The Wonders of the Cello
August 10, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
The cello. Is there a more beautiful timbre in the world than the warm, rich sound of a cello expertly played by a performer with spectacular intonation and lovely phrasing? I have limited experience with string instruments: a few months of violin lessons when I was in my late teens and a string pedagogy class that I took while I was teaching middle school. I always found the sounds of the string family utterly gorgeous, but my primary instrument was voice, and I played a little bit of trumpet as well. I just didn’t have room in my life (or my apartment) for a cello, but I have always admired its sound, and the skill necessary to play it.
The precursor to the cello was the viola da gamba. The term viola da gamba literally means “viol of the leg,” which is a description that distinguishes it from the viola da braccio—“viol of the arm.” You may even recognize it as a relative because it is played similarly, although there are some important differences. First, you might have noticed that the modern cello sits on an adjustable metal pin. The gamba of comparable size to the cello was actually grasped between the players legs, with no endpin for help. The larger ones rested on the floor. The neck of the gamba also had frets—like the guitar—that were marked with tied pieces of gut string. The tuning was a little different as well, and the overall shape of the instrument varied a bit (as did the shape of the bow that plays it), but they covered the same general range. The name “cello” is actually a shortened form of “violoncello,” meaning small violone. You might notice that in some old texts there’s an apostrophe in front of the word to make you aware of the missing letters: ’cello. We don’t use this anymore. Now, we just think of the instrument as a cello, not really realizing that we’re just saying the part of the word that meant “small version of the big thing.”
In the Baroque period, the cello was often used as one half of the basso continuo, a duo that provided structure and harmonic support. The basso continue was comprised of an instrument that could play chords—harpsichord, lute, guitar, or organ—and an instrument to reinforce the bassline of those chords, like a violone, a cello, double bass, or bassoon. The basso continuo provided a strong foundation upon which solo instruments could add virtuosic flights of fancy and yet still feel grounded and harmonically rich. In the late Baroque, the cello began to separate from this function, finding more opportunities for music outside of this context.
I often find myself drawn to the cello as a solo instrument, and I’m of a mind to list some of my favorite works for cello. This won’t be an exhaustive list, of course, and certainly the criteria for inclusion on this list is incredibly subjective. These are just the high points that I’ve observed. If you find the cello bewitching, as I do, consider this list a point of departure, a place to start, a primer on the cello, if you will.
One of the first important pieces in the cello repertoire is J.S. Bach’s six Suites for unaccompanied cello. It was likely composed at some point in the years 1717 to 1723, when Bach was working in Cöthen. Every important cellist has offered his or her interpretation of these suites, including Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pré, and Yo-Yo Ma. The latter’s recording won a Grammy award in 1985. The presence of the cello as a solo instrument in the context of a larger ensemble—an arrangement we recognize as a concerto—also became more popular in the Baroque period. There are many famous cello concertos, and certain composers over the course of history have written perhaps one or two, or at the most, three, but Antonio Vivaldi holds the record with almost thirty. He wrote far more violin concertos, of course, but then Vivaldi is known for being a violinist, not a cellist. A particular favorite for me is the Concerto for Cello and Strings in C minor. There is also the lovely Concerto for two Celli in G minor. You really can’t go wrong with Vivaldi. His Cello Concertos have all the hallmarks of the composer’s style: virtuosic string writing, sequences of short musical ideas, three movements with a contrasting slow middle movement. The opening and closing movements are in the standard ritornello form (recurring musical ideas alternating with new music), which features the ensemble’s main theme vying for prominence with more complex solo passages.
In the nascent Classical period, C. P. E. Bach composed the Cello Concerto in A (1753), but instead of using the modern Sturm und Drang style, here, we see C.P.E. reaching back to the ritornello tradition of Baroque concertos. Classical master Franz Joseph Haydn seemed to have a soft spot for the cello, bringing it out as a solo instrument in a few places. There’s an interesting story about his Cello Concerto in D major, which went missing right after its debut. It turned up in plain sight, misattributed to Anton Kraft, the principle cellist of the Esterházy court, which was Haydn’s orchestra. An autograph manuscript found in the mid-20th century—proved once and for all that Haydn was the composer.
The emergence of the cello continued into the Romantic period. Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 50 was dedicated to Nikolai Rubenstein, who died in 1881. Tchaikovsky uses the timbres of all three instruments to wonderful affect. Camille Saint-Saëns composed his lovely Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1872. It was composed for Augustin Tolbeque, who was a Belgian instrument maker. Tolbeque wanted more works for solo cello in the repertoire, and Saint-Saëns delivered a classic. Instead of the standard three-movement form, the composer used a single movement form with three discernible sections. Antonin Dvorák’s Cello Concerto from the 1890s is a masterpiece of the genre, with an emotional and complex cello part that showcases Dvorák’s unique talent. Many people think this is the best cello concerto ever written, and although it’s not my absolute favorite, it’s second or third, for sure. If you like the New World Symphony, you will like the Cello Concerto. I feel that they’re cut from the same musical cloth.
The twentieth century has had numerous works for cello that are simply stunning. I choose two, just for the sake of economy. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major is a dramatic and challenging work. In composing it, Shostakovich was inspired by Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. Renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performed the premiere in October 1959 with the Leningrad Philharmonic orchestra under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky. All accounts say that Rostropovich learned the difficult part—and played it from memory—in just four days. Number one on my list, though, is Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Heartfelt, exciting, and formidable, Elgar’s work never fails to move me. I associate the work with a particular performance, the one by Jacqueline du Pré. Her interpretation brought so much depth to the voice of the cello. It is elegaic, pensive, and sometimes even devastating. I look forward to hearing this piece performed live one day, perhaps by Yo-Yo Ma.
You could start anywhere on this list, and hear something great. And of course I left off some amazing pieces that feature this marvelous instrument. I didn’t even get into the twenty-first century, which already has its share of wondrous works for the cello. There are also incredible cellists out there, who play this repertoire with beauty and skill and warmth.
People sometimes say that the cello is the instrument that sounds the most like a human voice. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. Maybe that’s why it speaks to me. But it’s free of words, which makes it able to express something that might be inexpressible in words. Perhaps someday I will take it up, finally. Or I might just leave the instrument in the hands of the experts. I don’t know if I could bear my clumsy learning when I know what it’s supposed to sound like. Still, learning to make the cello sing a single beautiful phrase like those players I have admired so much, will likely be worth all of the toil and practice. And if not, Elgar and Dvorák and Bach are always there in recordings by the world's greatest interpreters, waiting to be heard.