Arpeggione

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The arpeggione is a musical instrument that has the rare distinction of being both obscure and well-known at the same time.

It is a six-stringed instrument, a cross between a cello and a guitar – between the two in size and played cello-like with a bow, but with fretted fingerboard and stringed and tuned as a guitar (E-A-D-G-B-E). It was invented in 1823 by Johann Georg Staufer, a Viennese guitar maker and lutier. A musical publication of the time described it as a “guitare d’amore” and praised its “beauty, fullness and sweetness of sound”, saying that in the high register it was close to the oboe and to the bassett horn in the lower.

For all this, it had a career-span of only about ten years, before losing popularity and being completely forgotten. This was enough time, though, for a virtuoso “arpeggionist” to arrive and for the great Franz Schubert to write a sonata for this expert (one, Vincenz Schuster) and his instrument. The piece, in standard sonata form, was played by Schuster with Schubert on the piano at a private recital at Staufer’s home at the end of 1823; then it seems that the sonata too was consigned to obscurity.

The “Arpeggione” sonata was finally published in 1871 – almost 40 years after the instrument’s demise - and was immediately recognised for what it is – one of the great string sonatas. It was transcribed for violin, viola and cello from whence it has come to us today. Whilst usually heard in its cello guise, (it fills the gap left by Schubert’s failure to leave a cello sonata) transcriptions for viola and clarinet are popular and versions exist for guitar, and double bass.


(Australian national public radio recently held a poll of listeners for their “100 favourite chamber works”. The “Arpeggione” came in at No.20; and was the third most popular sonata.)

References:

“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”

“Oxford Companion to Music”

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