FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Thumb Position in Different Musical Epochs

Since the “discovery” of Thumb Position in the mid 18th century, it’s use – and the use of the higher cello registers in general – has progressively increased though the musical and historical epochs. For compilations of repertoire excerpts in Thumb Position, grouped and ordered in approximate chronological order, click here

THE BAROQUE THUMB

In music of the Renaissance and Early Baroque periods the thumb was never used. The high cello writing that we may find in music of these  periods was intended for the 5-string “violoncello piccolo” (used in Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite, approximately twenty Cantatas and several of Vivaldi’s Cello Concertos) or instruments of the Viola da Gamba family (Bach’s Gamba Sonatas). The occasional use of the thumb in the Neck Region that is required on the modern cello to play in certain passages in the Third and Fourth Bach Solo Cello Suites reinforces the theory that the Bach Suites were written to be played on a much smaller instrument than the modern cello: probably the Viola Pomposa or the Viola da Spalla, both played with violin fingerings. This smaller size would have allowed these passages to be played simply with stretches between the fingers. See here for more discussion about this question.

Even when Bach’s Sixth Suite is played on a 5-string cello (or transposed down a fifth on a 4-string cello) there are still some passages where the cello’s modern size also requires the use of thumb position (see Thumb Position in the Bach Suites). If we are correct in believing that neither Bach nor his cellists were aware of the possibility of Thumb Position, then this would seem to be further evidence for the fact that Bach wrote this suite also for a smaller instrument. In fact, one of these passages – bars 70 to 75 in the Prelude – would almost seem to prove the idea that Bach’s cellists never used the thumb. If we play this passage transposed down a fifth on our normal 4-string cello, with “standard” cello fingerings (i.e. using Thumb Position), then we are reproducing exactly how we would play it if we were using a 5-string cello (although of course it would then sound a fifth higher):

bach thumb VI prelude as is

This is extraordinarily difficult because during the open D string we need to remove the left hand entirely from its contact with the cello. When we do this we lose all our positional and tactile references. To make things even worse, during this loss of contact, we have to do a shift. This is Absolute Positional Sense at its most absolute. Finding notes in this way is one of the hardest things we will ever have to do on the cello. Bach was an eminently practical composer and it is hard to believe he would have deliberately written something so profoundly unnatural. If this same passage is played without the thumb, our left hand maintains permanent contact with the cello via the thumb at its normal place behind the neck and we thus have none of these navigational problems.

bach thumb prelude vi as was

This passage is a vital piece of evidence for a musicological detective: it indicates simultaneously:

  • that the Thumb Position was probably not used by Bach’s cellists
  • that the cello for which Bach wrote the Suites was probably smaller than the modern cello, because the fingerings that are required to avoid the use of the thumb are basically impossible on the modern cello (with one tone stretches between each finger). In fact, Bach referred to his Viola Pomposa (a much smaller instrument than a cello and played in the violin/viola position) as his “Violoncello Piccolo”. See the following article for further discussion about what instrument Bach actually wrote his Suites for.

To resolve this problem for the modern-size cello, perhaps Bach wouldn’t object too strongly to the following solution (for further discussion see Bach: Sixth Suite):

THE LATE BAROQUE / EARLY CLASSICAL THUMB

The thumb – and the higher registers in general – only began to be used extensively in the period of from Late Baroque to Early Classical. It was the cellist-composers of this period – notably Lanzetti, Corrette and Berteau – who were principally responsible for this evolutionary leap.

The Italian, Salvatore Lanzetti (1710-1780) was perhaps the first. Of his 12 Cello Sonatas Op 1 (published around 1736) there is, in Sonatas 5, 8, 9, 10,11 and 12 some reasonably frequent and obligatory use of the Thumb Position, with the cello’s range going up to the A 2 octaves above the open string and even (once) up to the B one tone higher. There is even some passagework requiring the thumb on the high E in sonatas 9 and 12. In some passages the thumb is not absolutely obligatory but his musical writing shows clearly that the thumb is now being used as an “extra finger”.

In his Op 5 Sonatas, published in 1748 (12 years later), this use of the thumb and the Thumb Region becomes even more frequent. Now he consistently uses almost the whole range of the fingerboard, going up frequently to the A two octaves above the open string.  Curiously, the young Lanzetti worked for a short while in Lucca, town in which Boccherini was to be born 15 years later. His music and cello technique seem so much a precursor to Boccherini’s that we can easily suppose that Boccherini (1743-1805) – the greatest exponent of the Early Classical Thumb – was profoundly influenced by Lanzetti’s musical and cellistic legacy, even though Lanzetti left Lucca 15 years before Boccherini´s birth.

In one of the first pedagogical publications dedicated to the technique/art of cello playing – Michel Corrette’s “MĂ©thode Pratique et Theoretique” of 1741 – Thumb Position is explained clearly, but it is also stated that the “first” (lowest) thumb position was with the thumb on “E” (on the A string), which shows that, at this time, it was not used for playing in the Neck Region. Just seven years later, in 1748, also in France, Martin Berteau published his Sonatas for Cello and Basso Continuo Op 1, in which the thumb position was used relatively often, as shown by the inclusion of Berteau’s fingerings in the first edition.

It would appear that French and Italian cellists embraced the thumb and the higher regions earlier and more enthusiastically than the Germans. C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), although living at the same time as Lanzetti, used the thumb and high positions only very rarely and for brief moments in his three cello concertos composed between 1750 and 1753  with the exception of the theme of the slow movement of the A major concerto. These concertos, with solo and orchestral parts can be downloaded here.

Other famous cellist-composers of the Early Classical period who were exploring and extending the use of Thumb Position were Cupis (1735-1810), Boccherini (1743-1805), Breval (1753-1823), Danzi (1763-1826) and Romberg (1767-1841).  Even though the compositions of all these cellist-composers are not on the same musical level as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, the huge amount of music for cello that these cellists produced constitutes some of the best thumb position learning (study) material for cellists that can be found. Carl Stamitz, even though not a cellist (he was a virtuoso violinist and violist) also wrote many compositions (including three cello concertos) that regularly use the Thumb Position.

For a compilation of repertoire Thumb Position excerpts in chronological order see here. For more discussion about the Classical Period in general see “Style and Epoch: The Classical Period“.

LATE-CLASSICAL AND ROMANTIC PERIODS

Beethoven (1770-1827), in spite of being born 27 years after Boccherini, only really started to realise the potential of thumb position in his magnificent (for the cellist especially) Triple Concerto Op 56 (1803). Haydn used the higher register of the cello a lot when writing for the cello as solo instrument, not only in his 2 concertos and Sinfonia Concertante but also in virtuoso solos in some of his (early) symphonies. But Mozart barely used the higher cello register at all. What a shame he never met or heard Boccherini. They were born only 13 years apart (with Mozart being the younger of the two). Had they met, perhaps we would have had cello concertos, not only by Mozart but also by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and others …… and all that was lacking was one well-trained cellists thumb to show them what was possible!

Brahms, although he used the higher registers a lot in his 2nd cello sonata  Op 99  and Double Concerto Op 102 (both written while in his mid-fifties) lamented in later life, after hearing the Dvorak Cello Concerto, that he had not been aware that it was possible to write “like that” for the cello. In his first cello sonata (Op 38 in E minor), of the more than 25 minutes playing time only 40 seconds (3%) are in thumb position, of which only 3 seconds (less than 1%) are in the “Thumb Region”.

In fact, in the great majority of chamber and orchestral repertoire of the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods, Thumb Position and the Thumb Region are used very seldom if at all. Beethoven’s music for cello and piano illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. His 5 sonatas and 3 sets of Variations for cello and piano represent approximately 2.5 hours of music. Of that total time, the cellists’ left hand spends only 7.5 minutes (5% of total cello playing time) in Thumb Position, of which only 2.5 minutes (2%) are in the real, obligatory (high) “Thumb Region”. Thus very little in this repertoire prepares us technically for passages such as the following example:

thumbposcrazyhighsuddenBeethoven

But Shostakovitch and most other 20th century composers take the cello up into the high register frequently and systematically, even in their quartets and symphonies.