The cello is in the chordophone classification of musical instruments. It is also in the sub-classification of stringed instruments. It would be impossible to forget the vital role the cello plays in orchestral and chamber music as well as its abilities as a solo instrument. The conventional string quartet would be without the underpinnings of its sound as the cello is the foundation for the standard string quartet. It provides the lowest of notes among the instruments of the string quartet, supporting both the viola and the violins. The cello plays a key and vital role in string quartet performances as well as in duets with various instruments, trios, quintets, small group ensembles and of course the symphony orchestra. The cello is also very capable of being a solo instrument.
Played using a bow and/or the fingers of the right hand and fretted using the left hand fingers the cello has many articulations available which makes it a very versatile musical instrument. Articulations such as pizzicato, staccato, sul ponticello, sul tasto and senza sordo are several of the possible articulations which broadens its use and application. The varied sounds emanating from the cello range from an expression of extreme sadness made possible in its low register, the middle register offers the expressive soulfulness this instrument is capable of and the upper register gives us the exciting and vibrant sounds adding to its overall versatility.
Historically, a variety of well known composers have written concertos and sonatas for the cello including those made famous by Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Boccherini, Haydn, and several others. Of particular noteworthiness is the collection of six solo cello suites from the internationally honored and highly recognized composer Johann Sebastian Bach who has given the world and the overall repertoire for the cello the most amazing compositions. His cello suites are considered to be some of the most important works for the cello. The cello suites, as a collection of instrumental pieces, definitely gives the cellist an opportunity to show off the various capabilities and the possibilities of sounds from the cello.
In this upcoming video, cellist Mischa Maisky gives an excellent performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No 1, Prelude. What is clearly demonstrated, besides Maisky’s performance skills, are the sublime sounds offered through the cello and a taste of the remaining cello suites composed by Bach.
In more recent years the cello continues to gain audiences and an increasing number of cellists reflects the continued popularity of the cello and its repertoire. Such composers as Rostropovich, Debussy, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich have given us a much larger repertoire of concertos and sonatas for the cello as well adding repertoire to orchestral music where the cello is an important instrument in these works.
The cello is performed and loved the world over and it is equally enjoyed by both the avid classical music enthusiast as well as listeners of popular bands of today, when the cello is an included instrument of the group. Chamber music continues to be popular and many musical works have been written for the string duet, trio, quartet, quintet and other combinations of instruments such as the cello and piano, cello and violin. cello and oboe, and multiple celli, among several others. It is highly likely that the cello will remain a popular instrument in the coming years.
We hope this general overview of the cello provides a basis for understanding this excellent musical instrument. More will be written about it including its capabilities, limitations and uses as we continue writing about musical instruments including the cello.