Giovanni Battista Vitali, Musico di Violone da brazzo
Introducing “da spalla” bass playing at the Accademia di San Petronio, Bologna!
As an introduction to today’s topic, I copy and paste here part of a Wikipedia article:
Vitali played a bowed stringed bass instrument but, due to the shifting terminology in use at the time, this is referred to under various names. When he joined the orchestra of the San Petronio Basilica in 1658, his name was entered in the records of the orchestra under the heading ‘Violoni’, paid 10 lira. However, in the records for 1664 he is referred to as ‘Suonatore di Violonline [sic]’. According to Bonta, ‘violonline’ refers to the same instrument as ‘violoncino’ – which is also mentioned in the 1658 list, but with no connection to Vitali. On the title pages of the first five of Vitali’s publications, he calls himself ‘Sonatore di Violone da Brazzo’ or ‘Musico di Violone da Brazzo’. From his Salmi concerti, Opus 6 (1677), onwards, and in later reprints of the Opp. 1–5, after his appointment to the Modenese court, he calls himself ‘Vice Maestro di Capella’, with no reference to the instrument he played. When a description of the instruments a publication is intended for is given on the title page and includes a melodic bass instrument, the generic term ‘violone’ is always used.
During the time Vitali was at the San Petronio Basilica, the size of the orchestra changed relatively little: typically the records state that the orchestra consisted of three violins, two or three violas, two violoni (Vitali himself and Domenico Vincenzo Colonna) and one to two theorbos  Vitali does not appear in the records for 1674, having resigned that year and left for Modena. There seems not to have been an immediate replacement for him that year, but in 1675 Petronio Franceschini (1651–1680) was appointed and listed separately as ‘Violoncello’ – the first documented use of this term in Bologna. The bowed bass section of the San Petronio orchestra at this point therefore comprised Colonna on violone and Franceschini on violoncello. In 1676, presumably to better distinguish between the two instruments, the term ‘Violone’ is replaced by ‘Violone grosso’, and Colonna is listed as playing it. The fact that this distinction in terminology was not deemed necessary earlier implies that Vitali was playing the same instrument as Colonna (the ‘Violone grosso’, not the ‘Violoncello’). After Franceschini’s death his position was filled by Domenico Gabrielli (1659–1690) who was among the first virtuoso cellists – so this orchestra position is now clearly reserved for a ‘cellist.
New techniques in producing gut strings wound with metal wire took place in Bologna during the 1660s. It is probable that the wide variety of terminology in use was due in part to the experimentation with bowed bass instruments capable of producing good lower notes without the need for long string lengths due to these developments. Other terms in use at the time include the viola da spalla, a cello or smaller bowed bass instrument which was held at the shoulder and rested on the player’s lap, supported by a strap.
One of Vitali’s few surviving unpublished works is the Partite sopra diverse sonate, for ‘Violone’, ca. 1680. The style of the writing is much more clearly suited to the cello, which suggests that Vitali is still using ‘Violone’ as a general term for bowed bass.
About this last consideration, you can draw yourself your opinion downloading for free the manuscript at this link.
On the cover of his op.2, published in 1671, G. B. Vitali defines himself: “Musico di Violone da brazzo”. In the light of this, I would not be so sure that he was playing the same instrument as Colonna, the very big Violone. On the opposite, the fact that his place was later reserved only for cellists could indicate that even Vitali was playing a smaller instrument, on the shoulder (da brazzo, played horizontally supported by the arm), with a role more melodic and virtuosic than the big Violone. I like to think that he introduced to the Accademia this kind of instrument (maybe to put himself at a higher step than his colleague Colonna 😬?), and they liked the new sonority and possibility that this gave to the continuo group, so they decided to reserve that place, after him, to a cellist (the ensemble in those years was very small, like 3 violins, 2 or 3 violas -one tenor-, and two violones).
Again in 1671, G. B. Vitali, together with other eight musicians, presented a petition to the Anziani (the governing council of Bologna) asking that to the Concerto Palatino (the wind band of the town who had the privilege to accompany processions) could be added a band of viols (“banda di viole”), composed by themselves. This petition was accepted, but after two months declined “for lack of funds” (source).
News from da Spalla world
I finally re-edited my introductory book on Violoncello da Spalla.
The new edition not only has had corrections, but it was better adapted to Amazon’s standard formats so that now it has bigger characters and is more enjoyable to read.
The fun cartoons are maintained, as well as the casual style, so that everyone can read it with pleasure!
If you are a maker, having all the information at hand will help you better present your work to the customers. If you are a curious (or sceptic) player, this book will amaze you with the quantity of sources. And if you are ready a fan, why not buy some to better explain to concert managers and cultural organisations? Let’s spread the word together!
Updates from our workshop
We’re both working hard this week, despite the very hot weather! We are both at arching and thicknessing the plates of our instruments: Daniela’s Violoncello da Spalla and Alessandro’s big Gasparo viola!
Featured video of the week
Ryo Terakado at the Violoncello da Spalla (and violin) for this beautiful aria from Bach’s cantata BWN 147 “Bereite dir Jesu”