The viol and violin families may have begun life around the same time, but their origins are entirely distinct: the viol consort, sharing a common ancestor with the guitar, is a refined, voice-imitating indoors group, capable of subtle, delicate sounds; the violin family, descended from the medieval fiddle, was a robust, extrovert dance band combo, belonging to the street, not really fit for polite society, except when bashing out Pavans and Galliards.
Bass viol and cello are roughly the same size and held in similar ways. The cello feels heavier as the back is carved from a large, thick piece of wood, which gives it greater power and a more immediate, punchy articulation.
The bass viol was the virtuoso of the viol family, and there’s little evidence that the great players had any inclination to play the cello. The cello lagged behind the violin in the virtuoso stakes until a revolution in string technology meant that the instrument itself could be made small enough to play with some dexterity (when it became known by the diminutive ‘violoncello’, shortened to cello); and even then it was many years before it rose to the heights of such pieces as the Haydn concertos.
‘The cello descended from the medieval fiddle, an outdoors instrument for dancing, not really fit for polite society’
But the two instruments were seen increasingly as in competition, especially in France, where in 1740 Hubert le Blanc wrote his treatise called D.fense de la basse de viole contre les entreprises du violon et les pr.tentions du violoncelle, trying, Canute-like, to hold back the tide that was turning against the sophisticated, but weaker-sounding viol, and ever more in favour of the robust cello.
Many players today find no difficulty in playing both instruments – Christophe Coin and Richard Tunnicliffe spring to mind – adapting their technique at the drop of a bow. The bow-hold itself is, perhaps surprisingly, the most significant difference, even though the viol may have seven strings tuned mostly in fourths, the cello’s four tuned in fifths. At one time, players shared an underhand bowhand (as late as 1770 Charley Burney noted that Tartini’s favourite cellist Antonio Vandini, held ‘the bow in the old-fashioned way with the hand under it.’) But the cello’s overhand grip won out, giving unrivalled ability to articulate short notes (spiccato) something far harder to achieve on the viol. Still, underhand bowing has an indefinable subtlety, and the lighter-strung viol an ability to shade at the quieter end of the spectrum that eludes the cello…