The cello is a gortgoeus instrument, its rich, low tone ideally suited to some of classical music's most soulful pieces. Here is our pick of some of the best works written for cello.
What are some of the best works for cello?
Elgar: Cello Concerto, Adagio
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is one of the most famous works in the cello repertoire. It was one of Elgar’s later works, composed in 1919, after having agreed many years before that he would write such a concerto.
Jacqueline du Pré’s elegiac rendition of this movement remains the most notable recording of the work to date. Recorded in 1965, du Pré’s interpretation was so popular that her teacher Mstislav Rostropovich removed the work from his own repertoire. Elgar’s use of rich, evocative melodies and minimal orchestral backing generates a sense of melancholy that lasts throughout the movement.
Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals
A highlight of Saint-Saëns’s compositional output, The Carnival of the Animals is a suite made up of 14 short movements, each representing a different animal. It received its premiere performance at private concert in 1886, but Saint-Saëns specified that the work should be published posthumously, so the first public performance wasn’t given until 1922.
This penultimate movement is particularly well known, having now become a staple of the cello repertoire. This dreamlike work carries the cello through interwoven major and minor phrases backed by recurring broken chords on the piano.
Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano), Radio France PO/Marek Janowski (1990)
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Schubert: Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano (transcribed for cello)
This sonata from Schubert is a challenge for cellists as its melody is transcribed from a part initially written for the six-string Arpeggione – a bowed guitar which fell out of use soon after its invention due to its lack of a distinct orchestral role.
However, those who master the piece provide an exquisite listening experience as they guide the audience through a map of gentle yet demandingly technical phrases interspersed with indulgent, sustained notes which dominate the Adagio movement.
Bach: Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude
No list of top cello works would be complete without Bach’s First Cello Suite. As a solo piece of average difficulty, this work provides an ideal platform for intermediate-level cellists to grapple with one of the greats, if not the great, in timeless cello music.
Which lesser known composers composed great works for cello?
Bruch: Kol Nidrei
This remarkable 12-minute work for orchestra and cello has religious connotations: the melody is devised to imitate the voice of a Jewish cantor (hence the title, which translates as ‘All Vows’). The piece also draws on a poem by Lord Byron, ‘Those that Wept on Babel’s stream’ from his collection Hebrew Melodies.
Interestingly, Bruch was in fact a Protestant Christian – this work was inspired by his many Jewish friends. Du Pré’s second appearance on this list is a testament to her lasting impression on audiences worldwide.
Kodaly: Sonata for Solo Cello, 1st movement
With its erratic melody and daring octave leaps, this is undoubtedly the most energetic work on this list. However, this does not take away from the emotional legitimacy of the piece: the vigorous, animated phrases are interrupted by sumptuously deep chords which ground the work in a sense of dramatic grief.
The theatricality of this piece is embedded by the lack of accompaniment, making the solo cello all the more striking.
Listen to our playlist of the best cello works here:
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.