What to play on Violoncello da Spalla: Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco

Dall’Abaco was a cello virtuoso, but in which position did he play?

Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco was an Italian cellist and concertmaster from Verona.

He started studying the violin in his hometown. His talent was soon recognised, so he was sent to study with Tommaso Antonio Vitali, the famous violinist. When he came back, he was acclaimed as a virtuoso cellist. He is also believed to be a student of Torelli. As a cellist, he was hired by Prince Maximilian II of Bavaria to later become his concertmaster. Yes, a cellist concertmaster. 

This is a design I made including the capital letter created by Buffagnotti (amateur cellist, pupil of Jacchini) for the cello part of the “Concertino per camera a violino e violoncello” op. 4 by Torelli. You can buy stickers and other gadgets with this design at the Da Spalla Pride Shop

In the Estense Manuscript preserved in the National library in Wien, which we already mentioned as containing works by Caldara, there are also ten sonatas by E. F. Dall’Abaco. They are violin sonatas except for the last one, which is titled Sonata ma violotto

It needs a bit of an Italian lesson to make it clear:

Ma in Italian means “but”. It could be seen as a mistake, meaning “a” (=for), or intended to reinforce the fact that to play this, you have to change your violin for a violotto, as something like: this is a sonata as well, but it needs a violotto. 

Violotto is viol(a) with a suffix: -otto. Viol-ino is a little viola, Viol-one is a very big viola, Violon-cello is a violone but little and cute, Viol-otto suggests a viola a bit big and goofy, but in a cute way.

You can find this sonata at this link (unfortunately, no scan is available this time):


The key is changed here from G2 (in the preceding violin sonatas) to C4, and as Agnes Kory writes in her essay on tenor cello:

What kind of an instrument is the violotto, for which the clef had to be changed from G2 into C4? The A-g#' compass of this violotto part is that of the first position on the G-tuned tenor violin. Unless the violinist reading the C4 clef was meant to transpose up by an octave – there

may be a crossed-out ‘8’ in the manuscript – the part is impossible on the violin (which cannot accommodate pitches below the note g that is lower than a fourth below the middle c). As far as known, no description of any kind is available for an instrument called ‘violotto’. However, the notation in C4 tenor clef, the compass of this violotto part and its easy first position accommodation on the G-tuned tenor/bass suggest that the term ‘violotto’ may refer to our G-tuned instrument (in this particular sonata).

I would add to this that if it was to be played by a violin transposing one octave above, well, why not simply leaving the violin key? I suggest that this sonata was meant for a tenor viola, a tenor cello, or a violoncello da spalla tuned GDAE. And I leave you with this open question: in which position Dall’Abaco played the cello? Da Spalla or da gamba? He was a promising violinist, studied with famous violinists, to become an acclaimed virtuoso cellist, being hired as a cellist and concertmaster. 

Updates from our workshop

I loved so much the instrument that we shipped two weeks ago that I started to make me one. As now we have our official Instagram account, you can follow my progress there! @violoncellodaspalla

On Monday we went to a concert in a fantastic place, a castle just near where we live, owned by the heirs of the poet and musician Ezra Pound. They host a festival called Castel Cello, and they are eager to know more about violoncello da spalla. Ezra Pound, besides playing a harpsichord made by his friend Arnold Dolmetsch, was also a cellist, and his cello seemed to have a hole to be hanged on a strap, so to walk in procession with it. 

We have hopes that next year an event featuring cello da Spalla will be hosted in this unique venue!

Featured video of the week

Great sound in this Telemann sonata! No regrets there’s no big cello!