As I was preparing for my recording of the complete works for cello and piano by Joachim Raff, I kept finding myself asking some fundamental questions about how this music should be played. In his Duo for Cello and Piano, a wonderful piece which beautifully exploits the technical and expressive range of both instruments, there are markings in the cello part that indicate vibrato usage. This posed an interesting problem for me, largely because I had already been using copious amounts of vibrato in the passage that precedes the vibrato marking in the score. I had also never seen vibrato indications in 19th century music before, so I had no other examples of solutions to draw from. What was I to do, vibrate even more? The markings seem to be suggesting that I should be severely restricting my vibrato before the indication in the score so that the section with the indication for vibrato could become accentuated in the way the composer intended. However, no one today plays with a restricted vibrato in romantic era music. Heavy use of vibrato is considered to be one of the most important aspects of the romantic cello sound. What Raff was asking me to do was to play with sparing vibrato in a romantic era piece. As you can hear in the recording, I kept the standard practice of frequent vibrato usage, as it was the only way I could make the piece sound convincing in the recording sessions.
But I remained unsettled, and after the sessions I started to do some digging. What I found was that the instrument has undergone a profound change since the 19th century, not just in the way it is played, but also in the equipment itself.
Most cellists today are aware that cellists in the baroque period all played with the instrument held between their legs, and that the material used for the strings was a combination of plain sheep or cow gut and gut with silver or nickel winding over it. What many players do not realize is that playing on gut strings with no endpin was fairly common all the way until the 1920’s. In fact, many of the most famous cellists in the romantic era played without an endpin. David Popper, Alfredo Piatti, Friedrich Grützmacher, Friedrich Dotzauer, Bernhard Romberg, and Robert Hausmann (Brahms’s favorite cellist) all played on gut strings with no endpin. The first cellist to use an endpin was probably Adrien Servais, who apparently invented it because his stomach had grown so large that he couldn’t hold the cello between his legs anymore. Following in Servais’ footsteps, some cellists adopted its use, such as Karl Davidov, Carl Schroeder, Hugo Becker, and Julius Klengel. From the last quarter of the 19th century until the first quarter of the 20th, whether or not you used an endpin while playing the cello had much to do with personal taste and whether or not your teacher used one. For example, Pablo Casals used an endpin for his entire career, more than likely because his teacher used one. However, students of Robert Hausmann mostly played without an endpin, with the famous English cellist Percy Such being one of the last in the 20th century to play in the old manner.
At some point between 1930 and the second world war the endpin became universally used. Why? Some of the greatest cellists of the day, such as Hugo Becker, claimed that with the cello secured on the floor the body of the instrument can vibrate more freely, thus amplifying the tone. This “fact” appears in many other treatises written around 1900. I am not sure that this is true. There are many variables that go into the size of a cello sound, and whether or not the ribs of the instrument are dampened or “freed” by the presence of an endpin seems to make only a marginal difference. It also must be mentioned that according to contemporaneous critical reports the sound of Robert Hausmann was the biggest of all the late 19th/early 20th century cellists, and he played sans endpin. But I digress!
After the endpin became ubiquitous, major changes in strings were around the corner. By the 1920’s, steel had already become quite common in the violin set up, as gut manufacturing suffered in quality during the Great War. Also, solo violinists were traveling much more to tropical and subtropical locales, such as the southern United States and southeast Asia, where the excessive heat and humidity were breaking their already fragile gut E strings. It was not long after that cellists started to experiment with steel on the top two strings. There were several notable holdouts, the most famous being Pau Casals, who revered gut as the only true cello sound (a view with which I am sympathetic!) When Rostropovich, with his all-steel high tension set up, hit the scene in the 1960s, many solo cellists became convinced that using steel on all four strings is the only way to create a big, competitive sound. Thus by the 1990’s almost no one was using gut, a rather sad condition that continues to this day.
So why is this important? Is there that big of a difference between playing with an endpin and not? Or between gut strings and steel? I was curious to see what the actual differences were, largely because I had become frustrated with my own playing during and after making the Raff CD. I was no where close to making the kinds of sounds I dream of, the kind of sounds made by Casals and Feuermann, but I also was curious of what problems late 19th century players had to deal with as well. I decided that if I am ever going to understand how these great players approached sound, I needed to approximate their set up, which was gut on all four strings, unwound on the top two. This involved getting an old tailpiece made in the 1940’s (I think, it may have been a little later) that had no built-in fine tuners, getting new notches cut in the bridge and the nut to accommodate the thicker strings, and of course purchasing the strings themselves. I also experimented with hours of practice with no endpin, to see what effect that might have on the sound and approach. One of the things I found was that playing with an endpin allows for much more freedom in the vibrato. The vibrato can be quite wide and ever-present, but without an endpin the cello is less stable, so a very wide vibrato tends to shake the instrument. However, the contact between the bow and the string is much improved, which leads the player to use the bow much more for expression in place of a wide vibrato palate. The result is much longer phrases, but a less beautiful sound. I did not notice a large difference in sound volume, in fact if there was any difference at all, playing with no endpin seemed to make the sound slightly larger, perhaps due to the increased bow contact. The strings made a much bigger difference. Gut will not speak if played aggressively, as opposed to steel which can withstand a violent approach (a sound can be made at least, whereas on gut no sound at all comes if you press even a tiny bit.) This forced my hands to move in a much more lyrical manner, and finally gave me the more cantabile sound I was looking for. The sound at first was quite small compared to steel, but after many hours of practice I figured out how to get a full sound from them. They also carry surprisingly well in large spaces, even though they don’t sound very loud under the ear.
This has led me to believe that, contrary to popular opinion, the changes in string performance style that have occurred since the beginning of the 20th century (a shift from lyrical and sonically expressive playing to a more angular, less sonically but more visually expressive approach) have not been products of changing tastes, but products of changing equipment. The equipment dictates more than anything else how we respond to and play an instrument, because changing styles can only occur if the instrument allows them to occur.
Getting back to Raff and the question of vibrato, I now understand why he would feel the need to mark in his music where he would like it to be present; he had no expectation that players would be vibrating much at all. Mind you this is in the heart of the romantic era. Not that all players of the day did not vibrate much; some, such as Karl Davidov and Adrien Servais, vibrated quite a bit (interestingly, both players were early exponents of the endpin.)
Then as performers, how do we approach the music that was written for the cello in this period? How can we use this information to better understand the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Raff? Is it even possible, with the cello set up as it is today (steel strings and a long and sometimes bent endpin,) to approach the music of the romantic era in a way that comes any at all close to what the composer intended? This is a philosophical question, and one that every musician who calls themselves an interpreter should confront. Is it your goal to try to play in a way that captures the true spirit of the music you are interpreting? Then knowledge can only help you. Even if you decide to disregard that knowledge and play as you feel on stage, you will still be better off for having that knowledge in you. It was a lesson I had to learn, and I am thankful to Raff for opening my eyes to it.