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.
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.