The Violoncelli of Antonio Stradivari

by Christopher Reuning

Although Antonio Stradivari is best known for developing a large-sized concert violin, his design for a solo cello was no less important an accomplishment. While Stradivari experimented with many different violin forms before settling on his golden-period dimensions, his path to the “forma B” violoncello was more direct.

During the 16th and throughout the 17th centuries, the Cremonese makers, including Stradivari, fundamentally followed a large Amati design, which produced cellos over 31 inches in body length. These instruments were intended for continuo playing and would not have been suitable for the rigors of solo playing that cellists came to demand. As a result, almost all these instruments have been reduced in size, most during the 19th century, to make them more comfortable for virtuoso playing. Of the more than 20 cellos Stradivari made in the 17th century, only two remain uncut. The first, the especially pure “Medici” of 1690, on display at the Istituto Cherubini in Florence, retains a body length over 31 inches. The other, the 1697 “Castelbarco,” in the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., is of similar dimensions.

By the last decade of the 17th century, several Amati followers began to adapt their models to meet the demands of the evolving music and virtuosity of the cellists. Francesco Rugeri, Andrea Guarneri, and Giovanni Battista Rogeri in nearby Brescia, together with their respective sons, produced smaller cellos in the 29-inch range. Stradivari, however, was slower to adapt and did not change his model until about a decade later. One of the first examples is the 1700 “Cristiani” cello, displayed in the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona, which is larger than what Stradivari’s contemporaries were making at the time, yet smaller than the master’s previous instruments, with a body length just over 30 inches. Stradivari maintained the general shape and proportions of his earlier cellos but constructed the “Cristiani” to a smaller scale.

The following year, however, Stradivari reverted to a large-size instrument with the 1701 “Servais” cello, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This uncut cello differs from Stradivari’s earlier productions in that the edges have thicker dimensions, which lend it a more masculine appearance.

Six years later, Stradivari emerged with an entirely new design that can be considered one of his most important achievements. The 1707 “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” was made in the first year we can reliably date a Stradivari cello built on his forma B pattern. This new cello measured a bit less than 30 inches in body length, but more significantly had a different and somewhat narrower outline than Stradivari’s earlier cellos and a shorter, more manageable body stop. Critical to the tonal success of the new creation was that most forma B cellos had ribs even taller than Stradivari’s previous large instruments. The Hill brothers wrote in their landmark 1902 publication, Antonio Stradivari, His Life & Work, about the forma B cellos:

“They stand alone in representing exact dimensions necessary for the production of a standard of tone which combines the maximum power with the utmost refinement of quality, leaving nothing to be desired: bright, full and crisp, yet free from any suspicion of either nasal or metallic tendency.”

Stradivari went on to make a series of these masterpieces over the following two decades, of which just 20 remain (though three have had their tops replaced). Although the forma B cellos were quite uniform in outline, they differed somewhat in rib heights, arching heights, and other stylistic characteristics. Most were made with backs of quarter cut maple with strong, attractive flames, but several have poplar or willow backs.

During the ensuing centuries, these cellos have been owned by the leading artists and most discerning collectors of their times. Today, despite their rarity and high value, examples of the forma B have been the “Platonic ideal” and preferred instrument of the top rank of performing artists, including Jacqueline Du Prè, Rocco Fillipini, Amaryllis Fleming, Martin Lovett, Zara Nelsova, Yo Yo Ma, Gregor Piatagorsky, Carlos Prieto, Mstislav Rostropovich, Heinrich Schiff, and Bernard Greenhouse.

After 1726, Stradivari and his sons redesigned the cello form yet again, using a considerably narrower and slightly shorter model they called the “forma B piccola.” It seems that Stradivari’s son, Francesco, had a hand in designing the new model as evidenced by the handwriting on the form’s paper patterns, which reside in the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona. For the next several years, Antonio and his sons made a series of examples of this form, of which six remain, including the c. 1730 “De Munck” that was the chosen instrument of the legendary Emanuel Feuermann and, later, Aldo Parisot.

Finally, Stradivari and his workshop, then probably assisted by Carlo Bergonzi, made cellos of another shape with even shorter body lengths, some as small as just over 27 inches. Six of these cellos remain; the British cellist William Pleeth owned the best known example, made in 1732.

According to the Hill brothers, the famous Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti, who during his life owned the fine forma B Stradivari cello from 1720 that bears his name – as well as many of the world’s great cellos by other Italian makers – said,

“I have at times become enamored at the sight of a fine instrument, have been impressed by its beauty, and when I have become its owner I have tried to believe that its tone equaled that of many Stradivari. Time, however, has invariably seen me return to my old friend with a feeling of satisfaction difficult to explain. True, the differences of tone between my Stradivari and other recognized fine instruments are subtle, but I can only say that I obtain from the former a depth and nobility of tone which ever affords me a sense of contentment; in fact, there is a something unattainable elsewhere.”

The “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” cello head with Stradivari paper pattern overlay.

Stradivari’s paper pattern for his “forma B” pegbox and scroll.

Image: Museo Stradivariano – MS 276 forma B

Stradivari’s paper pattern the design and placement of his “forma B” soundhole.

Image: Museo Stradivariano – MS 272 recto

The “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” soundhole.