The Cello

The violoncello, or cello for short, is one of music’s most flexible instruments, thanks to its ability to sing to the heights and plunge to the depths in equal measure. It’s equally at home performing unaccompanied solo works as it is as a key member of the string quartet or symphony orchestra. A member of the violin family (but not directly descended from its older cousin, the viol), the cello was one of the workhorses of the Baroque era. One of its main functions was supporting instrumental and vocal solos as part of a continuo—an accompaniment line usually played by a bass instrument and keyboard or lute. However, its role as an ensemble workhorse didn’t stop Bach from composing his six incredible cello suites around 1720. Technically, musically, and spiritually demanding as well as unassailably beautiful, these seminal works were revived by the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals in the early 1900s. Today, they form the backbone of every cellist’s study. The Classical era saw the cello come into its own as a solo instrument thanks to an elegant pair of concertos by Haydn, while the 19th century brought an abundance of orchestral works, concertos, and chamber music that took the cello to new expressive peaks. For a taste of the cello’s many musical sides, listen here to the hypnotically beautiful Bach cello suites, its starring role in Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote and its majestic presence in Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

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