I write this as I'm listening on a Sunday morning to a rather lovely Schubert composition on Radio 3: his A minor Sonata for fortepiano and arpeggione.
No, I hadn't heard of the arpeggione either. It enjoyed a brief vogue in Vienna in the 19th century, and is vaguely like a cello, but with six strings tuned and fretted like a guitar. Here's a photo: [Sorry - the original photo referenced in this article has been deleted by its owner]
Although the instrument doesn't have the depth or richness of a modern cello, it's still very lovely, and with an extra dimension given by the added range. And it set me thinking. Every school concert I've ever been to has been a painful experience when listening to the string section, because kids find it so difficult to get keep anything close to correct intonation when playing fretless instruments. They can play quite complex runs of notes, bow the notes nicely, control difficult dynamics, keep in time - but it still sounds horribly out of tune, and I grit my teeth when being a dutiful and polite parent who says how lovely everything was.
Couldn't we start kids off on a fretted instrument like the arpeggione? (Or, come to think of it, older instruments like viols?) We could then get them used to hearing their own string music which actually sounds good, and graduate them on to fretless instruments when they're a little older and have control of the other techniques.
So here's a challenge to any of you instrument makers out there - why not try an arpeggione next, and see just how good a sound you can get. It might just surprise you...