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The Cello in Eighteenth-Century America

by Geoffrey Dean

(originally published in Muzikalni horizonti, Sofia, June 2003)


        In the midst of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington attended the 1776 New Year’s service at Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The church’s organ had recently been dismantled so its lead pipes could be recycled for ammunition, so a soldier accompanied the singing on the “bass viola” instead./1/  This instrument, now widely known as the “American” or “Yankee” bass, is essentially a large, crudely-made cello, manufactured from the mid-18th century in Boston and New Hampshire to serve as a church bass in communities where organs could not be afforded.  Extant examples of the Yankee bass are now in the musical instrument collections at Yale University and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the director of the Yale collection reports that other such instruments continue to turn up in the basements of New England churches./2/

Eighteenth century colonists referred to the Yankee bass as the “bass viol”, “bass viola,” or “bass violin,” although “real” bass violas da gamba had been brought to America by the original Puritan colonists during the first half of the 17th century./3/  In 18th century written descriptions of concerts and advertisements for lessons in colonial cities, “bass viol” and “violoncello” seem to have been used interchangeably.  For example, an 1765 announcement for a public concert in Charleston, then among the four largest cities in what would become the United States of America, mentions a “Solo on the Violincello”[sic]/4/, but seven years later an account of a similar Charleston concert describes the “grand” effect of the “two bass viols.”/5/

When members of the Renewed Moravian Church came to America and settled at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741, they most likely brought string instruments with them from Europe.  Many of the church’s elders were accomplished composers, and musical style in the American Moravian settlements kept up with developments in central Europe.  Moravian musicians copied and preserved for posterity works by the Stamitzes, Haydn, Mozart, and the Bach family, and performed these works in the settlements long before they were heard in the colonial cities. Some of the earliest chamber music composed in the New World, such as the string quintets of Johann Friedrich Peter (1746-1813), came from the Moravian communities, where instrumental music was just as important a part of everyday life as the hymns for voices, organ, and strings composed for church services.  One such hymn, “Lobet Gott den Herrn” by Johann Ludwig Freydt, is of particular interest to cellists, for it contains a mildly challenging part for “Violoncello vel Violino obligato.”/6/

There is slight but encouraging evidence that Thomas Jefferson played not only the violin, but our instrument as well.  One of Jefferson’s college friends was future Virginia governor “John Tyler...whose cellist’s bow arm Jefferson admired.”  Based on this information, gleaned from a letter in the Tyler family archives, Helen Cripe suggests in her book Thomas Jefferson and Music that the writer of the Declaration of Independence and third U. S. President was himself a cellist./7/ Another American founding father with special feelings toward the cello and a particular player was Benjamin Franklin, who aside from his work as a statesman had been active in Philadelphia as a composer, music publisher, and inventor of musical instruments since the 1730’s.  Franklin greatly admired the Scottish cellist and composer James Oswald, whom he had apparently heard in London.  Arguing against the “tricks” of contemporary composition and performance practice in an 1765 letter, Franklin gives a nod of approval to Oswald’s approach: “Whoever has heard James Oswald play [the old Tunes] on his Violoncello, will be less inclin’d to dispute this with me.  I have more than once seen Tears of Pleasure in the Eyes of his Auditors.” /8/

As in other colonial cities, European musicians had been teaching and performing on the cello in Philadelphia as early as the 1750’s, when advertisements for cello lessons and cellos for sale first appeared in New York and Philadelphia newspapers.  In mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia, the cello was used in public concerts such as those organized by the Italian immigrant violinist and composer (also a wine merchant), John (formerly Giovanni) Gualdo, and by the locally-born harpsichordist and composer (also a lawyer who would later sign the Declaration of Independence), Francis Hopkinson. It was also found in the house orchestras of the city’s musical theaters.  This form of entertainment enjoyed unrivalled popularity until it was outlawed during the Revolutionary War.  Musical theater was reintroduced (legally) to Philadelphia in the 1780’s, when a new influx of European musicians helped revive the musical activities of the city./9/

The Reinagle-Schetky Cello Axis during the Federal Period

One of these musicians was Alexander Reinagle, of Austrian ancestry and Scottish birth, whose stature as a composer had already been acknowledged by C. P. E. Bach.  Alexander (I refer to him by his first name for reasons that will soon become obvious) was born in the same year as Mozart and died in the same year as Haydn, and gave his first American performance at New York City’s Assembly Room in July of 1786.  The program of this concert identifies him as the composer and performer of a piano sonata, and as the cellist in a duet with violinist Philip Phile, who had been concertmaster of the Old American Company in Philadelphia since 1784./10/ 

This isolated reference creates a situation similar to that of Jefferson’s suspected cello playing.  In Alexander’s case, family circumstances make it plausible for him to have performed on the instrument: at least four family members—two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew—were professional cellists.  Shortly before sailing for America, Alexander had been in Lisbon for the funeral of his brother Hugh, who had been such an accomplished cellist that their older brother Joseph had given up the cello in favor of the violin./11/  But when Hugh died, Joseph felt “a great desire to support the name his brother had so justly acquired as a violoncellist, [and] resumed the study of the violoncello, which he has ever since professed.” Joseph, who later enjoyed “Haydn’s intimate acquaintance and friendship” as principal cellist at Salomon’s concerts in London, had studied cello in Edinburgh with the Reinagles’ brother-in-law, J. S. C. Schetky (1737-1824), a German-born cellist then reputed as one of Scotland’s leading composers./12/ 

In 1792, their nephew J. George Schetky (1776-1831), one of Schetky and the Reinagle sister’s eleven children, joined uncle Alexander in Philadelphia, where Alexander had become the music director of the Old American Company.  George, also a cellist, would soon enjoy success as a music publisher in partnership with another important Philadelphia musical theater composer, Benjamin Carr.  The younger Schetky had probably come to the US with Alexander’s composition teacher, Rayner Taylor(1747-1825), who as a youth had sung at Handel’s funeral and had been the music director at Sadler’s Wells in London before emigrating./13/  

Taylor’s Misplaced Cello Solos

Settling first in Annapolis, Taylor eventually established himself as a composer and organist in Philadelphia.  Although best remembered for his stage works, Taylor also composed instrumental works which are recognized as “attractive examples of the “London style.” Taylor’s set of Six Solos for violoncello may be the earliest cello sonatas composed in the United States, and were perhaps written for Alexander Reinagle’s nephew George, the “American Schetky.”/14/

In 1936, conductor and former Philadelphia Orchestra principal cellist Hans Kindler gave the unpublished manuscript of the Solos to the Library of Congress for safe-keeping.  Ironically, the Taylor cello manuscript was promptly mislaid, or more accurately, misbound, inside a set of the elder Schetky’s Sonatas (another Kindler gift) and cataloged under Schetky’s name./15/  It has since been relocated at least three times: in the 1950’s, when Italian-American cellist Luigi Silva recorded selections on an LP release; in the 1970’s, when Elizabeth Cowling reported its whereabouts in her book, The Cello; and in 1996, when two Arizona State University faculty members sent a graduate student to Washington, D.C. to track it down yet again in preparation for a modern edition of the sonatas./16/

In the year 2000, with the help of pianist Martin Buchvarov and a photocopy of the manuscript from the Library of Congress, I prepared a performing version of Solo No. 2 in D Major./17/  Martin’s imaginative realization of the figured bass introduces figuration and motivic imitation derived from the cello line to bring an equal share of the musical interest to the keyboard part.  Solo No. 2, with three compact and highly contrasting movements, is in my opinion the most effective of these sonatas. The first movement is quite classical in its symmetrical phrase lengths and semblance of an exposition with two themes, although the development is a minor-key episode rather than a true working out of the themes.  The almost tragic slow movement in the relative minor leads with a Phrygian cadence to a lively perpetual motion “jigg” in 6/8 time. Throughout this sonata, Taylor takes advantage of the cello’s upper-tenor register and of various string-crossing effects, often alternating melody notes with the open A or D string. Taylor’s Solo No. 2 is in my opinion just as “American” as a fuguing tune or a Yankee bass, and together with the rest of the set is a satisfying musical culmination to this chapter of American cello history.




1.        Contemporary letter quoted in Ellinwood, Leonard Webster. History of American Church Music.  New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1953, pp. 57-8.

2.        Conversation with Nicholas Renouf, Director, Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, New Haven, Connecticut, June 2001. See also A Yankee Lyre: Musical Instruments by American Makers, Yale University Collection exhibition catalogue, 1985.

3.        Chase, Gilbert. America’s Music, From the Pilgrams to the Present.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955, 1966 (revised edition).

4.        Hamm, Charles.  Music in the New World.  New York and London:  W. W. Norton and Co., announcment reprinted on p. 84. 

5.        Chase.

6.        Knouse, Nola Reed and Crews, C. Daniel. Moravian Music: An Introduction.  Winston-Salem: Moravian Music Foundation, 1996, pp. 1-10. The first page of the Freydt hymn obbligato part is reproduced on p.9.

7.        Cripe, Helen. Thomas Jefferson and Music. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, p. 14, based on information from Lyon G. Tylor, Letters and Times of the Tylers (Richmond, 1884, II, p. 55).

8.        Letter to Lord Kames of June 2, 1765, quoted in Chase, pp. 80-81 (see note 3).

9.        Sonneck, Oscar G. T.   Francis Hopkinson and James Lyon.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1967 (reprint of first edition, Washington, D.C., 1905), pp. 10-25, 40-58.

10.     Drummond, Robert Rutherford.  Early German Music in Philadelphia.  New York:  Da Capo Press, 1970 (reprint of University of Pennsylvania/D. Appleton & Company, 1910), pp. 57-61.  Assembly Room program quoted in Hamm, p. 97 (see note 4).

11.     Drummond.

12.     Sainsbury, John S., ed.  “Reinagle, (Joseph.)” in Dictionary of Musicians from the Earliest Times.  New York:  Da Capo Press, 1966 (unabridged republication of the first edition published in London in 1825), vol. 2, pp. 348-9.

13.     Hamm, p. 106.  The spelling of Taylor’s first name, inconsistent even during his lifetime, continues to incite debate.  See Clark, Bunker and Hermann, Myrl Duncan, “On “Raynor” vs. “Rayner” Taylor” in The Bulletin of the Society for American Music, Vol. XXVIII, Nos. 2 and 3, 2002, pp. 28 and 41.

14.     Hamm.

15.     Cowling, Elizabeth. The Cello.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983 (second expanded edition), p. 123.

16.     Metz, John and Bailey-Metz, Barbara, ed. Raynor Taylor Chamber Music.  Middleton, WI: A-R Editions Recent Researches in American Music (A43), 2001.

17.   Taylor, R. Six Solos for Violon Cello.  Manuscript held in Washington, D. C., Library of Congress Music Division, undated.  Results from a watermark analysis initiated by the Metzes indicate that the manuscript was copied in the United States, not in England.  Our version of Solo No. 2 was first performed in December 2003 as a recital opener in Kazanluk and Sofia, Bulgaria.

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