Celtic Cello

and Cellist Steven Horst

The Cello and Celtic Music
About Steve Horst
About Seamaisin
Techniques for Celtic Music
Sound Samples
Very Incomplete Discography of Cello in Celtic Music

The Cello and Celtic Music

It is the nature of folk music that people use what instruments are available to them. As a consequence, the stock of instruments commonly found in a music will change over time. In Irish music, for example, the pipes flourished in the period after the British banned the harp, which had been the national instrument. Accordion was introduced to the music around the beginning of this century, and guitar around the middle of the century.

The cello has had very different histories in Ireland and Scotland. There are virtually no appearances of cello in Irish music until very recent times, and it is still not a commonly used instrument. In Scotland, by contrast, violin and cello were a common ensemble combination in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Captain Frasier's voluminous collection of Scottish tunes, for example, is scored for violin and cello, and the cello line shows a strong influence of continental Baroque bass continuo lines.

By general agreement of those who hear it, however, the cello fits quite naturally into both musics, filling the bottom end of the accoustical space which is distinctly underutilized by older instruments in the tradition. It has now been used by singers, notably Jean Repath, to provide both bass lines and counter-melodies. Celtic artists like DeDannaan have also used cello in group arrangements. And Scottish master fiddler Alisdair Fraser is now reviving the duo style of the eighteenth century.

Most fiddle tunes can be played on cello as well, though some require transposition due to the different tunings of the instruments. The cello is perfectly suited to playing drones in open fifths on the lower strings. It is an exciting rhythm instrument either plucked or bowed. And there is perhaps no better instrument for slow airs or countermeolodies.

About Steve Horst

Steve Horst (author of this text), a professor at Wesleyan University, was originally trained as a classical cellist, and was a winner in the Baltimore Symphony's Young Artist Concerto Competition while in high school in Baltimore. I began playing Irish music on cello in the late 1980's while a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame with Midwest-based singer John Kennedy and other musicians who became the Notre-Dame based group Seamaisin. In 1990, I left Notre Dame to teach philosophy at Wesleyan University in CT.

I guess I would have to say I am somewhat of a pioneer in the use of the cello in Irish music. Having no models to work from, I have developed my own style of play, often borrowing from people working on other instruments, such as fiddle, guitar and pipes.

I have appeared on two studio albums with Seamaisin (one still in production), and on John Kennedy's solo album, I'll Learn to Fly. With Seamaisin's John Kennedy and Tim Fischer, I also provided sountrack music for Dennis Courtney's film of Joyce's "Araby" in winter of 1997.

For more information about me and my day job, go to my homepage.

About Seamaisin

The group Seamaisin (pronounced HAY-machine) was formed in the late 1980's by a group of musicians in the vicinity of South Bend, Indiana, most of whom were associated in one way or another with the University of Notre Dame. Seamaisin performs a variety of genres of Irish and Scottish traditional music, ranging from dance tunes to original and traditional ballads to rowdy drinking songs.

Seamaisin's first album, Joseph Harvey's Fiddle was Left In the Rain, was released in 1991, and is available in CD and on tape. (For ordering information go to the Seamaisn site.) The artists featured on this cd are (in alphabetical order):

1997 has seen the release of an album of music performed in live performance by Seamaisin featuring original members Eileen McLane, John Kennedy and Tim Fischer plus fiddler Teresa Ramsby and harper/singer Mary Brannock.

An eagerly-awaited second studio album (yet unnamed) is currently in production at I'll Learn to Fly Studios in South Bend.

Members of Seamaisin are now distributed from Paris, France (McGettrick) to Portland, Oregon (Fischer), with stops in between in Connecticut (Horst), Ohio (Brannock), Bloomington, IN (Ramsby), South Bend (Kennedy, McCormack), Niles, Michigan (McLane), and Chicago (Collins). The majority of those who have recorded with the band are now full-fledged academicians, making this one of the most highly PhD'ed Irish bands in history!

Techniques for Celtic Music

It is my intention to eventually supply sound samples demonstrating things discussed here. Bear with me while this is under construction!

The cello is a marvellously versatile instrument. It can be used either as a melody instrument, or to provide high or low accompaniment.

The Cello as Lead Instrument

There are a variety of kinds of music in the Celtic tradition. Slow airs are among the oldest tunes in this music, and the cello's soulful, melancholy sound, which so closely approximates the human voice, makes it an ideal instrument for airs, either set to a strict time or in the freer form derived from Sean Nos singing. I once had the wonderful compliment from a harper that the air "O'Carolan's Farewell to Music" (the last piece written by Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan) sounded better on my cello than on harp.

However, the cello can work equally well as a lead instrument on fast tunes. There are few things that can be done on violin that cannot be done on cello as well, though some require transposition, as the cello lacks the violin's high E string, making some pieces awkward in the original key. My perspective on playing dance tunes was transformed when I realized that traditional fiddling generally does not leave first position, and took some of the tunes in which I was shifting up and down as far as sixth position and simply transposed them down a fifth. Some things that had been almost impossible instantly became music, and now even when I intend to play something in the original key I often first feel it out down a fifth to get the feel I want before moving it back to the original.

It is worth noting for the sake of other cellists that it is possible to get high E strings for celli, and that most makers of electronic instruments make 5- and 6-string models as well as 4-stringers. (The 6th generally being a low F, which gives a truly amazing sound.) Even on a normal accoustic 4-stringed instrument, it is possible to move the strings over a notch and add an E-string if playing in the original key is your priority.


The best thing to is work with a book or fiddle teacher on fiddle ornamentation and see what is transferrable. There is a serious difference in left-hand technique between violin and cello, in that a fiddler can use her fourth finger to reach the fifth while remaining in first position, thus allowing her to do a turn on the fourth degree of the string without changing position. Unless you have really extrodinary hands, this is not possible on the cello. Likewise, if playing in the original key requires shifting, this can sometimes make it impossible to do the ornamentations that fiddlers would do.

However, while ornamentation is an important aspect of dance tunes, it is not nearly so important as basic rhythm. If you have the rhythmic swing right, embellishments and even getting the "right" notes are far less important, while playing fancy embellishments precisely in pitch is a waste of time if the swing is not there. So I should advise the newcomer to this music to first work on getting tunes in the right groove without embellishments.

In my experience, it is less clear that most of fiddlers' right-hand technique transfers easily to the cello. Due to differences in the weight of the bow and the position in which it is drawn across the strong, the cello bow is not as amenable to rapid detache bowing, especially of the sort needed for triplet ornamentations. Likewise, the attack on the lower cello strings is much slower than that on the violin strings, so bow changes are bought in fast pieces at the price of signal-to-noise ration. As a result, I tend to use a more legato bowing than most fiddlers I know. It is really quite remarkable to me to hold my bow arm in the position a fiddler would hold it and feel how natural fast triplets feel when gravity is doing half the work (i.e., the upbows are literally up and the downbows down, rather than left and right as on the cello!). I have taken to making liberal use of controlled rhythmic spicatto to get the same kind of fast, sputtering effect.

Accoustically, the cello does not have the piercing sonic quality of pipes or accordion, or even of the fiddle or the high register of the whistle. As a result, there can be problems in making a cello melody line heard when there are a number of instruments playing together (for example, in a sessiun, or a band gig). (By contrast, the low strings can resonate on extended notes in a way that drowns out everybody else, so be considerate!) There is, of course, no substitute for playing with sensitive and considerate musicians in a session or a gig...


The cello's lack of a piercing quality is a virtue when it comes to accompaniment. In accompanying singers in particular, the cello is a good instrument for making an interesting harmonic contribution that is just on the edge of the listener's consciousness without distracting her from the main performer.

Counter-melody--weaving a second melodic line around the principal melody--is an art unto itself, and I cannot presume to teach it here. But if you have a gift for it, cello is a good instrument for it. In general, I tend to adopt the advice of making a progression in the shape of a rainbow: i.e., starting relatively low on the instrument, building up to the higher range (though seldom more than an octave above middle C, except for harmonics), and then returning to the low range to conclude. (Though sometimes a high, ethereal conclusion on high harmonics is lovely as well.) Be aware that throughout this range you are in the range of the human voice, and that playing in a given register amounts to a different kind of accomaniment with a male or female vocalist. Playing a low G with a soprano singer is providing support in a constrasting register, while doing the same with a bass singer is providing riskier interplay in the same register. (And the same thing holds true, mutatis mutandis, for playing high.) This can all be put to good use. For example, very few voices are really solid as low as the cello can go, and so doubling a note at the bottom end of a singer's register can help the overall sound of the note. I also find that women singers that I work with tend to gravitate to a more relaxed sound when I do low accompaniment and a more focused and intense sound when I move up into their register. Moving quickly upwards in a song as it reaches its more intense verses can be a useful technique for building tension and energy, and moving quietly to the bass range for the denoument of a reprise at the end of a tune.


High Harmonics

Bass Lines and their Treble Cousins


Kick-Ass Rhythm

Sound Samples


Very Incomplete Irish Cello Discography