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The small, deep ribbed instruments currently known as the da spalla (due to it’s ambiguity of name historically) was most prominent during the C17 and C18.
Originally from the period around 1650 to 1750, and brought back to fame due to research into Bach- being an instrument he had commissioned in the early 1700s.
The da spalla is a type of small cello (or potentially even tuned in the viola octave). It’s size is amongst the smallest in the historical bass section of strings.
The da spalla playing position is generally held across the shoulder, supported by a strap. Whilst lesser known in modern times, it is a very comfortable way of holding and supporting the instrument. The option to also play it da gamba is left to the player.
The da spalla has been championed by many players for its warm resonance, with a sound like a cross between a viola, cello and bassoon. They have ability to play fast, articulated passages comfortably in the cello range – either as a solo instrument or in a basso continuo role and also in modern and fiddle styles.
The strap is held across the shoulders which lowers and rotates the position of the instrument. This makes the string length much more accessible than if it was played in a violin position.
Originally the instrument was as a 4 or a 5 string.
It had 2 main periods of existence – in Italy as a 4 string until around 1710, and then 1710 to 1750 in Germany as a 5 string instrument.
The focus came back to this instrument due to Bach’s commissioning of it as a 5 string, and the inclusion of these in his inventory when he died (and no large size cello). It is widely considered that some of Bach’s cantatas may have been written for this instrument, and potentially some of the suites. The 5 string version allows many uncomfortable or unnecessary shifts to be avoided, and transitions made easier.
Since the industrial revolution the sizes of cellos available to musicians has diminished. What is now known as a full size cello has become the standard. However there was many more options historically, all with different sound qualities. Large cello’s have tended to be used over much of the C21 as the belief that the larger cello you play the louder, more voluminous it will be. The general standardisation of instruments since the industrial revolution made the larger size cello much more available.
However, this is not the case. How the instrument is made defines the volume and projection, the sizes create their own sound characteristics.
The instrument commonly has a string length of around 425mm. However, the difference in the playing position makes the feel not directly comparable to the feel of a violin or viola string length, it feels surprisingly smaller.
Custom designed instruments can be made for you to make sure you get exactly what you’re looking for
Having spent some years researching this instrument, I have had the pleasure to measure and study some lovely instruments.
The Johann Wagner ca 1750 instrument is considered to be in original condition. It’s neck is the surprising – element being much shorter than one would imagine.
Johann Christian Hoffmann is certainly the most well known maker of small 5 string cellos. He was from a violin making family, and was the son of Martin Hoffmann. In the early 1700s he was commissioned by Bach to make him this small 5 string instrument. Although the instrument that was played by Bach has been lost through time, other instruments have survived, along with a variety of violins and gambas.