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A Work of Schubertian Melodies, Charm & Mercurial Mood Changes

The Arpeggione Sonata in A minor for viola or cello

The arpeggione is an extinct instrument, though an example can still be found in the instrument collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Descended from the viola da gamba, it was originally called the guitar violoncello or bow guitar, but it also came to be known by the more poetic name guitare d’amour. It had a curved, fretted fingerboard and six strings tuned like those of a guitar, but was held like a cello and played with a bow. It acquired the name “arpeggione” because its tuning made playing chords and arpeggios relatively easy.

Created by the Viennese instrument maker Johann Georg Stauffer in 1823 and popularized by the noted cellist Vincenz Schuster, it had a very short lifespan and would probably have fallen into complete oblivion if Schuster had not commissioned his friend Franz Schubert to compose a sonata for it (and for him). Written the following year, but not published until 1871, the Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano, D. 821 is an exquisitely beautiful work and the sonata quickly gained popularity. But when the instrument for which it was composed became obsolete, the work had to depend for its survival on transcriptions, and its beguiling Schubertian melodies, charm, and mercurial mood changes soon inspired arrangements for instruments as diverse as string bass and flute.

Today, it is played most often on the cello or the viola, which are closest to it in range, and has become a staple of their repertoire and an enduring audience favorite.

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*This article appeared in Strings April 2012
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