The violoncello da spalla — a bass for violinists

The violoncello da spalla is a four- or five-stringed instrument, bigger than the viola, and tuned in the range of the common violoncello.

The pioneering work on the violoncello da spalla done by Lambert Smit (Netherlands) and Sigiswald Kuijken (Belgium) met with considerable scepticism, if not rejection, in the world of ancient music. However, after considerable research on repertoire and in libraries and music instruments musea, I was able to prove that the instrument had indeed existed. I built my first spalla for Sigiswald Kuijken, director of the Belgian ensemble La Petite Bande.

Nowadays spallas are used in renowned baroque ensembles such as La Petite Bande and Bach Collegium Japan and played by known soloists such as Sigiswald Kuijken, Ryo Terakado and Sergey Malov.

fine violoncello da spalla by dima
violoncello da spalla by dima

The violoncello da spalla in history

The violoncello appeared in Italy during the second half of the 17th century as the equivalent of the solo bass voice, next to the violin and the viola as equivalents of the human soprano and alto voices.  Originally the smaller violoncellos were held on the shoulder, which is why a violoncello da spalla is more of a violinist’s instrument.
Bach was known to be a virtuoso violinist and violist, and there are indications that he played a violoncello da spalla. For example, it is known that he owned a violoncello da spalla. Moreover, it is the ideal instrument for J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for violoncello solo.

The violoncello da spalla, with its unusually quick response and its clarity, is the instrument of choice for the violoncello repertoire of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in small chamber settings.

виола да спалла верхняя дека

Technique

Despite its relatively large size, a spalla is not awkward to play, far from it. The position is different from that of the modern viola. The spalla is held against the right shoulder by a belt, which makes it more comfortable than a viola, as the player does not have to carry the weight nor to extend the arm, the neck of the spalla being closer to the body. In order to avoid overextended fingerings, a violoncello-type of fingering could be used.

Виолончель да спалла

The Return of the Spalla

The blueprint of my violoncello da spalla is based on iconographic and written sources, and on a number of surviving instruments.

Primary sources on the violoncello da spalla

Jakob Adlung (18th C): «The viola da spalla is also known as violoncello…»
Johann Walther (18th C): «The violoncello is an Italian bass instrument resembling a viol; it is played like the violin…»
Leopold Mozart (18th C): «Today the violoncello is also held between the legs.»

See also my article for the Galpin Society Journal.

Testimonials

  • Amazing, how well it works!

    Sigiswald Kuijken
    Sigiswald Kuijken La Petite Bande, artistic director, conductor, soloist
  • … a wonderful violin maker, a true artist, always researching, never blindly copying anything, but following his highest aesthetic standards based on profound knowledge of the whole culture and spirit of the baroque period (among others). The fantastic Violoncello da Spalla, reborn by him, is a great instrumental challenge and musical inspiration for me. Many thanks, again!

    Sergey Malov
    Sergey Malov Soloist