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A giant violin, an oversized viola, or a mini cello?

February 10, 2016

Here’s a 2009 video of Kuijken playing the Prelude of Bach’s Suite No. 1 BWV1007.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I was once as confused as you probably are now.

Yet again another unknown string instrument has been unearthed from the chest of Baroque oddities thought to have been swallowed by the sands of time. It sounds like a cello, is played like a violin, yet it’s closer to the size of a viola than anything else.

So what is it? For those who attempted to answer the question posed by the article title, the answer is… (drum roll) letter C! Yes, it’s actually a mini cello!

A “violoncello da spalla,” to be exact, albeit Baroque composers never called it by such name. Back in the days, it was simply known as “violoncello,” but for us living in the time of ‘Lil Wayne (who probably couldn’t figure out a guitar even if his life depended on it), we need some sort of name appendage to differentiate it from its more popular bigger brother.

In Italian, “da spalla” means “of the shoulder.” At first, “cello of the shoulder” would sound pretty strange indeed. Stranger still, is the way by which the rest of the world has come to know about it just recently: John Prescott’s tweet about his alleged doppelganger.

Uncanny! Two Strads? via @mortaltaste
— John Prescott (@johnprescott) March 19, 2014

(Sorry Twitter netizens – it’s not James May either.)

The man on the picture is Sigiswald Kuijken – a Belgian violinist and the foremost champion of the “violoncello de spalla” (and the same dashing guy brandishing the instrument on the first picture of this article). Just this March 19th, he performed with the instrument at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall – the first time it’s been heard in the city for over two centuries.

It all started in 2004, when Kuijken partnered with violin-maker Dmitry Badiarov who made him a copy based on three surviving specimens: “two instruments by J. Ch. Hoffmann, a contemporary of Bach, and one by Aegidius Snoek.”

The violoncello de spalla was highly popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but fell out of fashion by the late 18th century. It is believed that many pieces by Vivaldi, Bach, and Corelli – now played on the cello –  were originally written for the instrument.

If you’re already proficient at the violin or viola yet find both instruments wanting in bass drops (like they’re capable of any), maybe you’d want to try this it out.

Update: Oviolin has since made 6 of such instruments (in white or varnished). If you are keen, drop us a message for discussion.

Here's a link to the item.


1 Response

Mike Brown
Mike Brown

February 25, 2016

I play music for a hospice here in Iowa, USA. I play the violin & I have a 4/4 cello but the cello is too big & bulky to take around. I would love to be able to play with the sound of the cello, but stand. What is the cost of your violincello da spalla in USA dollars? Does it include a case? I can use my own cello bow I believe. Do you have different prices & different qualities of instruments or is the one you sell the same as the one Sigiswald Kuijken is playing on the video? Let me hear from you soon. Many thanks, Mike Brown

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