Music score

Cello Accompaniment Concepts in Traditional Music

by Michael Robinson

Scottish fiddle and cello duo

Why the cello?

It's common at present to accompany traditional music with either guitar or some other sort of similar stringed instrument, such as bouzouki. Guitar accompaniments can be heard on recordings as long ago as the 1930s. So why buck the trend and use a cello instead?

One reason, of course, is that the cello is a more traditional accompaniment instrument, and was used 300 years ago rather than just 60 years ago. But we're not forced to do something just because it was done before; we are free to choose for ourselves.

Should we accompany at all?

No one denies that the unaccompanied solo performer is the heart of traditional Gaelic music. But choosing to use accompaniment is almost essential if you want to move out of the living room and play for listening audiences, who may quite possibly never have encountered an unaccompanied performance before, and are generally unreceptive to the concept (outside the circle of devoted Irish music fans). Besides, playing with another person is fun! I would like to be able to add accompaniment without compromising the traditional style of the solo performer. So I look back to the past to see how our musical predecessors handled the problem.

It's acknowledged by the experts that the heart of traditional music lies in solo performance. Group performances, other than for to gain extra volume for dances, were rare. In Irish music the development of the "session" in the 1950s changed the situation somewhat, but this is still true in Cape Breton Scottish music, which is thought to be fairly close to the Highland style of the late 18th century.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the solo performer is always unaccompanied. In Cape Breton today, a fiddler is usually accompanied by piano. In 18th century Scotland, a cellist was the usual accompanist. But you would not usually hear two fiddlers playing, any more than you would hear two people trying to tell a story at the same time.

Pitfalls of the guitar: pitch range

One problem with the guitar is the problem of range. Frequently people forget that the guitar is a transposing instrument, sounding an octave lower than written. The range of a guitar in "standard tuning" extends from the E below the bass clef to the E at the top of the treble clef (at the 12th fret). The range of pitch used in traditional music is typically that which can be played on a fiddle in first position, that is from G below the treble clef to B above the treble clef. So a great portion of this range is overlapped by the guitar, which can tend to interfere with the melody instrument by playing notes in the same range as the melody.

Playing style problems of the modern guitarist

While this problem could be overcome by some care by the accompanist, another problem exists. Most guitarists today have learned to play in a chordal manner based on major/minor tonality. In traditional music, this is a problem because the music itself goes back before the development of major/minor tonality. Its basis lies in the earlier system of modal tonality.

More evidence about folk-singing style is given by Robert Bremner, in an essay published in 1762. Bremner was writing to encourage classical musicians to start parish church choirs in country districts, and he described the difficulties which such musicians faced… Another difficulty was that country singers habitually flattened seventh degrees of the scale: in the psalm tune 'Dundee', for instance, rural congregations insisted on singing flatted sevenths, even when accompanied by an educated precentor singing the correct sharpened notes.

It does not seem to have occurred to Bremner, though it is fairly obvious to us, that country singers … flattened their sevenths in psalms because that was how they sang folk-songs. Bremner had come up against the performance practice on an alien culture. [Note 1]

Providing a chordal accompaniment to a modal melody obscures its nature and tends to hide its full beauty. In many cases there are no obvious chord changes to a tune. Frequently a stock chord progression is forced on to a tune. The usual result is heavy-handed and artificial. In order to hide the awful results, the accompanist then attempts to spice up his part with tricky off-beat rhythmic patterns totally unrelated to the tune. Unfortunately such techniques are considered the state of the art in some sections of the traditional music world.

A salute to the brave few

While it is possible to find guitarists who can overcome the problems of range and modality, such musicians are rare indeed. The Cape Breton guitarist David MacIsaac is one of the few I have heard who has developed a very nice accompaniment style heavily influenced by the Cape Breton pianists. He is also an excellent melody player on both guitar and fiddle. Another fine example can be heard on the recording The Driven Bow by Alasdair Fraser and Jody Stecher. Jody is a walking encyclopedia of traditional music of all kinds and a very sensitive musician.

I also enjoy the approach taken by Alec Finn, bouzouki player with the Irish group De Danann, who frequently performs a sort of skeletal harmonized version of the melody. Unfortunately, his approach is not widely imitated. The more common schools of playing, the chord-basher and the jingle-jangler, have led many to wish that bouzoukis had been left with the Greeks, who know how to play them.

Lady cellist However, none of the excellent musicians I just mentioned have any desire to perform with me on a regular basis. So if I want an accompanist I have to look elsewhere. Luckily, however, I am married to a cellist!

The cello to the rescue!

As far as the pitch range problem is concerned, the cello has the advantage since its normal range is below the usual range of the melody line. And as a cello usually plays just one note at a time, the chordal problem is solved also.

(In modern classical music, the tendency is for all instruments to be played in their extreme upper range. Cello is played in fiddle range, and violin is played in piccolo range. So a classically oriented cellist could be a problem accompanist from a range point of view.)

Once it is decided to use a cello for accompaniment, the next problem is to decide what kind of accompaniment part the cello will play. In 18th century Scotland this was not a problem. Cellists were expected to be able to improvise an accompaniment part, just as a century earlier it was expected that performers on the bass viol could improvise an accompaniment.

The lost skills of modal improvisation

Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was expected that musicians should be able to improvise their parts.

As early as 1390 the 'Monk of Salzburg' expected his composition pupils to be able to extemporize a counterpoint to a well-known tune, and the whole of the composition teaching of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was based on the same technique… But the late eighteenth-century pedants who turned counterpoint and harmony into 'paper work' have much to answer for; they forced the ear to abdicate in favour of the eye, and they broke the links of extemporization than in all earlier times had held composer, performer, and listener in a single musical chain. [Note 2]

It appears that the usual method of performing dance music up to about 1500 was to take a common song melody, distort it until it fitted the dance measure, and then improvise one or two parts above it. This is one explanation of why so little medieval dance music has survived. Most of it was never written at all.

The improvisation of those times was much different than the kind of chordal improvisation that takes place in jazz today. It was improvised modal counterpoint. This once commonplace skill is now totally lost.

Henri Brispot,French, 1846 - 1928,'Une maitrise' Even at a slightly later period, when Markevitch talks about cello continuo playing in the Baroque era, it should be realized that this does not mean that the cello simply played the bass line as written. Any cellist who did so would have been regarded as very dull and unimaginative. The great cellists of the time used the written part merely as the starting point of their accompaniment.

But other lost techniques of improvisation have impoverished the musical community, one of the greatest losses being that of improvised continuo-playing. (This was not restricted to harmony instruments. Holmes (1828) writes of the way in which the English cellist, Lindley, used to accompany recitatives at the London opera house elegantly and fancifully, with brilliant arpeggio chords and delicately sustained notes.) [Note 3]

The end of a long tradition

Along with the changeover to major/minor tonality, classical music became more formalized. During the 19th century the long tradition of improvisation came to an end.

By the 20th century, however, the long tradition was completely dead. Classical musicians are no longer taught the principles of basic musicianship, and work entirely from written music. It is common today for otherwise excellent musicians to be completely unable to make the slightest variation to a written part, or to be unable to harmonize the simplest melody. It is possible today to go through an entire career in classical music without ever needing these skills.

The concerto, a piece of music intended to highlight the skills of a great performer, usually concludes with an improvisational section called a cadenza. When such pieces are performed today, it is usual to use a fixed cadenza written down from the improvisations of some famous performer of days gone by. The skills needed to perform an improvised cadenza are no longer possessed by today's classical musicians, even though they may have great technical gifts.

Improvisation today

The twentieth century has seen many master improvisational musicians in the field of jazz. But for the traditional musician looking for a cellist, this has not eased the problem, since the cello is not a usual jazz instrument. Most cellists are classically trained, and so are never taught basic musicianship skills. And even if a jazz cellist could be found, a second problem would be that he or she would be likely to work in a chordal way, since that is how jazz operates. And jazz cellists are more used to being melody instruments than accompanists.

Jazz operates in some ways like a modal style of music, but it is more usually thought of as a sequence of fairly complex chords. One school of jazz playing, developed by players such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, developed in a rather modal manner. But their influences came more from Indian classical music than Renaissance Europe. Neither did they influence very many cellists.

Our solution to the problem

The solution we have adopted is to compose the cello parts in advance. This is not a great difficulty in traditional music since the basic melody is fixed. And since we perform in public, we do work out beforehand which tunes we are going to play. Of course, the composed approach doesn't work in a session, where it is not predictable which tune will be played next. But it does allow for a greater sophistication of structure—hopefully something up to the standards of the great 18th century cellists!

Cello and banjo?

Since I play tenor banjo for some tunes, there is a potential problem of range, since the banjo is an octave lower than the fiddle. Composing the part in advance allows us to avoid these pitfalls. And we've found that cello and banjo is a great-sounding combination! While both instruments can be found historically in traditional music, they did not appear in the same era, so up until now the combination has never occurred.

I haven't thrown my guitar away!

Since I've starting performing with a cellist, I've become increasingly aware of the problems of guitar accompaniment, to the point where I now find it extremely annoying, or at best merely tolerable. Unfortunately, few modern recordings are done without it, presumably because it is considered more marketable. So I find myself listening more and more to the old performers, which is perhaps not entirely a bad thing.

This is not to say that I dislike guitar as an instrument. I think it makes an excellent melody instrument, and it is well-suited to accompanying song—-just as the lute was used 400 years ago.

Sample score

Note 1

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 94-95 Back

Note 2

Thurston Dart
The Interpretation of Music
Harper & Row, 1963
pp 62-63 Back

Note 3

Ibid, p. 63 Back


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