Poster The cello is part of the string instrument family.
The cello is played sitting down, and with a long bow.
Adi Goldstein/Unsplash
Best Instrument Ever

Is the cello the best instrument ever?

Is the cello the best instrument ever? Its rich, mellow tone creates a warm and enveloping sound. It also has a broad range, able to match a bass or a violin. Considered the closest instrument to the human voice, it thus is highly expressive.

Part of the violin family that emerged in the 1500s, the earliest surviving cellos were made by Andrea Amati of the famous Italian family of luthiers (makers of string instruments).

The cello was a favorite of many composers including Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Ludwig van Beethoven, who all wrote concertos for the instrument. It has given us masters (Mstislav Rostropovich) and superstars (Yo-Yo Ma). And it has lent gravity and depth to popular music, from the Beatles to Nirvana.

Take a listen to some great works featuring the cello.

Classical legacy

Cello Suites (Bach): The legendary Pablo Casals popularized this work, becoming the first cellist to record all six suites in the 1930s. Unlike Bach’s other suites, the movements are considered an intentional, flowing cycle, rather than a discrete series of pieces. Here, János Starker, who won a Grammy for this work, plays the First Suite.  

Cello Concerto No. 1 (Joseph Haydn):  This concerto, composed in the 1760s, was presumed lost until a copy of the score was uncovered in Prague in 1961. It has since become a staple of the cello repertoire, perhaps because it gives the cellist the opportunity for a grand cadenza (an improvised or ornate, showy part) near the end of the first movement. Here, the great Rostropovich shows his chops with a cadenza (7:32 mark) written for him by Benjamin Britten.

“The Swan” (Camille Saint-Saëns): This movement from the composer’s 1886 suite, The Carnival of the Animals, employs the cello to approximate the bird’s languid motion. It was the only movement from Carnival that Saint-Saëns allowed to be played during his lifetime, considering it to be less frivolous than the rest of the suite. “The Swan” famously has been used to accompany ballet performances (notably by Anna Pavlova) and figure skating routines. Here’s Ma’s interpretation.

Cello Concerto (Antonin Dvorák): Composed in 1895 while Dvorák was teaching in New York, this work was inspired by Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto and its ingenious use of the instrument’s upper registers, which Dvorák had previously regarded as limited. He sets up the cello in dialogue with the other musicians (particularly the brass), rather than in a virtuoso showcase. Watch Jacqueline du Pré put her stamp on the concerto during a 1968 concert honoring the besieged people of Czechoslovakia.

Variations for Cello and Piano (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor): This work was composed in 1905, lost for a dozen years and published in 1918, after Coleridge-Taylor’s death. The lovely minor-key melody is reinterpreted in four short movements, each with a distinct mood. Listen to the cello’s sinuous interplay with the piano.

Tre Momenti (Matilde Capuis): Italian pianist/composer Capuis lived a long (104 years) and sometimes difficult life. This work reflects her youthful suffering (particularly in the second movement, “Solitudine”) and the optimism she regained in later years (in the third movement, “Allegrezze”). Here’s cellist Raphaela Gromes on that movement.

Beyond classical

“Eleanor Rigby” (the Beatles, 1966): George Martin’s arranging brilliance was on full display in this Fab Four classic, which helped cement the group’s status as sophisticated musicians. The chopping strokes from two cellos provide a melancholy complement to the plaintive violin.

“As You Said” (Cream, 1968):  The celebrated trio combined cello and guitar in this lesser-known track from its album Wheels of Fire, creating a psychedelic and distinctly un-Cream-like sound.

“Cello Song” (Nick Drake, 1969): This song features the cello! To be more precise, cellist Clare Deniz, acting as a counterpoint to the guitars and conga drums and grounding Drake’s sorrowful lyrics.

“Mr. Blue Sky” (Electric Light Orchestra, 1978): As befits its name, ELO incorporated strings of all stripes into its music. Listen at the 4-minute mark as the cellos lead the symphonic shift that closes out the song.

“Viva la Vida” (Coldplay, 2008): The looping strings provide the uplifting riff throughout this song (unusual for the piano/guitar-driven group) and take over in a show of orchestral power at the end.

And check out the cello quintet String Theory playing all the parts of the song in this arrangement, highlighting the instrument’s many capabilities.

“Foxglove” (Murder by Death, 2010):  Cellist Sarah Balliet adds the sonic variations and color to husband Adam Turla’s vocals and guitar on this song, a prime example of the band’s brand of “gothic folk.”

 Now that you’ve heard the many moods of the cello, you’ll agree it’s the best instrument ever!

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