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Tracing Back to the World’s Oldest Known Cello

Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting a special summer guest: the world’s oldest known cello. Known as the Amati “King” cello, the 16th-century instrument is on loan from the National Music Museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota.

Andrea Amati constructed the instrument in Cremona, Italy, and through his sons several generations would make the Amati name integral to stringed instrument evolution. “He influenced all of the violin makers up to this day, including Stradivari and Guarneri,” said Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose curator in charge in the Department of Musical Instruments. “He is credited with being the father of the modern violin. Before him there were all sorts of shapes and sizes, and he standardized things and also made templates so he could produce the instruments a bit faster. He really was the one who created the formula for violin making to this day.”

Displayed in the Met’s André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, the King cello is joined by two other Amati instruments: a viola on loan from the Sau-Wing Lam Collection, and a 1560 violin in the Met’s collections. The royal name refers to its commission for the court of King Charles IX of France, and the paint on the cello’s body echoes this history. A “K” topped with a crown refers to Charles IX (“Karolus”) and alongside words for piety (“pietate”) and justice (“ivsticia”) are emblazoned along with other royal symbols. Andrew Dipper, consultant conservator at the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, delved into the symbolism on the Met’s Of Note blog, also noting that the King cello “was not a singular invention, but rather a member of a larger family of instruments of fixed measurements related together by profound mathematical, geometrical, and acoustical relationships of size and tone, which gave the set the ability to perform, in unison, some of the world’s first orchestral music for bowed strings.”

Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

As it was a court instrument, the bass instrument was made for a chamber setting, with softer strings and gentler tones. “What you hear today is not what they sounded like back then, they were actually quite different,” Moore said. It was the reconfiguring of the instrument for more modern concert settings in 1801 that preserved it, especially in the wake of the French Revolution when it ended its court life. “The King cello was a much larger bass instrument,” Moore said. “They cut the instrument down and made it smaller, to make it more cello size, because the instrument it was before became obsolete. By cutting it down they actually saved this instrument.”

Evidence of the modification is in the neck, which was once perpendicular rather than at an angle for newer high tension strings, and the paintings on the back are misaligned, revealing the alterations. The Met actually has the only violin by Antonio Stradivari restored to its original Baroque design from later alterations, which the museum can use to compare modern and historic sounds.

The opportunity to bring the cello from the Vermillion, South Dakota, museum was helped along by Bill Clinton’s star-spangled saxophone. The cello journeyed with the presidential instrument that was already arriving for the Met’s Celebrating Sax: Instruments and Innovation. The National Music Museum may be off the beaten path for many museum visitors and music lovers, but through the Met loans some of its rich treasures are reaching a broader audience, and revealing some of the early history of the violin.

Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Amati “King” cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Amati “King” cello is on view in the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 8. 

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