Interview with Fernandez violons

making good use of the confinement to discover music for Violoncello da Spalla, write music for Violoncello da Spalla, and offer it to the world!

During the past pandemic, I discovered videos on YouTube by François Fernandez and Yun Kim Fernandez, and I was caught from their elegance and their joyful playing. They now enthusiastically agreed to share with us their story with Violoncello da Spalla. This interview came out packing more information than I could imagine, so I am equally enthusiastic about sharing it with you readers!

How (and when) did you meet the Violoncello da Spalla?

François: Before 2000, I happened to cross Mr Lambert Smit, a senior who was a baroque viola student of Sigiswald Kuijken in The Hague (NL), this avant-garde man was a connoisseur of Mattheson and other treatises promoting this type of basses. He owned two spalla, offered to sell me one of them, but I was not attracted yet… Later, at a luthier’s place in Liège, I saw a lovely small cello, for kids, in pieces, needing severe restoration. I asked my pupil Dmitry Badiarov to come from Bruxelles to Liège, so he would tell me if he could turn this cute instrument into a five-string piccolo-cello.

But he said that some young kid would deserve this cute instrument when restored. And started to make spallas himself!… Back then, getting correct strings seemed impossible to me, so it took some time before I started. But I did « try » a prototype made by a Cornetto player, then gradually becoming a luthier, Jean-Paul Boury. He organised a Rosenmuller concert, in which he wanted his prototype to sound solistic for five mn, during which a pupil would replace me on the violin. But I preferred her to play all the program on violin, and in 3 days, I might be able to be ok, on all the bass lines of the concert. To my surprise, I did better than if I had played them on gamba, which I had been amateur on, for years…

Then in 2005, I joined Bach Collegium Japan in Tokyo to record Brandenburg Concertos (next to Dmitry Badiarov and Ryo Terakado).

Yun: It was in 2008, Sigiswald came to Korea and played a concert on this instrument. There was also a small workshop on the Spalla followed by the concert. Back then, I was a modern violinist who was very much interested in Baroque music and listened all the concerts and workshops happening in Seoul. It was interesting, and it opened my sight on music in general, but I did not at all imagine myself playing it someday. But at the same time, there was a luthier who was totally inspired by this instrument, and he started to build one. Long story short, this instrument is the one I am playing now.

Conntreviolon, Pomposa, Cello da Spalla: these are often used as interchangeable terms or instruments. Could you tell in a few words the differences between these terms and instruments, how would you use them correctly?

Let us first list what we have crossed so far:

Fagottgeige,

Schultergeige,

Schulter viole,

Basset geige,

Bass-Geigen,

Hand Basse,

Brust-Geige,

Bassettgen (J.S.Bach)

"Bassell oder Bassette"(L.Mozart)

Viola di basso(Bach),

Viola (di) fagotto,

Viola da Spalla,

Bassetto,

Bassetto viola (Colombi)

Violoncello da collo (Pallavicino opera)

Violoncello da (di) Spalla « a la moderna » (in 5ths, Bismantova),

Viola di collo,

Viola Pomposa,

Violoncello Piccolo,

violonzino,

violoncino,

Violoncello da braccia (Breitkopf in 1762),

Contre-violon & Basset: 2 terms found in the French translation of Quantz’s treatise (1752).

Violotto (Dall’abaco) (thank you for this last one!).

Which is which? Were they all the same? All very different?

NO SLIGHT IDEA!

And since organologists from one of the most prominent instrumental museums (the MIM of Brussels) ask our help when they are lost, laking iconography, we can happily conclude:

WE WILL NEVER KNOW! And we are AS FREE as back then….

A few words about your instruments: You play a couple of instruments made on big viola models, with, of course, deeper ribs. Where does this idea come from?

François: I always preferred Italian typed instruments, so mine is after Andrea Guarneri, built by Jean-Paul Boury in 2009.

Yun: My spalla is built by Jae-wook Han in 2013 as I mentioned before, Mr. Han was very much inspired by the visit of Sigiswald, and he started to build a «bass instrument for a violinist ». The general style of this instrument is influenced by Jacob Steiner.

Did you ever come across original French instruments, or original French music? (I interviewed earlier this year Mark Wickersham, who plays a couple of instruments made from or connected to Guersan, who held violin making workshop to entertain the French court. To me, it’s curious that amateur nobles men made cellos da Spalla instead of violins. Did you come across any news of this practice?)

François: We wish to cross originals. We have had no chance to play any, so far. One of our dreams would be to play on the so-called TENORE by Stradivari. The strangely sized violins in Franco-Belgian history that we find in the museum today are more likely Taille or Quinte de violon. Brossard said, « the Italian violoncello is properly our (French) quinte de violon or a small basse de violon in 5 or 6(?!!) strings ». We have never yet crossed six-stringed basse de violon, nor a repertoire written for the quinte (or taille) de violon as a solo instrument.

« Original French music »… As Guignon’s cello duets op. 2 are so clumsy on modern size « cellos », and he being a violinist, we guess he played like us, but: no guaranty! Only our pleasure is.

We are eager to know what they really did, but are pessimistic on that matter, it is true: some of the truth might come out one day, but it will never tell what was most widely done.

Yun: Maybe the cello duets by Guignon were played in the French court because he was the concertmaster who supervised all the artistic events in the court. When we discovered this opus, we found it very interesting how it presents the title on the cover page: « VI SONATES A DEUX VIOLONCELLES » written in very big letters, then « Basses de viole ou Bassons » written in diminuendo. Before, we have rather tried some repertoires for bassoon on spalla. Then we found a book of cello duets which can be a big challenge to play on the big cellos!

Which bow are you using for your spallas?

François: African black wood clip-in bow by Jérôme Gastaldo, Brussels

Yun: Yew wood clip-in bow also by Jérôme Gastaldo Brussels

Sometimes the Violoncello da Spalla of François has frets on it. Is there some historical evidence of this practice, and why did you choose it?

François: I didn’t cross specific historical evidence, but a practical one: if we tune small 5ths (in meantone temperament), in order to reach a pure third do-mi in our extreme open strings, then the resonances of the instrument are multiple. A third finger G on the middle string can sound beautiful (or more beautiful) when played too high, that is a pure 5th on the low C, which is much higher than the G we should play, the one which should sound as pure octave on the open string G. The resonances have two sides, beauty, fore sure, but also intonation problems. Frets help a bit: even more resonance, slightly less intonation flows. It was used by beginner violinists (attested by Playford, 1654), and amateurs in general. The descriptions which reached us are very superficial, so if frets were effectively used, or not, we would not necessarily know. Also, a constant in baroque is diversity, it is fine if we all try different approaches.

For sure, hybridisations didn’t scare anybody back in baroque times!

Yun: I finally put the frets, too. I was very skeptical in the beginning because we hadn’t crossed any historical evidence. As I tried them the first time, they bothered me so much, especially for the shiftings. But it eventually helps for my tiny fingers to stop the thick strings with less effort and to play more in tune. I don’t play this instrument every day like the violin. When I pick it up after a while, it definitely helps to find it back. So… why not?

On YouTube, you presented mainly French repertoire. Could you suggest to our readers where to dig for more French repertoire? In the gamba sonatas? Which are the main authors that come first to your mind?

We meant to let discover pieces that were unfairly left aside, and we had much time (Covid) to spend on the internet, comparing many cello duets (confinement…). Like Sigiswald Kuijken, we believe the word « violoncello » first applied to smaller instruments, so, 17th-century virtuosic «cello » repertoire, is what we would dig in deeper -at the moment- rather than French 2 gambas music, for instance.

How is currently the French scene of Violoncello da Spalla? Would you describe it as a naive niche or a raising movement?

Hard to know precisely, but I would say: France is a bit in both!

Do you have experiences with Violoncello da Spalla in South Korea, and how is the awareness about it there? Unfortunately, we come from a prolonged period without much travelling possibility. However, you have many connections around the world. How would you describe the awareness (and potentialities) of Violoncello da Spalla in different continents now?

François: 3 years ago, I played Vivaldi’s « La Follia » in Korea on Yun’s Spalla. It got a stormy applause, but how is it today? We guess you will get the X-ray view on Asia -considered your active connecting- much quicker than us, since we would like to calm down our too many, and far too distant, travels.

Yun: Since 2008, we have had a few European musicians who visited and played the Spalla in Korea. Because I left Seoul in 2010, I don’t know how it developed since then. Still, as there are more and more classical violinists who pay attention to the historical information in Baroque music, I am sure that there will be some violinists who are charmed by this little instrument which gives you a totally different voice.

A question for François about playing gamba vs Spalla: do you feel it’s correct to assume that “middle-sized instruments” (those between our cello and viola of today) were played da spalla or da gamba as per the technique of the player in a specific occasion (e.g., Bach cantata, Bach giving the instrument cello piccolo to the player he had at that particular occasion, so sometimes a violinist, sometimes a cellist), or that cellists were so skilled to be able to play in different positions depending on the space and position (balcony and procession vs large halls)? In other words, between the two ideas of violinists that also played the cello on the shoulder vs cellists playing da gamba and da Spalla, which is the most convincing for you?

François: « Bach’s Continuo group » is a fantastic book by Laurence Dreyfus, in which it is stipulated that separate violoncello piccolo parts always belonged to the concertmaster’s (violinist) separate parts, not in the basses parts. For the rest, musicians tried to be convincing in many ways, I heard Christophe Coin play the violin between his legs, and: fine with me! The more ways, the better. But I tried to play a « regular » modern cello-sized instrument, da braccio, and considered my achievements after 2 hours of tryings: disastrous, never again!

Your future project with it?

Yun: François will play in a week, at Souvigny Festival. He will play three pieces (BWV 1027, BWV 1030, and TWV 41:D6) on Spalla with Benjamin Alard on the harpsichord. The organization of the festival asked for a whole program on spalla and harpsichord!

In 2022, I am invited to play Brandenburg no.3 in the Netherlands and in Japan.

Plus, we have some ideas to continue uploading videos on YouTube. ;)

I was hoping for this, thank you! and thanks for this interview!

If you still didn’t see it, check out their 13th Brandembourg concert, new music written for Viola d’amore and Violoncello da Spalla: I particularly like the part of the spalla in the 2nd movement, siciliano.


Updates from our workshop

This week Alessandro was busy with the orchestra, but he also signed his retirement, so in four months he will be a luthier full time! This week was also the beginning of our martial arts club, Alessandro is. Judo teacher and I am a karate teacher, and we have this little club in Meltina, South Tyrol. So, our two instruments didn’t get on much this week I’m afraid! I finished the pegbox and started to shape de blocks.