Cello

Courtesy of Hannah Whale
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Pitch range

Cello pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The cello can sing like a human being. It sounds warm and deep, and through it a player can communicate feelings and emotions just like a singer does.

Bigger than the violin and viola but smaller than the double bass, it is the string equivalent of the tenor voice.

Cellists themselves are often friendly: they don’t usually compete with each other (which violinists sometimes do) but simply enjoy playing together.

The cello’s official name is ‘Violoncello’, but it’s known just as ‘Cello’.

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the cellos, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the cellos

A symphony orchestra normally has about 10 cellos. Being low-pitched, they often provide a necessary bass line in the music. But sometimes they get great passionate melodies, which sweep magnificently through the rest of the orchestra.

Sometimes the cellos swap places with the second violins, so that they sit between the first violins and violas. This can give an interesting stereo effect. But in that position, the second violins end up being angled away from the audience: their sound holes point the wrong way, which means they can’t be heard as clearly. So normally, the cellos sit at the front, opposite the first violins and to the right of the conductor – as above.

The cello developed in the 1500s with the violin, as part of the ‘violin family’. So all the famous Italian violin makers (like Amati and Stradivari) made cellos too.

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: Many of these have been written for the cello – its heart-rending sound in particular has attracted composers to write for it.

Chamber music: Plenty with just string instruments, such as string quartets where the cello plays the lowest part, and other pieces with strings, piano and woodwind instruments.

Solo pieces: Again, many – with and without piano accompaniment. J.S. Bach wrote six famous unaccompanied cello suites.

To play it

Cello spike, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Cello spike

The cello is an even bigger violin than the viola, and it would be impossible to put it under your chin to play it – partly because it’s far too big, and partly because it has a spike on the bottom!

Instead, to play it:

Cellist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Cellist in playing position

  1. Sit down.
  2. Place the cello between your knees.
  3. Use the spike to anchor the cello at the necessary angle, so that it doesn’t slide all over the floor.
  4. Hold the ‘neck’ in your left hand and draw the bow across the strings, or pluck them, with your right hand.

 

For more about the cello’s construction, how the sound is made, and its special effects, go to the String Family section.

Find out more about the development of the Cello in .

A Little History of the Cello

J.S. Bach, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

J.S. Bach

The cello developed in the 1500s with the violin, as part of the ‘violin family’. So all the famous Italian violin makers (like Amati and Stradivari) made cellos, too.

It wasn’t valued as anything more than a plodding support in the bass until the late 17th century. Bach’s six solo cello suites are great examples of this new appreciation. They’re amazing pieces, still performed and recorded all over the place today.

But it was only in the 19th century that the cello really got more exciting, satisfying music to play in the orchestra – bits that stood out to be heard above everyone else. At last, it was fully appreciated! When you hear a cello, you wonder why it was so long ignored as a solo instrument.

The Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 – showcasing the glory of the cello all on its own

J.S. Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007. I. Prelude

Maria Kliegel, cello. Naxos 8.557280-81

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is the cello's full name?

a. Cellopoli
b. Bassocello
c. Violoncello

 The cello is the instrumental equivalent of which human singing voice?

a. Tenor
b. Soprano
c. Bass

 The strings of the cello are stretched over a small piece of wood, which lifts them away from the fingerboard. What is this called?

a. Bridge
b. Hill
c. Fence

 Which animal is described by the cello in Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals?

a. Bear
b. Eagle
c. Swan

 What name is given to someone who plays the cello?

a. Cellist
b. Celloist
c. Celloer

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Cello Extracts

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007: I. Prelude (extract)

Here is the warm, uninterrupted sound of the cello alone.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.557280-81

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85: I. Adagio – Moderato (extract)

One of the greatest cello concertos ever written.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550503

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73: II. Adagio non troppo (extract)

A tender, sweeping solo for the whole cello section of the orchestra.

Performers: BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550279

John Tavener (1944–2013)
The Protecting Veil: I. Section 1 (extract)

Did you know the cello could go this high?

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554388

David Popper (1843–1913)
Fantasy on Little Russian Songs

The cello can be just as acrobatic as the violin.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Raimund Havenith, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557943

Cello and Orchestra

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme

‘Rococo’ was a rich and decorative style of art from the 18th century: Tchaikovsky in this piece shows his admiration for Mozart. The orchestra is quite small by Tchaikovsky’s standards – more like the orchestra that Mozart would have used 100 years earlier. After a slow introduction from the orchestra, the theme is played by the cello at 1.03. There are then eight variations in total – eight versions of the theme in different disguises! There’s no break between them, and the soloist has to play quite high up on the cello all the way through, so it’s demanding to perform.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; Gerhard Markson

Taken from Naxos 8.550519

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191

Glowing with melody, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is sweeping and romantic. Brahms was so impressed and inspired by it he said he wished he’d written a cello concerto like that himself! In movement 1 (track 1), there is a long introduction before the solo cello comes in – the orchestra sets the scene, and different instruments have their moments (solo from the French horn at 2.15; at 2.50 the clarinet takes over; then the oboe has a go at 3.00…). Finally at 3.45: enter the cello! At 6.07, it has the lovely solo that the French horn gave us quietly at 2.15. Everything is connected.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550503

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85

This Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last notable work, and also one of his saddest. It seems to breathe an air of regret, sadness, weariness, as if it were written as an elegy for the British Empire as well as Elgar’s own life. He wrote it at the end of the First World War. It has become one of the most popular cello concertos.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550503

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb:1

Listen to the confident entry of the solo cello at 1:11 in the first movement of this Concerto; it soon becomes lyrical – singing out thrillingly against the orchestra. At 7:16 we get the ‘cadenza’ – the cellist plays by himself in a partly improvised solo section, designed to show off his skills. Can you hear how he sometimes plays two notes at once on his cello? We’re lucky to have this concerto: the music was lost until rediscovered in 1961 – 200 years after Haydn wrote it!

Performers: Ludovít Kanta, cello; Capella Istropolitana; Peter Breiner

Taken from Naxos 8.550059

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107

This was written in 1959 for the great cellist – and Shostakovich’s friend – Mstislav Rostropovich. He memorised the whole thing in four days! You can hear a clear theme at the start: four notes from the cello. Three are short and the fourth one is long. These keep coming back, either in the cello part or in the orchestra. See how many times you can spot them!

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550813

Max Bruch (1838–1920)
Kol Nidrei, Adagio on Hebrew Melodies, Op. 47

Beautifully expressive, this piece for cello and orchestra was written by the German composer Max Bruch in 1881. It is a slow piece – an ‘Adagio’ – that uses Hebrew melodies. The title means ‘All the vows’ and is taken from a prayer used on the Day of Atonement.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; Gerhard Markson

Taken from Naxos 8.550519

John Tavener (1944–2013)
The Protecting Veil

The Protecting Veil, a big hit for Tavener in 1989, is famous for its long, high cello notes. If you heard the piece without knowing anything about it, you might not guess that it’s a cello playing. For a cellist, it’s quite hard work playing up there – you have to press harder on the strings, so your fingers can get quite sore! But it’s an incredible sound. You can hear how the music grows at the start, over the first minute, before it seems suspended in the air. The orchestra hangs onto chords, and the cello sways over its selection of notes. When the harmony then moves (e.g. 2.12–2.50), it is amazing. The cellist Steven Isserlis asked John Tavener to write a 10-minute cello piece: eventually he got a piece lasting 45 minutes! Through the music, Tavener expresses his Russian Orthodox faith: it is based on a feast that is part of the Orthodox calendar, the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. Simple but magical, it is music that can find its way right to your heart.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554388

Solo Cello / Cello and Piano

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
The Carnival of the Animals: XIII. The Swan

Listen to the swan (the cello) on the rippling water (the piano)… This is part of The Carnival of the Animals, and something cellists love to play.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335

Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Papillon, Op. 77

‘Papillon’ means ‘Butterfly’ in French. That’s all the information we need… just listen to the cello being a butterfly!

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Nina Tichman, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557889

Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Sicilienne, Op. 78

The French composer Fauré wrote some lovely instrumental pieces. Here, the cello has a long and lyrical melody, supported by a rippling piano part. At c. 1.50, the piano takes a tune high up, and the cello plays the supporting role. The same piece is also part of his Pelléas et Mélisande suite, for full orchestra.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Nina Tichman, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557889

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009

Bach wrote six solo cello suites, and they are like jewels for the cello. A suite is a kind of group; in a musical suite, pieces are often based on dances from the Baroque era. So each piece has a different feel, with a different rhythm and speed. When a cellist performs this music, he or she sits in the middle of the stage, completely alone with the cello, and creates a wonderful atmosphere.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.557280-81

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69

Beethoven wrote this Sonata in 1808, dedicating it to a close friend called Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, an amateur cellist who helped Beethoven with his money. The cello begins all by itself, introducing the first theme (or ‘subject’ as it is called in a sonata) before the piano comes in. It is one of the most famous sonatas for cello. And just to prove that the cello isn’t always gentle and sustained, listen at 7.02 in the first movement (track 1) as it accompanies tempestuous piano music with some energetic sawing! Of course there is plenty of gentle and sustained playing too, and the sonata finishes with a joyful, buoyant movement (track 4).

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Nina Tichman, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555786

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38

Right from the beginning of this music, the power and warmth of Brahms’s Romantic writing seem to shine through. There is a delicate melody here from the cello – and can you hear the piano’s chords? These chords fall on all the off-beats, or weak beats, instead of leaning on the stronger beats: when there are four beats in a bar, the first beat is the strongest, followed by the third; the second and the fourth are weaker. But it’s the second and the fourth that get the piano chords, so there’s a kind of see-saw effect with the cello’s melody. Brahms insisted that the two instruments should always be partners – that the cello was not more important. In fact, in a performance Brahms himself thundered out the piano part so loudly that the cellist complained he couldn’t hear his own cello!

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Kristin Merscher, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550656

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Cello Suite No. 1, Op. 72

Sometimes artists or composers respond to each other’s work by creating something that mimics, answers, or pays tribute – it is a mark of respect, and it shows how one piece of great art or music can feed another. It often happens that a later composer will do this in response to music written many years earlier. The English composer Benjamin Britten did it with his solo cello suites: he was inspired by J.S. Bach’s. He wrote this first one (of three) in 1964, c. 250 years after Bach had written his. Britten dedicated all three suites to the great Russian cellist Rostropovich. You might find these are less easy to listen to than Bach’s – some music isn’t immediately appealing to your ears, and begins to make sense only when you’ve heard it a few times. So let it play and don’t worry if you find it strange for a while. Life is interesting when things are different – and it can be rewarding to keep your mind and your ears open!

Performers: Tim Hugh, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.553663

Chamber Music

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1, ‘Ghost’

The ‘Ghost’ nickname of this piano trio – for violin, cello and piano – comes from the second movement (track 2). In Beethoven’s time, the style and suspense of this music were very original. The piano part is sometimes ghostly behind the violin and cello. There are many hundreds of piano trios by all sorts of composers: the cello works brilliantly with the violin and piano, sometimes underpinning and cushioning the music, sometimes having conversations with the other instruments, and sometimes taking the glory with its own tunes.

Performers: Stuttgart Piano Trio

Taken from Naxos 8.550948

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Quintet in C major, Op. 163, D. 956

Most string quintets are for two violins, two violas and one cello. As we see in an orchestra, it works well to have more players higher up in the sound. However, Schubert chooses a different combination here: two violins, one viola, and two cellos. What effect do you think this would have? The cello is a lower instrument, so two cellos make the sound stronger at the bottom. In fact, Schubert balances his ingredients like the master he was. The result is a rich, intense quintet – quite serious and tense sometimes, with a lot of music in a minor key. Try the final movement (track 4): there is a springy, dancing feel, with strong accents, but it isn’t playful. Listen at 3.55: the theme starts off, repeats an octave higher, then at 4.11 it comes again in a new key which makes the melody higher again, then at 4.15 it moves higher… and this keeps happening. It’s like tightening a screw and it makes the music more and more exciting.

Performers: Ensemble Villa Musica

Taken from Naxos 8.550388

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44

Here is a cheerful piece of chamber music, this time for two violins, viola, cello and piano. Listen to the beginning: Schumann gets stuck in right away! There’s no hesitation or creeping in: it’s definite and positive. Schumann’s wife Clara played the piano part when it was performed in Leipzig in 1843, which shows how good she was. It’s not always easy to hear the lower cello part clearly – though the music would sound very different if it wasn’t there! At 1.04 in the first movement (track 1), it starts the second main theme – what we call the second ‘subject’; the viola then takes over. The parts overlap and the whole group plays brilliantly together. Chamber music can be so exciting: listen at 2.37 in the third movement (track 3)!

Performers: Kodály Quartet; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550406