What is a full sized cello?

WHAT IS A FULL-SIZED CELLO?

The cello first emerged as a solo instrument during the second half of the 17th century, the earliest instrumental music published for the violoncello being the Sonatas by Arresti (1665). Prior to this time cellos were very large bass members of the violin family with a back length of around 812mm (32”) which was determined by the length required for an uncovered gut string to function effectively in the lower register.Tinycelloman

However, between 1670 and 1690 Francesco Ruggieri and Andrea Guarneri dramatically reduced the back length of their cellos. This reduction in size was partly in response to the demands of new repertoire: players needed a shorter string length to play increasingly virtuosic pieces. The adoption of metal-wound G and C strings also meant that shorter cellos could produce a convincing C string sound. The reduction in cello size during the late 17th century was only the start of a long trend which saw cello back lengths shrink to 28” by 1750, as ever more virtuosic repertoire was written for cellists.

This downward trend in size was neither even nor universal: Stradivari developed his Forma Buono (B Form) 758mm (29⅞”) model in 1710 followed by his Piccolo cello model with a back length of 745mm (29½”) in the 1720’s followed by even smaller cellos in the 1730’s. Meanwhile, in Venice Matteus Goffriller made three sizes of instrument to cater for different musical tastes and Montagnana produced his distinctive short, broad instruments with a back length of 741mm (29¼”). Giovanni Battista Guadagnini’s cello design was inspired by his famous contemporary, virtuoso cellist Carlo Ferrari and Guadagnini made over forty cellos on a 711mm (28”) pattern after 1750.

By 1800 there was still no dominant or standard cello size. Most early nineteenth century instruments had a back length of between 738 and 749mm (e.g. Banks 1800 cello 734mm (28⅞”) Gagliano 1805 cello 738mm (29”) and Lupot 1815 cello 749mm (29½”). Variety remained the absolute norm until the late 19th century, although from the early 19th century onwards, increasing numbers of makers based their work on historic models, rather than developing their own distinctive model. The majority chose the Stradivari B Form as their model for cellos. In the late 19th century, French and German workshops sent thousands of cellos into circulation based on the B Form Stradivari model, creating an industry standard by sheer force of numbers.

So how should we classify the large proportion of cellos in professional use which are significantly smaller than 758mm? Should they be labelled ‘ladies’ cellos’, or ⅞ instruments, unsuited to the serious adult cellist due to their smaller size? Or should cellists rejoice at the extraordinary variety of instruments available to them and not worry about back length?

Throughout history, cellists have sought out instruments which best suit their physique, technique and repertoire. A well balanced partnership between a cellist and a comfortably sized, tonally effective cello will produce more power than if the same cellist played an over-large instrument and was unable to tap its resources efficiently and comfortably. Powerful cellists such as Rostropovitch or Zara Nelsova were able to release the huge tonal potential of their larger instruments, whereas fine soloists such as Steven Isserlis, David Geringas and Natalie Clein prefer their smaller instruments which still easily fill large concert halls.

In conclusion, perhaps we should review our definition of ‘full sized’ based simply on the modern standard back length. Instead, using our knowledge of the history of cello making, we can be confident that a cello is ‘full sized’ if it was made as the primary model of its maker, for his professional adult customers.

We have assembled below a collection of data on the back length of cellos during the development period. It is important when looking at data in the earlier period (1650-1730) and especially pre-1700, to be aware that many extant instruments have been cut down or reduced in size. We have been careful to include only instruments which we are confident remain unaltered.


Table of Cello Back Lengths

 

Maker

Date

Length of back

Guarneri Filius Andrea

1669

807 mm

Francesco Ruggieri

1689

738 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1690

792 mm

Joseph Guarneri Filius Andrea

1692

758 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1700

766 mm

GB Rogeri

1700

754 mm

Francesco Ruggieri

1706

740 mm

Joseph Guarneri Filius Andrea

1709

749 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1710

756 mm

Francesco Gofriller

c.1710

758 mm

Joseph Filius

1712

727 mm

Barak Norman

1716

716 mm

David Tecchler

1717

732 mm

Francesco Gofriller

1720

745 mm

Alessandro Gagliano

1724

753 mm

Peter Guarneri of Venice

1725

749 mm

Matteo Gofriller

1728

757 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1730

745 mm

Michael Platner

c.1730

752 mm

Carlo Tonnoni

c.1730

737 mm

Nathanial Cross

1730

717 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1731

742 mm

Joseph Guarneri del Gesu

1731

737 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1732

717 mm

Antonio Stradivari

1732

690 mm

Domenico Montagnana

1739

741 mm

Peter Wamsley

1739

750 mm

G F Celoniati

1740

735 mm

Sanctus Seraphin

1741

725 mm

Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi

1749

714 mm

Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi

1750

740 mm

Domenico Busan

1750

748 mm

Joseph Hill

1760

747 mm

Richard Duke

1760

734 mm

GB Guadagnini

1764

711 mm

Michele Deconet

1764

714 mm

Carlo Antonio Testore

1766

744 mm

Benjamin Banks

1774

749 mm

Sebastian Klotz

c.1780

755 mm

John Carter

1780

738 mm

GB Guadagnini

1783

716 mm

William Forster

1785

740 mm

James and Henry Banks

1790

730 mm

G B Ceruti

c.1790

745 mm

William Forster

1794

733 mm

Thomas Dodd

1800

752 mm

Thomas Kennedy

1803

736 mm

Giuseppe Gagliano

1805

738 mm

Francois Louis Pique

1808

750 mm

Nicholas Lupot

1815

749 mm

Joseph Panormo

1820

758 mm

Charles Harris

1820

767 mm

John Betts

1825

752 mm

G F Pressenda

1830

742 mm

Charles Adolphe Gand

1830

762 mm

Henry Lockey Hill

1830

743 mm

Giuseppe Rocca

1833

760 mm

Giuseppe Rocca

1838

738 mm

John Furber

1840

734 mm

J B Vuillaume

1845

757 mm

Thomas Kennedy

1846

740 mm

J B Vuillaume

1847

737 mm

George Craske

1850

729 mm

Giuseppe Ceruti

1870

759 mm

Henry Furber

1887

755 mm

Pierre Silvestre

1890

762 mm

Giuseppe Rocca

1901

756 mm

© Robin Aitchison and Sarah Mnatzaganian 2008

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