Hoffmann in Leipzig. Unfortunately no such instrument term appears in any of Bach’s manuscripts. However, we know that in Saxony in the early 18th century there were rather a few ‘piccolo cellos’ made that were played in a ‘da spalla’ position, that is, in front of the chest or shoulder. They were played buttoned to the coat with a ribbon, as among others J.G. Walther states in Leipzig in 1708. A 1772 inventory of instruments of the court at Köthen, where Bach is reputed to have written the Suites, shows four and five-string versions of these ‘da spalla’ instruments by J.C. Hoffmannn then still present. I recently surveyed the only absolutely unaltered ‘da spalla’ I know of. This instrument is by Johann Wagner of Borstendorf (Saxony) in a museum in Lübeck, which retains its original neck and shows only ‘da spalla’ wear patterns; it was never played between the legs!

This – judged from the position of 20th and 21st-century cello virtuosos – makes for uncomfortable reading, as even the ‘vc piccolo’ referred to in a number of Bach’s cantatas is likely to have been such an instrument, with either four (without a C string) or five strings. These instruments had a vibrating string length of 390–420mm, which is less than two thirds of the string length of our modern cello. The fundamental question of whether these instruments were tuned like our modern viola or our modern cello remains open, and it is probable that both existed.  Even the possibility of a tuning somewhere in the middle between those two familiar instruments must be worth considering.

It is likely that experimentation with bowed stringed instruments regarding their tuning, size and tonal range and number of strings went hand in hand with the advent of wire wound strings in Bologna in the 1660s. This revolutionary invention allowed for strings to become shorter relative to their pitch because of raised specific weight relative to string diameter. For instruments of the eight foot range (today’s cello) this shortening facilitated ‘solo’ playing and this became a growing feature of the subsequent literature. An added fifth string allowed for the melody to utilise higher notes without the need to go far beyond fourth position. However the potential of such an instrument for power and projection cannot compete with its four-stringed sibling. This will have been the main reason for its eventual demise. Boccherini is known to be one of the first to require ‘capotasto’ like thumb positions in his compositions, which we are familiar with today and which make the extra D or E string superfluous.

Early music revival movements of the late 19th century and of the latter part of the 20th century postulated and ‘created’ a lot of their own ideas about five-string instruments. Looking at the iconography this discussion was hampered by uncertainty about what type of instrument one would be looking at if it appeared to have five strings. Many early gambas had five strings (see illustrations in Sylvestro Ganassi’s viol tutor) and large bass violins often had five strings, as had early viole d’amore. Paintings give little information about how an instrument would have been tuned.

When searching today for unequivocal historical precedence one must take into consideration that any instrument of commercial value has long since been made into something more usable and sellable in the past 300 years. No great concern would have been paid to its originally intended purpose should that have fallen out of favour.  Thus bonafide five-string instruments of authentic provenance are few and far between. There are many more instruments around that are mere made-up well intended interpretations of historical theories, which muddy the waters, if one even realises that they are inauthentic.

It is probably useful to assume that there have been several regional developments in the context of five-string cellos, which overlapped chronologically. Based on iconographical evidence it is possibly even fair to say that Italy had many more instruments being played in ‘da spalla’ fashion than their redefined function following from their exceedingly high commercial value would suggest today. Much more research and explanation of the so called ‘procession bass plug’ in the back of so many Italian cellos will have to be undertaken! This ‘da spalla’ way of playing was according to Walther (Leipzig) the way a ‘cello’ was played in Bach’s time.

At the same time in France and the Low Countries we find five-string cellos of rather small dimensions by makers such as Bertrand, Guersan, Castagneri et al that were far more likely played either ‘da gamba’ or on stools and/or cushions.

In the latter part of the 18th century Sir Edward Walpole claims to have invented the ‘pentachord’ in collaboration with Joseph Merlin, who interestingly moved to London from Huy in Belgium. This instrument also had a smaller body and was preferably tuned to C-G-D-A-D (rather than E). In subsequent centuries all these instrument were thrown into the same Bach cauldron. From a maker’s point of view one can ask: why not? They all work for that purpose and research continues.

A five-string instrument of ‘modern’ cello dimensions and resonance reaches physical limitations of the gut E string. Even at a pitch of 415Hz such a string must not be longer than 670mm to last more than a few days at a time. Modern aural expectations demand C & G strings as broad and sonorous as habitually known on a four string.  It follows that a slightly smaller body, comparable to a modern 7/8 cello with a slightly reduced vibrating string length, pleases our modern ears best. As long as we are aware that we cannot easily claim historical precedence for such an instrument but enjoy its tonal possibilities that type of instrument is the most versatile today, as it also lends itself to being used for most cello repertoire, including continuo.

Magnus Nedregård The five-string cello is a reminder of the fascinating variety of instruments in circulation at Bach’s time. We should keep in mind that the standard ‘violin family’ instruments of our time are the survivors from an era of experimentation. Some musicians even ask me about the ‘Baroque standard’ but in truth, in centuries gone by there was a great deal of variation and what we now call ‘classical’ music was experimental in its day. Luthiers were still churning out a variety of bowed and plucked instruments, some of which would be considered rather exotic today. So, there was never a fixed pattern for the five-string cello, and historical five-strings come in different shapes and sizes. Personally I find that a pattern on the small side gives the E string the best chance of a bright and well-focused sound, as well as some ergonomic advantages. A body length of around 700–710mm would seem ideal to me.

You have three options:
* find an historical instrument built and conserved as a five-string (nearly impossible)
* ask a luthier to convert a suitable instrument from a four-string to five-string set-up (possible, but the difficult part would be finding that ‘suitable instrument’)
*have a brand new five-string built for you

The third of these is probably the best option, as you will end up with a tailor-made five-string cello that is original in all its parts.

One musician I know managed to find a little French cello, whose elongated pegbox accepted five pegs quite beautifully. (See above right image.) To make the operation reversible we made a V-shaped fingerboard on the original neck, but most conversion projects would need a new neck, scroll and fingerboard, and obviously a new bridge and tailpiece. If work is planned that isn’t entirely reversible, it should not be on an instrument of historical importance.

Lastly, if you play on modern strings, Larsen and Jargar make cello E strings but many five-string enthusiasts prefer to play on gut strings. There the options are endless, and comprise a world of their own that I would encourage you to explore!

James McKean I’ve made more than a hundred cellos but by far the most interesting was the five-string I made for Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. Like you, he wanted to play Bach’s Sixth Suite as originally intended. My friend Bill Monical located an original five-string for Carter to use. However, after a month or so of playing, Carter called with a problem: the string length on the cello was too short and did not have enough tension to maintain pitch on the lower strings. By the time Bach wrote the Suites, metal-wound gut strings were in common use, but there is a minimum length at which they will hold a pitch, at any usable gauge.

Secondly, the five-string cello had to be as close as possible in dimensions to the Guadagnini that Carter was using daily for his NYP concerts. The last thing a cellist needs, after playing five suites, is to have to make a sudden adjustment to play the most difficult of them all. The answer was for me to make a five-string cello that addressed all these points.

It turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had making an instrument – no small part of which was the somewhat ridiculous notion of spending a month making an instrument for 18 minutes of music. In that spirit I decided to decorate the cello with double purfling, inlays and a rosette in the top. It now resides in the collection of the Yale School of Music.

Luckily for your wallet, there is now a very affordable alternative for any cellist who wants a five-string. Jay Haide Instruments has a production line five-string that is outstanding and has been acquired by many conservatoires.

One warning: Carter told me that playing the five-string was initially disorienting: he was so accustomed to the way he had learned the Sixth Suite that he had to remind himself that the fifth string was even there. But once he got used to it, it opened up a new world – not just technically but in his interpretation.

Kai-Thomas Roth is a maker of cellos based in Shepton Mallet, UK: www.kai-thomas-roth-cellos.com

Magnus Nedregård runs a workshop in Oslo, where among other tasks he works with maintenance and care of the Dextra Musica instrument collection: www.nedregard.net

James McKean is an instrument maker based in Yorktown Heights, NY, US: http://mckeanviolins.com

Read: Ask the Experts: buying your first instrument at auction

Read: Ask the Experts: choosing a new violin tailpiece

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