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Instruments of Mass Seduction


The modern violoncello is one of the most expressive instruments of the orchestra. Its strong resonation can be heard in the last row of the balcony and its deep, rich tone can plumb the depths of melancholy and despair. It can be played at an extremely fast tempo and can produce great moments of exhilaration. It is particularly suited to the playing of a long, lyrical Romantic line and in the hands of a great performer it is an effective solo instrument. There are not as many concerti written for the cello as for the violin or piano, but there are a good number of pieces and they stand as some of the most powerful in the concerto repertoire.

The cello evolved from the viola da gamba (viol of the legs) which existed until the middle of the seventeenth century. At that time the violoncino was invented. It had a larger body than the viola da gamba and a correspondingly richer tone. The term violoncello came into use in 1665 and the vernacular has replaced it with the present diminutive form of “cello”. The modern tuning of the cello, with the four strings tuned C G d a, is one octave below the viola and was common by 1600. Johann Sebastian Bach invented a cello that could be played under the chin like a viola and called it the viola pomposa. This instrument had a fifth string tuned in e. The sixth of his suites for solo cello was actually written for this unusual instrument. The cello in these early times was primarily used as a part of the basso continuo, the underpinning of the music of the Baroque era.

Vivaldi and Tartini wrote early concerti for the new instrument. Both Bach and Handel began to use the cello as a solo obbligato to accompany a singer, Bach in his cantatas and Handel in his oratorios. The next generation of composers produced several important cello concerti. Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, Georg Mathias Monn and Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg all wrote for the instrument. Two cellists of the Classical period helped to develop the cello as a solo voice. The first, Anton Kraft, was a pupil of Haydn. Through Kraft’s playing, Haydn realized the potential of the cello and began to write string quartets where the instrument had a major part, not as a basso anchor but as an equal partner of the two violins and the viola. In Haydn’s quartets, the cello states many of the main themes and joins in the “conversation” which became the model for all future string quartet writing. Haydn also wrote five concerti for Kraft. The second cellist of importance at the end of the eighteenth century was Luigi Boccherini. Boccherini was renowned throughout Europe as a great performer, the first cellist with such a reputation. He was an extremely prolific composer, who wrote 125 string quintets and 102 quartets, as well as many other chamber combinations which featured the cello. Boccherini also composed four cello concerti in the style of Haydn. In fact, his music was so evocative of the Viennese master that he was nicknamed “the wife of Haydn”. Boccherini was the first cellist to become an important composer and his fame helped to establish the instrument as a bona fide solo vehicle.

Other cello-like instruments were popular during this period. Touring the extensive collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, visitors can reflect that Haydn wrote 175 works for an instrument called the baryton, a cello with six or seven strings that was the passion of his patron, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy. A combination of a cello and a guitar, the arpeggione, was popular at the turn of the nineteenth century. It featured six cello style strings that were bowed but also had 24 frets like a guitar. Actually the cello and guitar were closely associated in the mind and ear of the serious musician of this era (Boccherini wrote a large volume of guitar music) so the combination is not as bizarre as it appears at the beginning of the 21st century. The arpeggione would be just an obscure footnote in music history except that Schubert wrote an extremely beautiful sonata for it with piano after hearing its only virtuoso Vincenz Schuster. The arpeggione exists only in museums now but the Schubert sonata is widely played, using the cello and piano (there is also a flute and piano adaptation).

Beethoven also knew Anton Kraft and wrote powerful cello parts in his 16 string quartets. He also composed a “triple” concerto for piano, violin, cello and orchestra, for which Kraft played the cello part at the premiere in 1808. Beethoven composed five sonatas for cello and piano. The first two, written in 1796, are dominated by the piano part (played originally, of course, by the composer). However, by the time of the third sonata (1808), Beethoven had mastered the art of writing for the extremely expressive stringed instrument and began to feature the cello by allowing it to introduce many of the melodic subjects. The third cello sonata of Beethoven is one of the most thrilling pieces of chamber music ever written and a great performance of it is electrifying. Two more sonatas followed in 1815. By this time the cello was a totally equal partner of the piano. Beethoven’s contemporary, Franz Danzi, wrote cello concerti in honor of his father, the famous cellist Innocenz Danzi.

But it was in the Romantic era where the cello became a major solo instrument. Robert Schumann, inspired by its lyrical potential, composed his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in 1850. This is not a piece written on Classical lines, but rather a Romantic outpouring of intense feeling. Instead of the conventional three movements, Schumann writes in one long movement divided into three sections. The result is evocative of a Chopin piano concerto. After three initial orchestral chords, the cello introduces the ardent main theme. Soon thereafter the solo cello sings the second subject which, after a development section, grows into a bolder rhythm that stirs the cello to a passionate restatement of the main theme. Instead of the customary cadenza there is an orchestral section which leads to a dreamlike middle where the cello actually becomes a singer of beautiful, lyrical music (this is the moment in music history where the cello, for the first time, realizes its true potential). A lively section follows after which the main and secondary subjects from the beginning are recapitulated and finally the long awaited cadenza leads to a brilliant ending coda. This treatment of the cello line would be the inspiration for other Romantic pieces. Schumann also expands the role of the cello in quartet writing, having it finish one beat late at the end of his ingenious String Quartet #2.

Schumann’s protege, Johannes Brahms, wrote three major works for the cello. The first is the Sonata #1for Cello and Piano in E minor (1865). This is the first sonata for a solo instrument and piano that Brahms ever wrote and it exploits his penchant for dark tonal color. Like the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano and all of the late works for clarinet, the Cello Sonata #1 is brown-toned and introspective (there is an arrangement of this sonata for horn and piano which also emphasizes the dark timbre extant throughout). The cello primarily remains in the low register, adding to its already burnished musical voice. In 1886, the mature Brahms wrote a second cello sonata for the extremely gifted cellist Robert Hausmann. This sonata exploits the technical possibilities of the instrument, leaping into the highest register at the very beginning. Brahms, labeled by musicologists as an arch-conservative, here writes a progressive and passionate piece which changes mood frequently. The cello line is very expressive and is a harbinger of the great “Double” concerto to come.

In 1887 Brahms summered at Lake Thun in the Swiss Alps. As was his wont he went on long walks in the woods and it was during these experiences of great beauty that he conceived the idea for his Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, the great “Double” concerto. Here is the height of Brahmsian Romanticism, with gorgeous, healing melodies and exquisite blending of the sonorities of the two solo instruments. There is great pathos, empathy and poetry and a sense of the wonder of nature. Brahms keeps the orchestration light so that the combination of violin and cello is the predominant sound throughout. It is a unique and breathtakingly beautiful sound and a favorite of soloists to the present day. Hausmann played at the premiere with Brahms’ great friend, the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim.

During the late Romantic period the cello became a solo instrument for elongated, emotional passages in orchestral music and opera. Some examples of these beautiful passages are the third movement of the Piano Concerto #2 by Brahms, the music which immediately follows the storm at the beginning of Die Walkuere by Wagner, and the beginning of Act IV of Don Carlo by Verdi. Another Romantic composer wrote a very moving piece for cello and orchestra. In 1880 Max Bruch wanted to compose a piece for the Jewish community which would convey the beauty and suffering of their ritual prayer. He fashioned Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra, choosing the cello for its plangent cry and fostering in the process the myth that he was Jewish (Bruch was actually a member of a family of Protestant clerics).

Brahms was deeply impressed by the cello concerto of his young charge, Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak wrote his piece while living in the United States and was inspired by the two concerti of the American Victor Herbert. The Dvorak is probably the most popular cello concerto and also one of the most athletic. He does not follow the example of Schumann and Brahms by keeping the orchestration light, but rather beefs up the ensemble part to increase the brawny competition between a muscular soloist and the assembled accompaniment. The slow movement is extremely moving. It is dedicated to Dvorak’s sister-in-law and secret love, Josefina Kaunitzova, who had recently died. The finale contains one of the great endings in concert music. The solo part becomes softer and softer, “…like a sigh…” Dvorak wrote to his publisher, before the orchestra concludes the piece at a loud volume. Dvorak also wrote two other rustic works for solo cello and orchestra, Silent Woods and the Rondo, Op.94.

The nineteenth century ends with another fine essay for cello and orchestra, Don Quixote by Richard Strauss. Composed in 1898, it is the sixth of Strauss’ tone poems. The part of Don Quixote is played by the cello, that of Sancho Panza by the sonorously related viola, and Dulcinea is represented by the oboe, another instrument closely linked in tonal color to the cello. The piece consists of an introduction followed by ten variations and a finale, each section depicting a different scene in the knight-errant’s life. The cello part is the featured solo instrument and Strauss uses its emotional range to tell the story colorfully and effectively.

The twentieth century has produced two innovations that have made the cello a much more forceful instrument, easier to hear over the din of the orchestra. The first is the invention of steel strings, replacing their catgut ancestors. The second is the raising and bending of the end pin, which holds the tailpiece and strings to the instrument. By raising the angle of the end pin the strings are now decidedly more horizontal and receptive to the bow. The modern cello produces a significantly braver and more formidable sound than its predecessor and a modern virtuoso can thus easily handle the passages requiring great dexterity that are common to many twentieth century works. The century also saw the emergence of the cello virtuoso and the explosion of cello repertoire is the result of the talents of this special group of performers.

Although he lived to be 96, the greatest moment of Pablo Casals’ life occurred when he was 13 in the unlikely environs of a second hand music shop in Barcelona. It was here that he discovered the score to the six suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. These suites had been totally neglected by musicologists and Casals determined to master them. They consist of preludes followed by series of dance movements. When Casals performed them in concert at the very beginning of the twentieth century, he was roundly criticized for romanticizing Bach’s music. Up until that time Bach was considered a great professor and inventor of musical forms, a supreme mathematical craftsman. Casals showed that the man was also an absolute musician of extreme visceral power (conventional wisdom up to that point had seen an emotional connection only in the textual works, such as the St. Matthew Passion) and that these simple suites for a solo instrument were as varied and moving (at least in Casals’ big hands) as any music in Western civilization.

Pablo Casals was born in Catalonia on December 29, 1876. He played the cello in various café trios and theater orchestras until he debuted as a soloist with the Madrid Symphony in 1897. He toured extensively as a soloist, playing for Queen Victoria in 1899 and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. It is the measure of his longevity that he also played for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He formed a famous trio with the violinist Jacques Thibaud and the pianist Alfred Cortot and this trio continued to perform until 1937, making many exceptional recordings during these early electrical studio days. He also became an accomplished conductor and formed his own orchestra in 1919. During the Spanish Civil War, Casals settled in the southern French village of Prades and in 1950, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, he organized the Prades Festival, from where he made many fine recordings. In 1956 he moved to Puerto Rico (the homeland of his mother) which remained his home until his death in 1973. He conducted extensively at the Marlboro Festival of Music in Vermont. Casals was also a composer and conducted his own work at the United Nations in 1971. At the age of 80 he married the 20-year-old cellist Marta Montanez who in later life as Marta Istomin became the influential president of the Manhattan School of Music.

Casals totally redefined the art of cello playing. His composer’s ear allowed him to shape a phrase with a poetic rubato and his conducting experience helped to emphasize the architecture of a piece during his performance at the cello. He was a great risk-taker and often in live performance he would play a wrong note. This only added to the emotional content of his performing style and anyone who heard Casals perform live can testify to the honesty of his technique (or occasional lack of same) as servant to the music. In the 1930’s Arnold Schoenberg, a self-taught cellist, came to Barcelona for a contemporary music festival. Casals invited him to conduct there and, in gratitude, the great Austrian composer wrote a piece for the great Spanish cellist. Schoenberg had edited the Cello Concerto in B Flat Major by Monn and he now fashioned a new cello concerto for Casals from a harpsichord concerto that Monn had written in 1746. This piece is a dignified modern interpretation of a Classical model and appealed to Casals’ love of Haydn and his contemporaries.

Schoenberg wasn’t the only cellist who became a significant modern composer. The Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) developed the notion that the purity of Bach’s music blended splendidly with the native rhythms of the Amazon peoples. The lively raconteur even told the story that he was saved from becoming the main course at a headhunters’ dinner because of his own beautiful cello playing. He wrote a series of pieces entitled Bachianas Brasileiras which are brilliant interweavings of native rhythmic patterns with melodic Western music. Two of these compositions are for eight cellos and one of these has a vocal part as well.

One of the great virtuosos of the twentieth century was the Russian Gregor Piatigorsky. In the 1920’s Piatigorsky was the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic and played the solo part in Quixote many times under Strauss’ direction (Strauss referred to Piatigorsky as “mein Don Quixote”). He came to America in the 1930’s and had a brilliant career as a soloist and as the chamber music partner of Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein. Several composers wrote concerti for Piatigorsky, including Paul Hindemith and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Piatigorsky’s countryman, Mstislav Rostropovich, is the most influential cellist of modern times. “Slava”, as he is affectionately known, is a consummate artist and remarkably accomplished in three musical fields. In addition to his cello prowess, Rostropovich is a fine pianist and an eminent conductor. His signature style of attack reveals his virile, no holds barred, approach to life. He can play the cello almost like a percussion instrument, as is evidenced by his performances of the Shostakovich Concerto #1, a work which was written in his honor and inspired by his atavistic technique. In fact, over 100 works have been written for this master cellist, including major pieces by Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Britten, Walton, Miaskovsky, Schnittke, Kabalevsky, Ginastera and Bernstein. Rostropovich was a sensation in the Soviet Union, but his outspoken stance against government oppression eventually led to the revocation of his Soviet citizenship. He has become a true citizen of the world (he travels with a letter from the principality of Monaco but with no official passport) and was the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. for many years. In addition to his countless appearances as a cellist and conductor he has been heard often as he accompanies the recitals of his wife, the singer Galina Vishnevskaya.

One of the most beautiful cello pieces of the twentieth century is the Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra of Serge Prokofieff. Prokofieff actively sought out the aid of Rostropovich while composing this work and the final performing version is dedicated to him. Dmitri Shostakovich was a great friend to Slava and both of his cello concerti are dedicated to him. Rostropovich has championed the symphonies of Shostakovich and performed many concerts of them in the United States. But the most creative partnership forged by Rostropovich was with Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote five major works dedicated to Slava and these pieces are the cornerstone of the modern cello repertoire. Rostropovich spent many summers at Britten’s summer festival at Aldeburgh and the Sonata for Cello and Piano was written there. There is a marvelous recording of the piece with Rostropovich as the cellist and the composer at the piano. There is also a recording of the Britten Symphony for Cello and Orchestra with Slava and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. Inspired by Bach, Britten wrote three suites for solo cello and all three were premiered by and were dedicated to Rostropovich. This is Britten at his cerebral best, imposing a modern dissonant approach on a Baroque form. Rostropovich admired Britten’s pianism so much that after Britten’s death he refused to perform the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata any longer, since his performances with Britten as his accompanist were unsurpassable.

There is a marvelous video of a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet featuring five friends who would each go on to classical music superstardom. The violinist is Itzhak Perlman, the violist Pinchas Zukerman, the pianist Daniel Barenboim, the double bass player Zubin Mehta and the cellist is the amazingly talented Jacqueline Du Pre. It is a joy to see these five young people play with such exuberance, but the eye returns again and again to the photogenic cellist. A classical record marketing executive’s dream, Jacqueline Du Pre combined great physical beauty with an uncanny musicianship and a larger than life aristocratic personality. Her storybook romance with Barenboim, which culminated in a celebrated wedding, was much publicized by the record companies.

Quoting from a previous article about cult figures:

“Jacqueline Du Pre was born at Oxford, England on January 26, 1945. Her mother, a concert pianist, encouraged her to play the cello, which she did from the age of four. Her sister Hilary reports that she made the entire audience cry when she played Faure's Elegie at the age of eight. She attended the London Cello School but was bored by it and became the private pupil of William Pleeth. Later she studied with Paul Tortelier, Casals and Rostropovich. At sixteen, she made her professional debut and was an instant success. Some anonymous donor gave her the famous “Davidov” cello made by Antonio Stradivarius and she embarked on a whirlwind career as a soloist. She was most famous for her highly emotional reading of the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she recorded twice, first with the London Symphony under Sir John Barbirolli and then, some years later, with Barenboim and the Philadelphia Orchestra. There is an extremely poignant opening for the solo cello in the Elgar concerto, and Jacqueline Du Pre was its greatest interpreter. Her discography includes performances of the Brahms Sonata #2, recorded when she was 17, fine performances of the standard concerto repertoire and an extremely passionate reading of the Schumann concerto.
Du Pre embodied the spirit of the 1960’s for many young people. Her long blond hair and her devil may care style of playing were in keeping with the rebellious rock music of the time. ‘I love the physical thing of being on the earth that bore you…’, she said in a magazine interview in 1968, ‘…I have the same feeling when I walk in a very beautiful place that I have when I play…’ She was well on her way to a brilliant career when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to curtail her concert schedule in the 1970’s. She died in 1987.”

One more virtuoso of the late twentieth century has had a profound effect on the cello repertoire. Yo-Yo Ma, the son of Chinese composer Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was born in Paris. His family came to America when he was young and he studied music at Harvard with the composer Leon Kirchner. Ma possesses a controlled intensity in his playing that is unmatched by any other contemporary cellist. His intonation never abandons him and he can play through a large-scale work like the Dvorak concerto without wavering. His performances of the Brahms sonatas with Emmanuel Ax are models of intellectual purity, as are his interpretations of the Bach suites and the sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. He has experimented with many styles of music, including jazz with Bobby McFerrin and bluegrass with Mark O’Connor. Ma has espoused unusual music such as the tango and has recorded several Asian works, including those of Tan Dun. He has also commissioned a number of modern cello concerti and has been involved in film as well. He uses his winning personality to help in popularizing the cause of classical music and musical education and has appeared on many television programs including Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As an engaging ambassador for Carnegie Hall (and a member of their board), Mr. Ma is deeply involved in music education and dissemination on a grand scale.

After Brahms had seen the new cello concerto of Dvorak he reportedly said “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a violoncello concerto like this?” It is safe to assume that there are not a large number of famous cello concerti because not too many composers were cellists. However, the pieces that do exist showcase an instrument of intense beauty and melancholy. In the hands of a great composer and a master performer the cello has the potential for many profound and moving musical experiences.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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