I get to help make music and get to be so close to where musical miracles happen

Koji Otsuki on violoncello da spalla: It’s from a sincere love for J. S. Bach’s work that came the perfect tool to teach and to communicate on stage.

My passion has always been the works of J.S. Bach. I love all things Bach (not so much with his sons, though), and I even produce my own Bach T-shirts using his manuscript as the main design element. But what excites me the most as a musician is to perform Bach cantatas as a conductor with the musicians I respect and admire—I get to help make music and get to be so close to where musical miracles happen. As a Bach church cantata enthusiast, I’ve known about those violoncello piccolo obbligato parts. Still, whenever I planned and organized Bach cantata concerts in my youth, I avoided those cantatas as it was not easy to find the instrument (any five-string cello, for that matter). But those violoncello piccolo obbligato arias and Choral movements are either very charming or stunningly beautiful (or both!), and I had always wanted to perform the cantatas that call for it.

When I was a conducting instructor at a university in Philadelphia, after getting my master’s degree in Choral Conducting, I felt the urge to leave there to immerse myself in the practical Bach study. And I went to Tokyo to study with Masaaki Suzuki, a Bach expert and the founding director of the internationally renowned Bach Collegium Japan. Then I met Masaaki’s younger brother Hidemi Suzuki, the principal cellist of his brother’s ensemble at that time. He truly changed my life. His continuo playing was like nothing else; when I saw him play the continuo, it was as if I could visually perceive the music. And he made me realize that good continuo playing can make everyone else sound better. An outstanding continuo player is really like an exceptional quarterback (arguably the most crucial position in all sports). He totally fascinated me.

It was one of Hidemi’s workshops in Tokyo in December 2005 where I heard the sound of the violoncello da spalla live for the first time. Dmitry Badiarov was the guest at the event, and he did a presentation with a brief performance of the Bach solo movements on his instrument. The sound and the possibility of the instrument got ingrained in me at that moment. But at that time, I was still recovering from the financial damage of purchasing a baroque violin a couple of years back, and it didn’t even occur to me to find a way to acquire the instrument for myself.

Fast-forwarding to 2010, I had gone back to school after returning to the US from Tokyo. It was the time I was procrastinating, after finishing my doctoral coursework in early music, to get qualified for the doctoral candidacy in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. I would submit the final project proposal to write a theologico-musicological paper on Bach’s cantatas, but I was discouraged by the musicology professors to pursue the subject matter due to the difficulty in obtaining good evidence. 

During the summer of that year, I was in southern Vermont as a music librarian at an international chamber music festival. I’m currently a year-around employee of this organization, but then I was just a summer festival staff. That was already my seventh summer at the festival. One day, I enjoyed a conversation with a senior cellist at my work in the music library. We talked about Bach. Then something prompted her to tell me that she owned a viola pomposa built by her great-grandfather. She described the instrument, and my eyes must have twinkled—she then brought in the instrument from her house to show it to me a few days later. It was precisely like the J.C. Hoffmann instrument from the Musical Instrument Museum of the Universität Leipzig. It didn’t have any playable strings on, and it came with a modern cello bow. But she brought me some strings that I could use for it, and I got obsessed with it. She entrusted her treasure instrument with me that summer. Since it did not come with a strap, I had to make an ad hoc strap with a pink rope that I could find. I checked the string envelopes that she brought to figure out the maker of its strings and ordered a full set from him. By the end of the summer, the instrument got somewhat playable, and the senior cellist was very happy to see that her instrument was getting played again and that I looked so happy with it. She ended up allowing me to keep it for the year, and my obsession with the instrument escalated. I was then still playing the baroque violin, but I had never really considered myself an instrumentalist—conducting came naturally to me, but I wasn’t too comfortable playing. But with the violoncello da spalla, I truly felt that I finally found my voice in it. It was so much fun to play. And it made me realize that it can make two of my dreams come true—one is to play the continuo, and the other to perform cantatas with the violoncello piccolo part!

Returning the instrument to her in summer 2011 was very hard. But she was gracious enough to let me keep it for another year, saying that I should do something about it if I love it so much. So I acted upon it. I contacted several luthiers about the possibility of commissioning, but in the end, going to Dmitry was the right option for me, and in early October in 2012, I visited him in the Hague to receive my instrument. It was such a quick two-day trip from Philadelphia to the Netherlands!

Now I consider it my main instrument. I neither get nor seek the opportunities to play in public frequently, but I do perform on it from time to time. How it has enabled me so far, though, is just extraordinary. I was never comfortable giving masterclass and lectures with my violin and bow in my hands to demonstrate things, but it’s fun to teach with the violoncello da spalla. I can accompany a violin/viola student to underscore harmony, and I can play duos with a cello student. It has become the conduit for my passion and knowledge to flow through. It eventually took me to several different places in Japan, Taiwan, and China for teaching/performing engagements. I was a short-term visiting professor at a local university of the arts in Japan in Fall 2018, and I taught Bach lessons to the string students for two whole months solely on the violoncello da spalla. Since I don’t teach the instrumental techniques, and rather I teach the baroque musical idioms, contexts, and concepts, it just worked for me—since it was neither the violin, viola, nor the regular cello.

Now you kind of know that I had procrastinated for a decade to finish my doctorate. I’m embarrassed! Well, thanks to the delayed process, I was able to choose the subject that I loved working on—Bach’s violoncello piccolo! And I really couldn’t have done it without the senior cellist at the summer chamber music festival in southern Vermont, the excellent Hoffmann book that came out in 2015, and the one and only, Daniela Gaidano!

Going through the whole research and writing process, today, I am convinced that Bach’s violoncello piccolo was NOT a typical violoncello da spalla in size at that time. Sure, there were those tenor violins, but they were without the C strings—the C string is what made the Hoffmann instruments identifiable as violoncelli. That is to say that Bach considered the Hoffmann-size instrument to be significantly smaller than what the term violoncello signified then (including violoncello da spalla)—hence the term violoncello PICCOLO. Violoncelli came in different sizes, shapes, and the number of strings, but the term violoncello piccolo can be found only in Bach’s materials during his lifetime, nowhere else—that’s right, it’s not historically accurate to call any five-string cello a violoncello piccolo. I believe that Bach specifically called for an unusually small violoncello [da spalla] of the Hoffmann size in his cantatas, not any violoncello da spalla. Therefore I personally like to call my Badiarov a violoncello piccolo.

I am also convinced that Bach did NOT intend the cello solo suite VI to be played on the Hoffmann-sized instrument. The accepted timeline of the cello suites doesn’t match with that of the violoncello piccolo. The writing of suite VI does not resemble the idiomatic writing for the violoncello piccolo from the church cantatas, or so I think. I’ve heard of the argument that suite VI has a chord in sarabande that can only be played on an instrument that small. Still, I’ve listened to many cellists play that particular chord on vertically-held five-string instruments beautifully and perfectly. It sure seems almost impossible to simultaneously place all four fingers for that specific chord on a larger five-string cello. But if you say you must stop all four strings from the beginning to the end of the execution of the chord, you are basically saying to a small-handed violinist that he/she should not play the solo sonatas and partitas. Besides, according to the National Geographic article from the September 2019 issue, Bach had enormous hands. He wouldn’t have required such a small instrument for himself to play his cello suites.

Do I believe it is historically accurate to perform just about any baroque cello repertoire on the Hoffmann-sized violoncello da spalla? Mmm, I don’t, really. Am I against the idea of using the Hoffmann-sized instrument for the baroque cello repertoire? Of course not! I’m all for it! I’m in the Historically Informed Performance business, but we don’t do historical reenactments; we make music! Today’s violoncello da spalla has, thanks to modern technology, an excellent C string that the actual Hoffmann instruments probably didn’t have. Why not utilize this unique and attractive instrument to the fullest!?

Koji Otsuki 

Philadelphia, April 2021

to read Koji’s dissertation about J. S. Bach’s Cantatas, click here:


Updates from our workshop

Today we settled our two latest instruments! We introduce you the Wagner and Alessandro’s violin in white. Just a few notes here:

Featured video of the week

In this video, unpublished until now, a practical expression of the miracle of making music: big cello and small cello singing together. Our deepest thanks to Koji Otsuki