Cello Mad!

When I first started teaching cello in a primary school, I decided to start a cello ensemble so the children could experience the fun of playing music together. Conducting the cello ensemble was actually more fun than making small talk in the rather staid staff room at lunch time. I was surprised by the reaction of the deputy head who told me that I shouldn’t work through my break and that I was ‘cello mad’!

“Well, what’s wrong with that”, I thought, “I am the cello teacher, of course I’m ‘cello mad’!” Since that day, I have always encouraged my students to play in cello ensembles as it is a great way to give them the melodic lines that they don’t always get in other types of ensemble. Soon after I started teaching, in one of my secondary schools, I had a wonderfully musical group of pupils who played well in tune and beautifully in time together. I arranged some pieces for them to perform in a school concert and was feeling really pleased with their sensitive interpretation. My colleague warned me: “You won’t always get pupils to play like this. They are quite exceptional.” He was right, they were exceptional, but that didn’t stop me starting many more ensembles some of which turned out to be just as accomplished.

Whether they are accomplished or not isn’t the point though. Feeling that thrill and the camaraderie that comes from playing music together is what it is about. What can work really well is to have an ensemble that includes all the cello and double bass pupils in a school. The less experienced players can play an easy part but still have the fun of joining a big cello/bass family and being part of a lovely, lush sound.

We are in good company: there’s ‘The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic’ who have produced several CDs of lush sounding arrangements for cellos, as have ‘The London Cello Sound’ (made up of 40 cellists from four London orchestras). There are countless amateur and professional cello ensembles on You Tube including the smallest group possible: two. The internationally famous Croatian duo ‘2Cellos’: Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser play classical, pop, rock and film music in performances that combine virtuosity with light-heartedness. Here they are playing music from the film Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of their arrangements are available to buy and can be played by at least four cellos by splitting the double-stopping in each part.

From the smallest ensemble to one of the largest: cellist and composer Giovani Sollima gathers an ensemble of 100 cellos. When I first saw Sollima with his various ensembles of cellists on You Tube I felt I had found a kindred spirit. If an internationally famous composer and cellist can have fun playing alongside his ensemble of students then so can I. There are silly moments in some of the performances, including one where they confront that annoying dilemma of how to turn a page whilst playing the cello. Sollima makes a humorous feature of this, as they all stop playing and turn their pages at once – noisily! Watching these clips, I think Sollima would certainly qualify as ‘cello mad’!

For any other ‘cello mad’ people out there, here’s my list of great cello ensemble music:

  • Bachianas Brasilieras by the Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos who was also a cellist. No. 1 is scored for an orchestra of cellos and no. 5 for soprano and 8 cellos. Here’s the first part of no 5:
  • Fratres for 4, 8 or 12 cellos by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. There are many versions of this piece which makes use of harmonics to produce bell like effects.
  • Concerto in G minor for 5 cellos by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (Publisher: Kunzelmann). This is one of three Concerto Grossi, with cellos 1 – 3 playing concertino parts and the other two forming the ripieno. I have used this with a school cello group which had 3 advanced players. All parts are in tenor clef.gm1216.jpg
  • Violoncelles, vibrez! by Sollima for 8 cellos. It is named after the words his cello teacher, Antonio Janigro, used to say to his students: instructing them to make their cellos vibrate. There are two solo parts, with lots of slides to the end of the fingerboard and there are several versions: with string orchestra or cello ensemble of 4, 6 or 8 cellos. Here it is with Sollima himself and 100 Cellos:
  • Concerto in G minor for 2 cellos and string orchestra (or piano reduction) by Antonio Vivaldi. This is an exciting piece with lots of imitation, great fun for two advanced cellists.
  • Sonata in G minor (Opus 2 no. 8 ) for 2 cellos and harpsichord/piano by Handel. This is a gorgeous cello-friendly piece.
  • Violin Phase by Steve Reich. For people who have no friends there’s no need to miss out on the ensemble playing experience! Here’s a video of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase arranged for cello. The skill required to play this music is immense in terms of concentration as one part goes out of time with the next creating that phased effect.
  • Cello Counterpoint for 8 cellos, a fiendishly difficult piece by Steve Reich which you can play with a soundtrack of the other parts already recorded.

Obviously any music can be arranged for cello ensemble and if you make arrangements yourself, you can tailor them to the level of playing of each player, adding double bass parts if required: perfect for school ensembles.

Here’s a couple of examples of effective arrangements for cello ensemble: firstly, the Prague Cello Quartet with The Phantom of the Opera:

And the Waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite played by Cellostrada.

The following pieces can be played by an intermediate school group:

  • Pavane by Arbeau arranged by Anita Hewitt-Jones (Musicland). My students love playing this piece.
  • Three Pieces for Cello Ensemble arranged by Robin Erskine (Lomond Music). Another favourite amongst my students this album contains three pieces: Mattachins, The Handsome Butcher and Little Brown Jug, in easy arrangements.
  • The Scots Cello Book 1 edited by David Johnson has five short tunes arranged for cello duet and four tunes for cello quartet.
  • Early Pieces for two and three cellos, edited by PEJTSIK Arpad (Editio Music Budapest). This album contains lots of short attractive pieces by various composers including Purcell, Telemann, J.S.Bach, Couperin, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
  • Four Pieces for Four Cellos arranged by Doreen Smith (OUP). A very useful book with attractive arrangements of pieces by Byrd, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz.
  • Deux Danses by Bruce Fraser (Lomond Music). Two exciting movements for cello quartet.
  • 18 Duets for Two Cellos by Bartok (Universal Edition).
  • Renaissance Tunes arranged by Marco Pallis (Thames). For two cellos.

The following are for groups with three players above grade 5 standard:

  • The Entertainer by Scott Joplin (Kunzelmann) arranged for four cellos.
  • Canon in D by Pachelbel arranged by Aaron Williams (Ricordi). One person has to volunteer to play the ‘ground bass’ – the same four bars over and over. The other three parts are in tenor clef but could be transcribed into bass clef.

The following pieces are written with a dedicated double bass part.

  • 6 Sonatas for 3 cellos and double bass by Wagenseil. (Doblinger).
  • Duetto for cello and bass by Rossini (Yorke Edition).
  • Duet in G minor for cello and double bass by Cherubini (Music Unlimited).

For younger players:

  • Threes and Fours by Sheila Nelson (Boosey and Hawkes).
  • Lollipops (Duets) by Anita Hewitt-Jones (Musicland).

Click here for a playlist of cello ensemble music.