VIDEO: The Cello
‘Monsieur – you make me believe in miracles. You know how to make a nightingale out of an ox!’ That was the 18th-century French writer Voltaire talking to cellist Jean-Louis Duport, and goes a long way to explaining how the violoncello, or cello for short, was generally regarded at the time: lumbering, ungraceful, unwieldy… It still wasn’t considered a solo instrument, despite the fact that JS Bach had been enlightened enough to write six incredible pioneering suites for the instrument. The cello still lurked in the continuo section of an orchestra, providing the bass, but not much else. It was a platform on which other instruments could shine.
But technology played a big part in allowing the cello to emerge from the shadows. During the late 17th and 18th centuries, gut strings were replaced by ones wound with silver wire, allowing the cello’s sound to project much further – suddenly, composers began to realise that this instrument had a larger range even than the violin.
And following on from pianist Franz Liszt and violinist Paganini, who were wowing audiences with a new kind of virtuoso mania, a new wave of composers started giving cellists a run for their money. Players rose to the challenge, stretching technique to its very limits, paving the way for a 19th-century golden age of concertos and sonatas – Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Schumann, and slightly later, Britten, Prokofiev and Elgar. The cello was at last able to take its place centre stage.
But it was Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals who in the first half of the 20th century really sealed the deal for the cello. He played with a power, volume and warmth of tone that simply hadn’t been heard before. And he made the cello music of the old masters Brahms, Beethoven, Bach and Haydn speak to a new generation of music lovers.
The second half of the 20th century, however, belonged to the Soviet Mstislav Rostropovich, a cellist who encouraged the great composers of the day, including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, to write some of the cello’s great modern masterpieces for him. And he had the strength of personality to inspire again a new band of players who continue to fly the flag for this most beautiful and expressive of instruments.
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