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.
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.
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