Vast, deep and awash with feeling: the story of the cello

From its origins as a coarse dance instrument to a symbol of courage and defiance, the cello has inspired so many of the wests greatest composers and performers

Why write for a violin when there is the cello? asked Rachmaninov. There is something peculiarly lovable about the cello, with its tenor radiance, narrow waist, gleaming shoulders and back of flaming maple: to play it you must embrace it, and its resonating chamber rests upon your heart. Rostropovich captured that warm physical connection when he recalled that as a tired boy he would lie the cello on its side and squeeze my backside into the carved dip near the f-holes. Dvok said that its upper register squeaks and the lower growls, but for Ernest Bloch it was a voice vaster and deeper than any spoken language.

For Anthony Trollope it was the saddest of instruments; indeed, it has acquired the role of chief mourner, a long way from its beginnings as a dance-band bass. It was a cellist who performed at the memorial for the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, and another, Yo-Yo Ma, who commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11, with solo Bach. Think of Elgars famous concerto, or Faurs funereal lgie: the instrument is now synonymous with sorrowful eloquence.

So when did this Cinderella step into the spotlight? The first cellos date from the mid-16th century, peasant rival to the sophisticated viola da gamba. Contrary to appearances, they are not related: while the fretted viol derives from the guitar, a violoncello (simply, a diminutive bass violon) is a large medieval fiddle, a crude, loud, outdoors instrument. You can still see a plugged hole on the back of many 18th-century cellos where a strap was fixed, so it could be lugged through the streets in marches, parades and for dances.

Cellist Steven Isserlis performs at Wigmore Hall, London, in February 2016. Photograph: Amy T Zielinski/Redferns

One can date the change in the cellos fortunes in the UK to the Restoration: while Charles I was a viol connoisseur, dedicatee of the sublime consorts of William Lawes, Charles II favoured the more robust cello,and by 1714 English amateur musician Roger North was recalling how the cello a coarse instrument, as it was then had begun to be played while viols fell into disuse, and Italian emigres Cervetto, Cirri and Lanzetti made the cello all the rage in 18th-century London.

This is a time of Peak Cello: as instrument maker Stradivarius enters his golden period (63 of his sought-after cellos remain in circulation), Vivaldi turns out a clutch of glittering concertos and sonatas. Meanwhile, in Germany, JS Bach composes the six extraordinary solo suites, so technically challenging that their intended instrument is still in dispute.

The cello vaults across the later 18th and early 19th century as a fully fledged prima donna: Luigi Boccherini showcases his own virtuosic brilliance and dreams up subtle string quintets, model for Schuberts masterpiece, his final chamber work, the C major quintet; Haydn pens two joyous concerti, both unearthed in the mid-20th century, while Beethovens five, indelible career-spanning sonatas open the gates to the instruments Romantic period. Schumann pens a beautiful concerto he never lived to hear, followed by the soulful works of Chopin, Brahms, Dvok, Grieg, Strauss and Rachmaninov. Enter the cello as heldentenor, orator, an idea that reached its apotheosis in the young Jacqueline du Prs incandescent performances of Elgars concerto, the elegiac work for ever identified with her own tragedy and early death.

Du Pr was one of a parade of inspirational figures who saw the instruments popularity soar in the 20th century. Pablo Casals will be remembered as keenly for his lifelong stand against fascism as for his exhumation of Bachs suites. After the Spanish civil war he lived out the rest of his life in exile, shaming western governments by his refusal to perform in any country that recognised Francos government. Rostropovichs explosive interactions with the Soviet authorities made him a natural heir: he not only sheltered Solzhenitsyn before defecting, but wrote an open letter to Pravda attacking cultural oppression that even now startles with its fierce honesty. More courageous still was Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo, who risked sniper fire to play in the burnt-out ruins of his besieged city. Recently, Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi has also performed, without protection, at bomb sites in Baghdad, in a bid to slow time and make space in a broken community.

Still, Rostropovichs chief legacy was musical: he was the catalyst for more than 200 new works for the instrument, from Shostakovich to Britten, Prokofiev, Lutosawski, Gubaidulina, Prt, Piazzolla and Dutilleux, to name but a handful. From Prokofievs operatic sonata to Piazzollas feline Grand Tango, Brittens pungent Sonata and third suite a devastating valediction to his friend here is a body of music that still vibrates with Slavas high-octane artistry.

Another pioneer, Yo-Yo Ma, set out in 1998 on an intrepid Silk Road project to former Soviet states, a bold act of cultural reconciliation documented in his recent film The Music of Strangers. Ma relinquished his star status to relearn the cello in radically different, improvised contexts. In the UK, Matthew Barley has travelled a similar road, finding a cellistic way into Arab, Persian, west African and Indian music, mixing his own techniques with the textures of oud, kora, sarod and mandolin.

Read more: