Music score

The Cello in Traditional Music

The Cello in Scotland

The Commonwealth ended with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, raising hopes in far-off Scotland that a more tolerant era would begin. The spouts of the Cross at Edinburgh ran with claret, and at night there were bonfires in the streets, and fireworks in the castle till after midnight.

"There were also six viols, three of them base viols, playing there continually. There were also some musicians placed there wha were resolved to act their parts, and were willing and ready, but by reason of the frequent acclamations and cries of the people universally through the haill town, their purpose was interrupted. Bacchus also, being set upon ane puncheon of wine upon the foot of the Cross with his cummerholds, was not idle."

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 35

Side by side with the growing popularity of the violin, its congeners, the viola or tenor, the violoncello, and the double bass, also came into the limelight. That a solitary tenor was admitted in the 1695 concert, shows that the instrument had not yet found a permanency in the orchestra. In the "Sixties," Thomas Erskine the sixth Earl of Kellie was writing specially for the viola in his orchestral scores. At the 1695 concert, both "violincellos and viol de gambos" are mentioned in Tytler's list of the orchestra, but the original document of James Chrystie only mentions "basses." The violoncello was certainly known in Edinburgh in 1720 because when Lorenzo Bocchi arrived in this city in this year, he was heralded as "the second master of the violoncello in Europe." When the 'cello definitely took the place of the viola da gamba we do not know. It may have been in the "Forties." At any rate, Oswald's Curious Collection of Scots Tunes (1740) specifies the bass viol (=viola da gamba), whereas William McGibbon's Collection of Scots Tunes (1742) and Barsanti's Collection of Old Scots Tunes (1742) includes the violoncello. Arnot, in his History of Edinburgh (1779), neglects to include the violoncello in his instrumentation of the "Musical Society" and only mentions "a double or contra base." Yet this must be an oversight, since there is plenty of evidence of violoncellos in this orchestra at this period. Bremner, in 1754, advertises "bass violins."

By this time, the violoncello as an accompaniment to the violin had become the mainstay of dance music in Scotland, and the innumerable collections of reels and strathspeys that were published during the second half of the 18th century show how closely in consort these two instruments were. We see them side by side rather later in Sir David Wilkie's picture The Penny Wedding (1818), a scene which typifies the people's music in those days. John Gunn (1765-c.1824) published The Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violoncello (Lond., 1793, 2nd ed., 1795) and an Essay, Theoretical and Practical, on the application of Harmony, Thorough-bass, and Modulation to the Violoncello (Edin., 1801).

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 28-29

Highland Wedding David Allan (1744-1796) Country-dances, reels, and strathspeys were all danced to folk music; and as the dancing-masters—the people largely responsible for setting the trends—normally accompanied lessons with their own fiddle-playing, it followed that the dance-music tradition centred itself round the solo fiddle. A number of other instrumentations were also in common use. A greater volume of sound could be obtained from two fiddles played in unison. Often dance music was provided by a 'band', consisting of two fiddles and a cello: in this case the fiddles played the tunes together, and the cello played a rudimentary bass-line in steady crotchets, often consisting of no more than an alternation between tonic and flattened seventh, whose purpose was to keep the beat more than to supply classical harmony. The cello part in such bands has been well described as 'a kind of accented drone'. The painting 'The Highland Dance' by David Allan (1744-96) shows open-air dancing accompanied by one violin and a cello; with a bagpiper, not playing, helping himself to refreshments in the background.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 121-122

The Penny WeddingIn the countryside it was uncommon to find even two fiddlers playing together at social dances. If there were two fiddlers, they preferred to alternate. So we notice in David Allan's 'Penny Wedding', one fiddler reaching for his stoppan of ale while the other plays.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 109

In 1742 Oswald pulished two collections of Curious Scots Tunes, which included some music with Gaelic titles such as "More N'Ighean Ghiberlain" (The Gaberlunzie's Daughter) and "Failte na Miosg" (The Musket Salute), along with those in English, among them "She's sweetest when she's naked" and "The Bottom of the Punch Bowl" … The majority of these gave only the melodic lines, a practice praised by Benjamin Franklin when writing to Lord Kames that old Scottish airs needed no harmony:

Whoever has heard James Oswald play them on his violoncello, will be less inclined to dispute this with me. I have more than once seen tears of pleasure in the eyes of his auditors, and, yes, I think, even his playing those tunes would please more, if he gave them less modern ornamentation.

Lady cellist …the most prolific of all the Scots fiddle composers James Scott Skinner, born at Banchory in 1843, died at Aberdeen 1927. He began, as so many of the famous fiddlers did, by playing the violoncello accompaniment, first to his elder brother Sandy and later to the celebrated Aberdeen fiddler and teacher Peter Milne (born in the village of Kincardine-O'Neil, Aberdeenshire,1824). (An aunt of the writer's by marriage, Miss Grant of Balrenie House, Dufftown, remembers this characteristic 'cello accompaniment to the fiddle or fiddles at the dances in Banffshire in her youth. She describes it as "a kind of accented drone".)

Francis Collinson
The Bagpipe, Fiddle and Harp
from Traditional and National Music of Scotland,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966
reprinted by Lang Syne Publishers Ltd., 1983
[source has no page numbers]

We have noted the supreme place of the bagpiper as the purveyor of dance music at all social functions of the ordinary people from medieval times. Most of these functions had to be conducted outdoors or in a large farm building, such as a barn, and that only when it was empty. The fiddle held sway indoors but it is not until the eighteenth century that one sees it really offer serious competition to the bagpipe in popular social dance, and then particularly in the Central Highlands, Breadalbane and Strathspey.

In an old Gaelic song printed by Simon Fraser, 'Feadan glan a' Phiobair' (The Pipe Slang), the noisy rattling piper at a country wedding makes a comparison between the bagpipe and the fiddle. While the fiddle so frequently interrupted the progress of the dancing through the breaking of strings and tuning, his bagpipe chanter could be depended upon. Was it ever known to fail, he asks the 'bonny lasses', while they continued dancing?

But in another Gaelic song in the same collection, 'Mari nighean Dheorsa', this time by a fiddler, Grant of Sheugly, it is claimed that the 'sprightly youth and bonny lasses … all declare that at wedding, dance or ball' the fiddle with its bass in attendance had no competitor—'thy music', he claims, 'having the effect of electricity on those who listen to it'. J. Scott Skinner tells us that the cello played 'only one drone note at a time' usually vamped 'giving much character to some tunes'.

This was the most highly favoured combination in the golden age of Scottish dancing. Niel Gow with his brother David on the cello formed the most illustrious combination of their time. We read, too, of the Glasgow Gaelic Society balls being served by 'McLachlan and his Bass', and we have seen how Scott Skinner started his career playing bass to Peter Milne and his brother. This, too, as we have also seen, was the combination for which the printed collections were arranged, with, or without, harpsichord.

The harpsichord or spinet were luxury furnishings to be found only in the homes of the more wealthy.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 108

Francie Jameson, an old-style bass player from the Northeast, c. 1890
Francie "Markis" Jameson, an old-style "bass" player from the Northeast, c. 1890.
Dances in the Country, c. 1850

Skinner left his own account of what the entertainments were like in his childhood in a series of articles he wrote for the People's Journal in 1923:

… The musicians at the far end of the barn extemporized a platform out of the fanner. The orchestra generally consisted of small fiddle, bass fiddle (cello) for vamping, and an octavo flute. …I often wonder how I, a boy of eight or nine years, survived the physical strain and the loss of sleep which my duties with the band occasioned. It was nothing for Peter and me to trudge eight or ten weary miles on a slushy wet night in order to fulfil a barn engagement. … There were times even when I slept over the bass fiddle at the dances, and kept up the vamp subconsciously.

(Left) Francie "Markis" Jameson, an old-style "bass" player from the Northeast, c. 1890.

The Cello in Ireland

There are not wanting evidences of the cultivation of the virginal, or spinet, and the viol in Ireland between the years 1660 and 1665, and an examination of old wills and deeds of that time prove the point. Only to quote one instance at random. In an inventory of goods belonging to Edmund Ronayne, deceased, Blarney, County Cork, taken on August 12th, 1665, we come across the two following items: "A payre of Virginalls, vallued ten shillings, and an old violl."

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
A History of Irish Music
Browne and Nolan, Dublin, 1906
p. 217

Harp and Cello Probably the first reference to the modern fiddle in Donegal comes from the celebrated harpist [sic] Arthur O'Neill. Born at Drumstrade, County Tyrone in 1734, he was blinded in a childhood accident and typical of the times was subsequently taught to play the harp as a means of securing a living. At the time, such a practice would have been one of the last vestiges of the patronage system of the old Gaelic society… In the same year [1782] he attended a large musical gathering in the home of Jones Irwin at Streamstown, County Sligo. A total of forty-six musicians were present, the most numerous being twenty "gentleman fiddlers"…

Unlike the situation in Scotland, the cello ceased to be an instrument associated with traditional music early in the evolution process of traditional music in Ireland. This may be due to limited availability of the larger instrument, it's [sic] poorer portability or alternatively its significantly greater cost. While it can be questionable whether the music being performed at the Streamstown gathering was traditional music as we think it today, or some mixture of Irish and European Art music with voices for cellos, it is noteworthy that O'Neill records the presence of two "Gentleman Violincello".

Caoimhín MacAoidh
Between the Jigs and the Reels
Drumlin Publications, 1994
pp. 25-26

In 1742, Laurence Whyte wrote: 'In Beahan's days (our Governor for life), John played the Flute, and Billy played the Fife, Some play'd the fiddle, others vamped a base …'

Fintan Vallely, ed.
The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
New York University Press, 1999
p. 123

As the melody of the charter song of that singular social union of wit and talent which existed in Dublin, from the year 1779 to the close of the year 1785, and was called "The Monks of the Order of St. Patrick," but commonly known as "The Monks of the Screw"… few of the readers of this work will require to be informed that this well-known charter song was written for the society by its Prior, the late John Philpot Curran; but it has not been hirtherto known that the music selected by the gifted poet, as a fit medium for his serio-comic verses, was a gay Irish melody, arrayed in a mock solemnity, and which, no doubt, he had learnt in his own loved county of Cork. … even Mr. Wm. Henry Curran, to whose kindness I have to acknowledge myself endebted to for the notation of this tune, had no notion that it was other than, as he described it, a wild sort of ecclesiastical chant, which did not strike him as having in it anything indicative of an Irish melody. With regard, however, to Mr. Curran, it should be observed, that he never had the advantage of having heard it sung by his father: and though Mr. Phillips, as he states, often heard its author "repeat it at his own table," it is not to be wondered at that one who describes the effect upon himself of Curran's enthusiastic performance on the violoncello to have been such as "to render gravity painful, if not impossible," should have failed to discover that what he considered to be only a "droll kind of recitative" was one of those Irish melodies which Curran so dearly loved, and felt such intense enjoyment in playing.

George Petrie
The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland
Dublin, 1855
Reprinted Franz Wolf, 1969
p. 107

Dear Lads,
Check it out....but I think it was CRAN (of which I'm a member) that first used the cello (Neil Martin) in Irish music in recent times - beginning in around 1986. I remember this because I was there!! Check out our first CD 'Crooked stairs' on the CBM label (1992). It sounds great in traditional music I think.

Desi Wilkinson
Personal communication, 31 May 2000

Neil Martin is a very talented Irish cellist whom we have heard play on several occasions. He also appears on a number of recordings. I just got through listening to him on Matt Molloy's Shadows on Stone (Virgin 1996). His approach to Irish music shows a excellent knowledge of the tradition.

Another Irish music group that used cello was De Danann (or as they sometimes spelt it on, De Dannan) on their Ballroom album (Green Linnet 1987). Here's the story behind that:

De Dannan had been discussing for ages the possibility of adding a cello player to the group to give them a firmer layer and an extra dimension. Except they couldn't find one.

One day they chanced to be in London and decided on a stroll taking in the strange sights and sounds around Covent Garden. Their fiddle players, Frankie Gavin, was eating a strawberry cream bun at the time. Then they saw three noisy girls playing Flight of the Bumblebee. One of them was playing a cello.

The cellist's bow weaved erractically and nearly struck the fiddle player in the face. "Oy mate," yelled the fiddle player, you nearly took me f***ing eye out!"

They decided then and there they'd ask the cello player to join De Dannan.

Frankie approached the girl, who was by now collecting coppers in her cello case. The girl thought he was trying to chat her up and tried to get away fast. Frankie persisted, explaining that he was a member of an Irish group called De Dannan and would she, by any chance, like to join the group? Frankie, you may safely assume, is not one of life's shrinking violets.

The cellist—Caroline Lavelle—knew absolutely nothing about Irish music. She'd only heard one record of Irish traditional music in her life. It was by De Dannan.

Alec Finn: "She just took the risk and came over to Ireland. She's a classically trained musician, but she can play by ear and pick up harmonies by ear, and plays naturally as well as classically, so she turned out to be perfect for us.

"We were about to do a tour, so she came over and worked very hard and slotted in ... we never actually sat down and had rehearsals with her ... she just slotted in. She's extremely adaptable. She went to Irish music classes when we offered her the job. The man said to her 'Why do you want to learn Irish music on the cello?' and she said 'Because I've just joined De Dannan'. And it was this guy's favourite group and he couldn't believe she'd got this job without being able to play Irish music. So, you see, we're all chancers."

Colin Irwin
Ballroom Favourites
Folk Roots, No. 52, October 1987
p. 32

The Cello in The Isle of Man

... an old fiddler who lived for many years just a little way up the hill from the bridge, in one end of the Grenaby Schoolhouse: Tom Taggart, known throughout the parish of Malew as a wise man and a musician.

His instrument was a rather large 'cello, which he always referred to as The Fiddle, or Herself; and it was, to him, quite definitely a personality. Where it came from I could never find out; a question would only elicit from Tom a vague: "Aw, she's been in the Island a long time—brought by one of them Spaniards, it's like, and she's been here all my time." Tom and his Fiddle had two permanent engagements: to provide music for the services held by the Vicar in the Grenaby Schoolroom, and to lead up the singing every Sunday in the little Kerrowkiel Chapel up under Barrule; and he had a great repertoire of hymn tunes for all occasions, his favourite being Dr. Calgue's tune—Crofton. He had a good many of these written down in small manuscript music books, for he could both read and write music; but some of the best tunes were not written down at all, and were pure Manx folk-airs fitted to hymn words and sung to an improvised accompaniment, sometimes in Manx Gaelic, sometimes in English. One of Tom's most curious accomplishments was to play the air of the hymn with an accompaniment of chords almost like a bag-pipe drone, while singing the tenor part himself, the chapel congregation joining in improvising harmony ...

Hymns, however, were not the only tunes he played. Now and then he would improvise, making music that seemed the very voice of the mountains and streams; or again, with a flourish of his bow and his white whiskers, he would break into a lively dance-tune like the Car y Ferrishyn, and maybe some chidren from round about would come and dance to it on the little paved "street" in front of the schoolhouse. But as a good old-fashioned Methodist, Tom felt rather guilty about these lapses of The Fiddle from "sacred" music; and I remember him once stroking the brown wood and saying apologetically: "Herself here has never what you could really call sinned to—but I'm admitting she likes a lively tune!" ...

Almost the last time I heard him play was on the very top of South Barrule. Yn Cheshaght Ghailckach had organised a revival of the Manx Gaelic service formerly held on mountain summits on the first Sunday in August, and Tom and his Fiddle had climbed up to the top with the rest of us. It was rather a windy day, and I have a vivid memory of him carefully getting his back to the wind, his whiskers and coat-tails blowing, and then playing and singing away imperturbably, as unconcerned as if he were in the Kerrowkiel Chapel. But after the service was over he said to me in an undertone, jerking his head towards where Mananan's Castle is reputed to have been: " Ta yindys orrym cre ta Ehene smooinaghtyn jeh shoh?" (I wonder what Himself thinks of this?)

Tom lies in Malew Churchyard now, and his Fiddle is in the Manx Museum, but his aura still clings about the woods and fields and little winding roads of Grenaby and the Kerrowkiel. And perhaps sometime, if you linger at twilight in the green shadows by Grenaby Bridge, you may hear a faint, ghostly echo of an ancient tune played there by him long ago on The Fiddle that was his closest and dearest companion.

Mona Douglas
This is Ellan Vannin Again: Folklore
Times Longbooks, Douglas, 1966
pp. 61-63

The Cello in North America

Old West danceToday, the guitar is the most popular instrument for accompaniment at contests primarily because of its portability. However, many veteran fiddlers can remember a time when the piano or reed organ was the main back-up instrument, and these are still heard occasionally at contests today. The once common practice of using a bowed cello to accompany the old fiddle tunes has virtually disappeared.

Charlie Walden
Missouri Old-Time Fiddling Traditions
Fiddler Magazine Fall 1996

Anonymous string band, about 1900

The anonymous string band ..., photographed about 1900, includes a cello, which was not uncommon in the early days.

Charles K. Wolfe
Tennessee Strings: The Story of Country Music in Tennessee
University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1977
p. 20


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