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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

Violoncello Voices, Part 1: Briand, Byran, Gielgud

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

The multi-faceted expressiveness of the cello’s tone has often been likened to the human voice. The description of Alwin Schroeder in 1880s Germany as “our Violoncello Singer” is but one of many examples. But, unknown to me until recently, there is also a tradition of likening the human voice to the cello.

Among those whose voice was described in terms of the cello was 11-time French foreign minister Aristide Briand. Briand had been a persuasive presence at European conferences for a decade before the representatives of 51 nations “listened with close attention to the rise and fall of the statesman’s “violoncello voice”” at his 1930 address to the League of Nations./1/ The quality of Briand’s voice had become an immediately identifiable element of his public persona; in France, he defied “his political enemies, arguing with and cajoling the undecided and finally sweeping aside opposition by a magic of oratory that was unexcelled in a Parliament noted for the quality of its eloquence.”/2/

Briand was by no means the first whose oratorical resources included a “violoncello voice.” When then-U. S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan addressed the General Assembly of his native Illinois in 1912, he “radiated genial joy… Mr. Bryan pleaded, scolded, preached, moralized, satirized, sympathized, apostrophized and apotheosized. … Scarcely had the mellifluous cadences of Mr. Bryan’s violoncello voice died away upon the lingering echoes than the roll was called.”/3/ An 1884 eulogy to the abolitionist Wendell Phillips takes the musical metaphor further, dwelling on Phillips's emotional impact on his audience:

“While the great orator with beautiful modulation recited these lines you could hear a pin drop and, when he closed, every eye in the audience glistened with the melancholy light of tears, so wonderful was this man’s touch on the keys of the human heart. The rough and the cultivated all then melted at the pathetic strains of that violoncello voice… There was no animalism in this fervor; it was the divine mastery of a great orator, whose music is a tender flute or a trumpet blast at will. …his pure eloquence…was only his great and various heart set to music.”/4/

The phrase has also been applied to actors, perhaps most famously to that renowned interpreter of Shakespeare, John Gielgud (1904-2000). The overblown eloquence in Gielgud’s early work led one critic to describe his voice as an “unbridled oboe.” As Gielgud worked successfully toward a more natural, unaffected delivery, more satisfying musical qualities were noted. His “magnificent violoncello voice” was found to have “the range of a violin, a Stradivarius controlled by a master.”/5/ Especially renowned for his portrayals of Hamlet, Richard II, and King Lear, Gielgud was a master of the Bard’s “musical speech,” performing with a “cultivated excellence of voice as an instrument… One finds oneself listening to him as to a virtuoso on the violoncello…”/6/ Gielgud himself thought of acting Shakespeare in musical terms, striving for the “proper orchestral harmony and control” in the delivery of passages “that are really arias.”/7/

One of Gielgud’s later triumphs was a one-man Shakespeare evening, Ages of Man; he toured with it for a decade (1956-67) and also recorded it for Columbia Records. Formally dressed and alone on an unadorned stage, Gielgud began live performances of Ages of Man with Jacques’s cynical “seven ages” speech from As You Like It, followed by two Merchant of Venice excerpts dealing with music, Mercutio’s frenetic Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet, Angelo’s impassioned musings on love from Measure for Measure, and Hotspur’s hot-headed complaints to Henry IV. Then came several longer selections from Richard II and Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Normand Berlin, who witnessed Ages of Man live in 1958, recalled the experience: “…throughout, a brilliant actor is giving an interpretation of the text, no less significant than the interpretations of scholars and critics. Gielgud is not only a consummate musician, speaking Shakespearean verse better than anyone in my experience, but he acts the verse, giving each phrase a meaning and dramatic weight. Gielgud understands what most actors today [2000] have not only misunderstood but have openly rejected: respect for Shakespeare’s basic meter can lead to performances of great sensitivity and affecting realism. Gielgud makes verse alive as verse, … [and doesn’t] break up the verse line in order to make verse sound like prose… his sound is wedded to Shakespeare's sense.”/8/ Here is Gielgud’s "orchestration" of Richard II, self-dramatizing yet genuinely suffering as he relinquishes his crown: Ages of Man excerpt with Sir John Gielgud.


1. Boston Globe, Sept. 11, 1930, p 11: “Briand Defends His Plan For a Federated Europe” Geneva, Sept. 11 (A. P.); quote from similar report from Geneva in Ithaca Journal, Sept. 11, 1930

2. Obituary in Evening Star (Washington, DC) March 7, 1932, p. 2

3. The Inter Ocean (Chicago), May 20, 1913, p. 6

4. “The Eloquence of [Wendell] Phillips” in Rutland Daily Herald and Globe, Feb. 6, 1884, p. 2

5. John Simon, “The Master’s Voice” in the New York Times, Aug. 12, 2001

6. Florence Warner Brown, “Shakespeare and Gielgud, Co-Authors of Men” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1961), p. 134

7. Sir John Gielgud quoted in Brown, “Shakespeare and Gielgud…”, p. 134

8. Normand Berlin, "Traffic of Our Stage: Gielgud" in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 42, No. 1, (Spring 2001), pp. 97-120. Discussion of Ages of Man on pp. 105-114.

Photo credits

Gielgud: Wikipedia

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Jun 30, 2021

Wendell Phillip's musicality seemed to span the orchestra: violoncello voice, touching the (piano) keys of his listeners' hearts, the music of his fervor a tender flute or a trumpet blast.... Or just an overwrought Rutland Daily writer stretching for too many metaphors? <smile>

Or maybe the times were a sort of "age of using musical metaphors," thereby a testament to how significant orchestras were becoming, or had become, in the America of the time? Maybe not so much "a tradition of likening the human voice to the cello" per se?

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