(Originally posted on October 30, 2010)
This is a dream instrument for any violinists and violists who want to play the cello. And this is the dream instrument for a guy like me who wants to do Bach cantatas that call for this instrument. It is, for me, a quite essential instrument! Sure, you can go buy a chin-cello to play some cello pieces if you are a violinist/violist. But this instrument has an E string that chin-cello doesn’t have, and it is more like a smaller cello while the chin-cello is just like a huge viola. This instrument is often called the violoncello piccolo [da spalla (shoulder)], or the viola da spalla [J.G. Walther (1732): Viola di Spala]. Another name that’s often associated with this instrument is the viola pomposa— and that’s how the owner of this instrument calls it.
This instrument was built in 1927 by Wilhelm Busch, father of Adolf Busch. It is now owned by the luthier’s great-granddaughter Judith Serkin who is one of those special Marlboro people I look forward to seeing every summer. It is a treasure instrument of the Serkins, and I’m privileged to keep and maintain it for the year — I suppose she understood how special and significant for me to have access to this special and rare instrument. I can’t thank her enough for this opportunity…!
I know that several luthiers around the world are building the piccolo cellos that you hold horizontally, though before 2004 they were something you got to see only in museums. And this current trend of building/playing this unique instrument was started by Dmitry Badiarov, an excellent luthier and a violinist. He first built one for baroque violinist Sigiswald Kuijken after carefully studying the surviving piccolo cellos in museums, and since then, he’s been building them and performing on them fairly constantly. In fact, Dmitry Badiarov is the one who played this instrument in some of the Bach Collegium Japan recordings that call for the violoncello piccolo. Again, it is a new trend — the shoulder piccolo cellos that have been played currently around the world are mostly made by Dmitry and other luthiers who start building them after Dmitry.
This Busch instrument is quite unique in the sense that it was built several decades before Sigiswald went to Dmitry challenging him to make a shoulder cello, when there was no “working” instrument of this kind around. And even in the museums you don’t find the piccolo cellos of this size often…
From the dimensions of this instrument, it is likely that Wilhelm modeled it after the original instrument from 1732 built by Johann Christian Hoffmann (J.S. Bach’s friend) which is now stored in the instrument museum in Leipzig. If I’m not mistaken, it is one of those instruments Dmitry studied to design his instruments. I don’t know what made Wilhelm Busch to make one, but it is plausible that Adolf Busch, his son, needed one to play in a cantata concert. Or perhaps he had the vision to assess its value in the future… and perhaps he was a huge Bach fan…!
I’ve been spending a lot of money and time (for me, that is) to revive this instrument after years of hibernation in the beautiful yet heavy wood case. It would be such a pity if I couldn’t use it in performances while I have access to it. Since I came back from Japan, I’ve been reading lots of documents on this instrument, including Dmitry’s writings that are very helpful. I have acquired a baroque cello bow, imported a set of strings from Italy, and custom-ordered a few more strings. Oh, yes, and I made myself a leather neck strap for it, and finally said good-bye to the pink rope that I was using in Marlboro.
It’s getting there. It’s getting there but it could get really frustrating— The Italian D-string snapped in less than 48 hours after stringing, and the Italian C-string also snapped in two weeks. They were double-wound strings, and the core gut was actually much thinner than the normal silver single-wound strings of the same gauges. I put back on the D-string that I bought back in August that doesn’t work too well, and I put on the old C-string that came with the instrument that won’t speak at all due to insufficient tension. The trial of a silver-gimped string (a silver wire twisted into the gut to add weight) from Dan Larson, which arrived just yesterday, went relatively well, though the string is a bit stiffer than I like. And I’m waiting for the custom C-string that would work under 6kg of tension, also from Dan Larson, to arrive so that I can unstring this miserable C-string from decades ago… Trial and error is what this is. I wonder if I can ever be satisfied with this instrument— but I’ve come so far. This is so much better than before. The new C-string will make it a whole lot better, hopefully, and then I’ll focus more on playing it. I hope that I get to test the Italian “loaded” strings (copper powder mixed into gut to add weight) for the D before I return it to Judith… I need to work extra to be able to afford those strings, but I’ll do it! I can’t stop now! I need to be playing it and performing on it…!