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Famous Cello Concertos

Updated on September 25, 2014
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Lovely works for the Cello

Famous Cello Concertos

side note: I'm not including recordings alongside the cello compositions mentioned on this article; however, there are myriads of recordings of these works available for your enjoyment pleasure on the world-wide net - especially the Dvorak concerti!

This is my third article on “famous concertos” series. In the world of classical music, one can argue, that the cello is second in popularity only to the piano and violin. It’s a lovely instrument, capable of producing lovely and lyrical passages, yet also capable of producing fast running passages requiring great virtuosic prowess.

As I’ve previously explained in my “Famous Piano Concertos” and “Famous Violin Concertos” articles, a concerto is typically a work for soloist and orchestra. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the cello was not as popular in concertos as the violin, flute or harpsichord. Nevertheless, because the cello is capable of producing passionate and striking passages, it became quite famous throughout the Romantic Period - 1850 and after.

This article will focus exclusively on cello concertos written in the 19th and 20th centuries, as this is when the instrument rose up in “solo” popularity amongst musicians and audiences. Nevertheless, there were many composers who wrote cello concertos in the 18th century...Haydn being one of them....

Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Opus 104 - composed in the USA between 1894-1895
What can one say that hasn’t already been said about this famous cello concerto. It is Dvorak’s most famous composition alongside his Symphony No. 9 - From the New World. Not only was Dvorak one of the most gifted lyricist that has ever lived, but he was also a very successful composer - yes, he was paid quite well for his services. The National Conservatory of New York City (no longer in existence), paid Dvorak $15,000 a year for the honor of having him as their music director. ...wow, think now? $15,000 dollars a year in a time when even relatively successful individuals only made around $150 dollars a year or so. After reading this...I’ll bet you’ll never say that the great classical composers starved! Well, before you say anything, remember that Dvorak was one of the most gifted classical composers that has ever lived, so I think he merit $15,000 dollars---but well, who knows? Dvorak’s position as the director of the National Conservatory of New York City lasted for three years. The work is in three movements and it’s one of the most, some will say the most beautiful concerto ever written for its perspective instrument. The work is in large sonata allegro form. Just like symphonies, concertos typically use large musical forms - sonata allegro forms in their first movements, and large rondo forms in their final movements.

Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Opus 129 - composed in 1850
There arent too many music scholars around that will say Dvorak was a greater composer than Schumann, unfortunately, popularity and money are needed and desired---not only amongst the greats in music, but also in most other fields as well. The Schumann Cello Concerto is musically groundbreaking, but it does not come close to the Dvorak concerto in fame and popularity; Schumann was musically very much ahead of his day. Additionally, Dvorak’s greatness lies mainly in his knack for melody and lyricism; Schumann's greatness lies in his knack for being esoteric and unconventional. What’s interesting to me, is that Schumann was quite lyrical in his small, short and simple piano compositions (Kinderszenen). All said, this concerto is quite lovely in its own right, and has become a staple of the cello repertoire.

Camille Saint Saens: Cello Concerto in A minor, Opus 33 - composed in 1872
For being one of music's greatest child prodigies, Saint Saens sure waited a long time to write this very popular cello concerto. The concerto is quite lyrical and has become one of Saint Saens’ most famous compositions. The work is typically performed by young cellists, because it’s not as long or emotionally involved as Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, or complicated as Schumann’s Cello Concerto. As a composer, I don’t think Saint Saens can hold a candle to either Dvorak or to Schumann; nevertheless, just like Dvorak, Saint Saens was a very successful musician in his day....

Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85 - composed in 1919
This is not only one of the most famous cello concertos ever written, but also one of the saddest and most beautiful compositions ever written, period. Just like Dvorak, Elgar was a very gifted lyricist and orchestrator, as shown in this profound work. However, unlike the Dvorak Cello Concerto, it took a long time for this work to become famous and popular among audiences.

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Opus 33 - composed in 1877
In music, “Rococo” is the brief period that existed between the Classical and Romantic Period (Well, these periods existed in painting first....). Mozart, Tchaikovsky’s personal favorite composer, wrote a few Rococo compositions himself. This work is not a concerto, but it has become very popular---what else is new? Tchaikovsky is probably the most famous classical composer (romantic actually) of all times.

Final Thoughts:

There are other famous works for cello and orchestra, but these five compositions are exceptional and have stood the test of time.













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    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      2 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I recently attended the Nashville Symphony. Guest violinist Gil Shaham was mind-blowing and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero poured his expertise and passion into the Tchaikovsky violin concerto in D major, Op.35. My next hope is to attend a Cello Concerto.

      I love your articles John. How wonderful to have someone with your knowledge share so much with us. I learn from you and want you to know how much I appreciate this opportunity. Thank you and will share everywhere.

      Audrey

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Suzette,

      Yes, the cello is a popular instrument and quite challenging to learn, as I was just telling Deborah. I do love it though. One of favorite of all musical instruments.

      Thank you for stopping by and take care

      John

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Deborah,

      Yes, cello is one of my favorite instruments as well. It's a challenging instrument to learn.

      Thank you for stopping by and take care

      John

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great article. You are certainly and expert in the area of classical music. I have read some of your other articles too. I had no idea the cello was such a popular instrument - only after piano and violin. It doesn't surprise me though, because of the mellow sound it offers to a musical piece. I love cello solos, in string ensembles and in orchestras. Thanks so much for review the important cello works.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      4 years ago from Iowa

      I've always loved the sound of the cello. It it is my favorite string instrument. I will need to look for some recordings of these pieces.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Laraine, thank you.

      Yes, the Bach family is "unjustly neglected" period. I think people like "show" and Dvorak and Elgar give the masses of "classical music lovers" what they come for; "classical music," a vernacular of course, because Dvorak and Elgar were Romantic composers.

    • profile image

      Laraine 

      4 years ago

      Try the cello concertos of C P E Bach, John. They are still unjustly neglected and this ear is CPE's tricentenary so it's the right time to give them a try.

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