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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 7

Some Century for the Cello!

by Matthew McFarlane / April 3, 2003

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"Wow, where do you even begin?" answers cellist Antonio Lysy when asked to name an influential cello piece of the 20th century. And indeed, what a difficult question to answer. The 20th century has been more than kind to the cello, helping to solidify its place as a premiere solo instrument.

Lysy thinks there are two reasons for the cello's popularity. "Some of it has come from the players, but I also think composers liked the cello because of its range," says the McGill professor and concert performer. "The instrument has moved from being a bass instrument to an instrument that can go quite high. And I think its range has helped its incredible popularity. Lots of people love writing for it, and that's great!"

The cello's early history shows some remarkable holes, given its recent prominence as a solo instrument. Despite some sonatas, many composers largely ignored the cello for concertos (Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert spring to mind). Luckily, some thought the instrument was important enough to warrant a concerto and the instrument grew slowly in popularity.

Rachmaninoff started the 20th century off on the right foot with his Sonata in G minor. Despite being uneven in difficulty (the piano part is considerably more challenging), Rachmaninoff set the tone for a number of popular late romantic works. Certainly, the highlights of this romantic spillover are Bloch's Schelomo and Elgar's Concerto. The latter is a stunning reflection of the First World War and one of Elgar's most passionate compositions. Recordings by Pablo Casals, Jacqueline Du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma helped make it one of the most popular concertos of the twentieth century.

The cello was also accepted as an instrument of musical change. Antonio Lysy feels that the Debussy Sonata of 1915 marks an important turning point. "Its language is so different from anything in our repertoire," says Lysy. "The impressionistic quality is so rare for the cello. When you come to it for the first time, it requires a completely different language."

The musical world wasn't just changing in style and repertoire; it was changing in technical proficiency as well. And no personality towers larger over this change than the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. His interpretation of Bach's Six Cello Suites, and his subsequent recordings (still a novel concept at the time) led to a new appreciation of the instrument. Despite his reticence towards contemporary music, Casals helped define a new level of playing and brought new awareness of the instrument.

Between 1900 and 1960, over 160 works were written for solo cello. The most popular and one of the most groundbreaking was Zoltán Kodály's Solo Sonata, composed in 1915. Yegor Dyachkov, a Moscow-born concert cellist who now lives in Montreal, feels that the Kodály Sonata broke the mold when it came to composing for cello: "It was very much out of its time when it was written and explored the cello to a great extent. At the time no one expected that you could do that much with the cello." Kodály's Sonata calls for left hand pizzicato as well as an alternative tuning of the cello's G and C strings (scordatura).

If Casal's Bach recordings helped bring the cello more musical prominence, it was Soviet-born Mstislav Rostropovich who brought the instrument firmly into the 20th century. At last count, Rostropovich had premiered over one hundred compositions, many of them becoming standards of the repertoire.

Rostropovich's former homeland has produced some of the most interesting cello repertoire of the last century. Prokofiev was a big fan of the cello, writing a Concertino, a Sonata and the Sinfonia-Concertante. The latter functioned as a model for Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. Shostakovich said he had played his Prokofiev recording so much that it emitted only a faint hiss. Shostakovich's performance of his own concerto and the subsequent recordings in 1959 by Rostropovich, Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra were critically acclaimed. Shostakovich's Second Concerto as well as his Sonata are further fine examples of cello composition.

Perhaps due to Prokofiev's and Shostakovich's dedication to the cello, later generations of Soviet composers embraced the instrument. Alfred Schnittke composed two concertos and two sonatas for the instrument. Sofia Gubaidulina has composed extensively for the cello, including her works Sieben Worte and In Croce as well as 10 solo preludes, and Galina Ustvolskaya's seething Grand Duet for cello and piano is one of the most disturbing reflections on musical life in the Soviet Union.

But composers throughout the world were writing for the cello. Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski wrote his concerto for Rostropovich in 1970. French contributions include Francis Poulenc's underperformed Sonata and Darius Milhaud's two concertos. In Germany, Hindemith and Krenek wrote concertos for the instrument, Schoenberg dedicated an arranged Monn concerto to Pablo Casals and Stockhausen wrote Spiral for cello and electronics. Rostropovich's friendship with the English composer Benjamin Britten produced the Cello Suites, a sonata, and the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, all outstanding additions to the cello repertoire. Fellow Englishmen Walton, Bridge, Delius and Ireland all contributed important works to the repertory.

In the United States, Samuel Barber wrote both a sonata and a concerto, Elliot Carter a Sonata and John Cage several fascinating and challenging works, including One8 for cello and curved bow. In South America, Heitor Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras for cello ensemble and Astor Piazzolla's Grand Tango are all unique examples of cello writing. Piazzola brought the tango to the cello in his Grand Tango, written for Rostropovich. Here in Canada, Jean Coulthard, Jacques Hétu, André Prevost, Bruce Mather and Brian Cherney have composed for the instrument.

As the last century drew to a close a new generation of composers continued to write for the cello. John Tavener's holy-minimalist The Protecting Veil stands out in terms of popularity but Brian Ferneyhough, Tan Dun, Kaija Saariaho and Jonathan Harvey have all contributed new works to the modern cello repertory. Its popularity and growth seem all but guaranteed.

Some recommended recordings for those interested in hearing more.

20th Century Classics

  • Shostakovich:Cello Concerto No. 1,Kodaly: Solo Sonata, Op. 8
  • Pieter Wispelwey: cello, Australian Chamber Orchestra Channel Classics 15398
  • Barber Cello Concerto, Britten Symphony for Cello
  • Yo-Yo Ma: cello, Baltimore SO, Zinman: cond. Sony Classical 44900
  • Dutilleux Cello Concerto "Tout un Monde Lointain... ", Cello Concerto - Lutoslawski
  • Mstislav Rostropovich: cello, Orchestre de Paris, Baudo and Lutoslawski: conds. EMI 67868
  • Strauss: Cello Sonata, Barber: Cello Sonata, Debussy: Cello Sonata, Lutoslawski: Grave Metamorphoses
  • Shauna Rolston: cello, Bernadene Blaha: pno. CBC Records MVCD 1118
  • Tavener: Protecting Veil, Thrinos, Britten: Cello Suite No. 3
  • Steven Isserlis: cello, London SO, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: cond. EMI Classics 561859
  • Ginastera, Fortner, Henze, Beck, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Berio, Halffter, Britten, Huber, Holliger, Boulez: 12 Hommages a Paul Sacher
  • Patrick Demenga, Thomas Demenga: cellos ECM New Series 1520

More to Explore

  • Gubaidulina: Seven Words, Silenzio, In Croce
  • Maria Kliegel: cello, Elsbeth Moser: bayan, Kathrin Rabus: violin, Camerata Transsylvanica, György Selmeczi: cond. Naxos 8.553557
  • Jonathan Harvey: Concerto, Curve with Plateaux, Ricercare una Melodia, Sketches, Philia's Dream
  • Frances-Marie Uitti: cello, Jonathan Harvey, synthesizer Etcetera 1148
  • John Cage: Etudes Boreales I-IV, 21'1.1499", Variations 1-3, A Dip in the Lake, Lecture on Nothing
  • Frances-Marie Uitti: cello Etcetera 2016

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