My most “precious” instrument is a beautiful old cello built by an unknown builder in the centre of violin making of Mirecourt in France, around 1870.
I bought it in May 1989 in the Netherlands. It has since been my companion, my musical identity.
Its sound is rich, dark and warm.
I had it restored in 2002 (see photos on the left)
As with any wooden instrument, it takes a lot of “pampering” in this climate to keep it in good shape. I have humidifiers in the case and try to keep the humidity in the house at 40%. That in itself is quite a challenge Edmonton, where the humidity in the winter often does not get above 10%!
The strings I currently use are Larsen. I keep changing my mind on those, but right now they are the best compromise between practicality and sound. I much prefer gut strings, but they are not practical in this climate.
I have always liked playing with a bent end pin. One benefit of Stahlhammer (now carbon fiber) is that you can push it into the cello, while I had to bring the previous pin, a now obsolete Tortelier pin to rehearsals and concerts in a separate bag: I had, on rare occasions, shown up without an endpin!
Josephine plays het Mirecourt cello
Baroque Cello Jay Haide
In October 2007 I drove down to Berkeley, California (2700 kilometres from Edmonton) to try out a few baroque instruments at Ifshin Violin. During my research into “affordable” baroque cellos that were good enough for a professional performer to use, I was many times directed to the Jay-Haide “a l’ancienne” instruments at Ifshin.
I have not been disappointed. The instrument I bought is a Montagnana model, built mostly at their own workshop in China and set up in California. These cellos are remarkable. The cello I play has a very deep sound. It projects wonderfully. I am very, very happy with it.
Recording Bach Suites on her baroque cello
Violoncello Piccolo Jay Haide
In April 2008 I drove to California once again, this time to the brand new store of Ifshin violin in El Cerrito, to pick up a violoncello piccolo.
I had commissioned the building of a piccolo cello. This was quite a challenge, since sizes were never standardized for this instrument (a 5 string small baroque cello for which Bach wrote his 6th solo suite, among other things).
You can read more on that discussion on my blog: www.josephinevanlier.blogspot.com
The instrument that I decided to have built would be roughly the size of a ¾ baroque cello, but as thick as a full size instrument. This would give the instrument more air volume, and thus more bass than would be common for a smaller sized instrument. It also would have 5 strings.
At Ifshin they liked the challenge and 6 months after the order was placed, I drove home with a brand new instrument.
Playing this little cello is a very special experience. Its sound is in many ways closer to that of a viola da Gamba. The high e-string gives it a little bit of a “silver” sound, rather than the “golden” sound often used to describe the cello’s sonority.
Playing this is so much fun too! The 6th Bach suite is suddenly quite easy to play, considering how brutally difficult it is to play on a regular cello. All of the Boccherini sonatas are suddenly sight reading material, and Vivaldi concertos are amazing on this cello.
Both the Jay-Haide baroque cello and the violoncello piccolo have gut strings (Aquila strings). The bottom strings are wound with silver; the top strings are plain gut.
They are also tuned lower than the modern instruments: A= 415, rather than A=440.
The Violoncello Piccolo has 5 strings
Carbon Fibre Cello Luis & Clark #117
In December 2005 I bought a carbon fibre cello. (Luis & Clark)
For quite some time, I had wanted to purchase a cello that I could safely use for teaching; my 1870 Mirecourt cello suffered quite seriously from being picked up and put down a thousand times a day, not to mention being dropped against the stand, I confess. However, I could never find an instrument for a reasonable price (i.e. under $10,000) that I liked well enough to play all day. Every time I tried a new instrument, I desperately missed my own cello after a few days.
This cello exceeded my expectations. It is easy to play and sounds very, very good. For two years after I bought it, I played it exclusively, much to my own surprise. The instrument projects very easy, sounds free and responds quickly, much more so than any wooden instrument. It sounds a little bit as if it has a “built in amplifier”.
The strengths of this instrument are at the same time its weaknesses;
Every time you pick up the instrument, it sounds and responds exactly the same as the time before. This means that you always know what to do to make it sound a certain way. It also means that you don’t hear the “struggle” which one often has on a wooden instrument, which arguably gives the music “character”.
It is super-easy to play. This means that I can play things on this instrument that I barely can play on my Mirecourt. But that also means that I tend to take higher tempi, and generally tend to make a performance a more “technical” one, rather than musical.Depending on the repertoire this issometimes great, sometimes terrible.
On my blog I discuss this issue a little more in depth.
It sounds “amplified”. While this is great when playing background music at a party where alcohol is flowing generously, it isn’t always great when you are trying to blend and colour with other string instruments. Wind and brass players love it though.
Right now I play each instrument about equally. While teaching I mostly use the carbon fibre cello, depending on the repertoire I am working on with the student. I find it very difficult to play basso continuo for a baroque sonata on a carbon fibre cello. That just sounds “wrong”!
The choice of which instrument I will play on any given concert depends on a variety of things.
The repertoire is the main consideration:
When playing “classical” concerts, I mostly use the Mirecourt and for contemporary music I often take the carbon fibre cello.
The weather is another consideration: If the temperature outside drops below -25 Celsius, and thus the humidity drops to below 10%, I am much more comfortable bringing the carbon fibre cello, though I don’t always do that.
When I have to fly somewhere the choice is easy: the carbon fibre cello is indestructible, so it can go with the luggage. In March 2008 I had a performance in London, to which I brought my carbon fibre cello. Even though Air Canada had promised to hand carry the instrument in and out of the plane and put it on the belt for fragile items (they had no idea this was not a fragile wooden cello): it came tumbling down the regular luggage belt and even landed on the bridge... Needless to say; I nearly had a heart attack. But the cello was not even out of tune!
I wrote an article in the Alberta String Association newsletter on the Luis and Clark cello in the summer 2006 issue
Easy travelling with a carbon fibre instrument
The modern cello and the baroque cello have a special seat, and....
... the carbon fiber cello is quite happy on the cargo belt and never gets out of tune.
It should be noted that this analysis is just a generalized presentation for interest to the listeners. A thorough scientific acoustical analysis would require stringent experimental and analysis guidelines, which are beyond the scope of this particular article. But some interesting facts are illuminated by the material presented, and may be interesting to those so inclined to search for more explanations of the similarities and differences between the sound of each cello.
This playlist shows the Courante of Suite nr 5 by Bach three times. Each recorded with a different instrument.
In the spring of 2005, I went shopping for a new bow.
I had always been quite happy with the Roderich Paesold bow, which I had given a good workout since 1987. But in the last few years I had wanted more and realized that my bow was holding me back.
I had, over the years, tried many bows of different bow makers. I tried contemporary bows, and old bows. I decided to have several bows from several different bow makers shipped to me, to try out.
Roy Quade from Calgary came to deliver a number of his bows in person. I sat down and just felt the bows, as I had done hundreds of times before.
The weight is very important, and it is usually during that initial "feel" that you already know which bows you probably would, or more importantly: would not, like to try. I immediately discarded one rather heavy bow.
I played all the others, about a dozen or so. They were great, but not what I was looking for.
So I decided, just for fun, to give the heavy one a try…
It blew me away. It was amazing. I knew right away that this was going to be my bow! It seemed to loose its weight on my cello completely. I could play things I did not expect I could play!
It changed the speed and ease with which I could play!
I tried it out for a several weeks and then, of course, I bought it.
It is one of Roy Quade’s “maple leaf” bows. A golden maple leaf is set in the frog.
In addition to being a great bow to play, the quality of workmanship of Roy Quade's bows is far superiour to the bows of any other contemporary bow maker that I have played.
Since then I have heard many people compliment me on the sound of my cellos. Little do most people know what an important role my bow plays in that sound!
On my Luis and Clark Cello my Quade bow shines as well. It responds remarkably well to the carbon fibre.
The combination instrument/bow is inextricably bound. So when I purchased the Luis and Clark cello, I took a gamble whether any of the 9 instruments that I ordered for myself and my students, would respond well to my Quade bow. I am very happy and relieved that they did!
Not only had I found the perfect bow to match my Mirecourt Cello; My Luis and Clark #117 has proven to be a perfect match for the bow as well!
In December 2007 a television crew from “career TV” made a documentary on Roy Quade, and interviewed me for it. You can see it here:
The Roy Quade bow is amazing
Documentary on bow maker Roy Quade, featuring Josephine van Lier
CareerTV January 2007
Cello Baroque Bow Basil de Visser
In December 2008 I bought a baroque bow. Over the preceding months I had tried out very many bows form builders all over North America, and like with the search for my modern bow; it was not easy.
When I received a shipment of bow from two Dutch bow makers, it took me only a few moments to realize that I had found the bow for me. The bow was made by Basil de Visser in Amsterdam(www.baroquebows.com/). It is wonderful! It goes well with both of my baroque instruments, and also with my Mirecourt in spite of the steel strings I currently use!