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The 8 greatest and most famous cellists of all time

There are cellists who have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the world of music and, in some cases, even on the world at large, not only bringing about a substantial change in their discipline but also in the lives of others.

We can agree that there are hundreds of virtuoso cellists in every generation; however, only a few come to mind when we have to choose a handful of the best among the best, and it’s not possible to limit ourselves to their skills to decide.

There’s something these cellists emanate that surpasses the technical excellence required to enter such a hall of fame entirely.

About me

Manuel Villar Lifac, writer at Higher Hz

My musical journey began over 25 years ago, dedicating myself to both popular and academic music. Despite having had the pleasure of working with several of my country’s greatest musicians, I remain continuously engaged in this infinite path of learning.

My experience working in symphony orchestras, international tours with folk music groups, composing original music for film, and even research trips to remote places like India, have led me to notice common motifs across vastly different genres for what makes a musician stand out.

Throughout all these years, this has been a theme that has always intrigued me, as unraveling its mysteries has been one of my main driving forces in finding ways to improve myself in aspects that include music but also extend beyond it.

How I chose the greatest cellists

The cello has existed for centuries, but its most famous exponents are from a more recent time.

When it comes to transcending as instrumentalists, the ability to make recordings has been crucial and very few cellists have broken the barrier in the era of phonographic recordings.

All the cellists on this list stand out for having contributed significant matters through their performances that we can still hear today, as well as through other avenues.

If we want to be fair, this list would be enormous, so my selection criteria haven’t been based solely on what these cellists have achieved with their instruments but also with their lives, achieving undeniable significance.

In addition to the aforementioned requirements, the cellists I’ve selected fulfill one more indispensable requirement that goes beyond reason – and if there’s something that also goes beyond reason, it’s music: they instantly popped right into my head.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805)

Luigi Boccherini portrait
Luigi Boccherini | Portrait: Pompeo Batoni

The name of the cello was born in Italy, just like this cellist who may not be as well-known as the others on this list mainly because there are no recordings that allow us to bear witness to his prowess.

Boccherini is more famous as a composer than as a cellist, although he has an immensely important reason to be among the greatest cellists of all time, and that is having composed the famous Cello Concerto in B-flat major.

The reason this gives him significance is that his Cello Concerto is an absolutely fundamental piece in the repertoire of every classical cellist, having forever shaped the instrument’s repertoire.

No cellist aiming for a professional career can do without knowing his work, which is a classic in top-level competitions, and numerous cellists have entered their dream orchestras thanks to mastering his work.

Without a doubt, Boccherini has contributed to the world of the cello by overcoming a huge difficulty, which is having such relevance in these times even though no one alive today has heard him.

The reason I’ve placed him first on the list is not only chronological but also because all the cellists below have relied on his work at some point.

If God wanted to speak to men through music, he would do so with the works of Haydn; yet if he wanted to listen to music himself, he would go for Boccherini.Jean-Baptiste Cartier, French court composer

Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973)

Pablo Casals
Pablo Casals in 1914 | Photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer

When we talk about the cello, undeniably one of the most representative works that immediately comes to mind for practically anyone are the Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, especially the Prelude of Suite No. 1 in G major.

If at this point you’re wondering what this has to do with Pablo Casals, it’s because without him, none of us would likely know such gems of the repertoire of none other than one of the most prolific and fundamental composers of all time.

The Bach Cello Suites are among the most important works of both Bach and the instrument at the same time, and they were practically unknown and rarely played until Casals unveiled them to the world.

It was in 1890 when the young Pablo, at 13 years old, entered a second-hand shop and found old scores of that then-unknown work.

Casals was already a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who not long ago had decided that the cello would be his primary instrument, and as if by destiny, those worn-out forgotten pages fell into his hands, and immediately upon reading them, he realized he was facing something great.

The seriousness and respect with which he approached the study of these pieces are such that it wasn’t until 1901, more than 10 years after practicing them daily, that he presented them to the public.

It’s important to note that during the Baroque period, scores practically had no annotations or indications of how the works should be played, unlike today, where works like the Cello Suites are extensively worked on and elaborated by several great masters who have determined the best ways to interpret them.

Casals was facing a blank slate, having to decide on every aspect that went beyond what Bach bequeathed him: the rhythm and the notes. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Casals is almost a second author of this iconic work.

Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.Pablo Casals

David Popper (1843 – 1913)

David Popper
David Popper | Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

The life of David Popper definitely left an indelible mark on the lives of every cellist who followed him.

Like Luigi Boccherini, his fame and influence over all cellists worldwide are enormous and have managed the difficult task of transcending his time without having been able to afford to record his performances.

David Popper is important in a quite different way from the other cellists on this list, as no one alive today has heard him play, and not much can be said about his playing style.

The reason Popper has transcended is that he dedicated his life to the cello legacy through teaching the instrument, which is something extremely valuable and honorable that can be said of few mentioned here, at least at the level of Popper.

It is known that the level of cellists increased considerably after Popper’s transition from the 19th to the 20th century in Hungary, and from there to the world, of course.

One of his most representative works is his Forty Etudes for Cello Solo, which are part of the literature that practically every serious cellist must consult for their career.

Who was David Popper? The uncrowned king of the cello, and unfortunately, this is not known by many other people than cellists.Anonymous

Yo-Yo Ma (born 1955)

Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma | Photo: Andy Mettler

Yo-Yo Ma definitely has a place on this list, being one of the best and most recognized contemporary cellists.

His discography is vast, and over the years, he conveys his touch with a particularly delicate yet firm expression, showing an expressiveness that only someone truly enjoying what they do can possess.

One thing that inspires me about Yo-Yo Ma when I see and hear him play is his enjoyment. At first, it might seem somewhat unimportant when compared to the amount of study, technical brilliance, countless hours of preparation, mental acuity, and elite training that the cellists on this list possess.

However, the passion with which Yo-Yo Ma enjoys playing exudes something that adds an extra touch of magic to everything he does, definitively setting him apart from others.

Another significant reason why I consider him one of the greatest cellists of all time is that Yo-Yo Ma is a bridge between worlds. Throughout his life, he has not only dedicated himself to becoming one of the best classical cellists but has also become an expert in playing popular and folk music from around the world.

And as if that weren’t enough, he has taken hemisphere integration to the max, playing in numerous ensembles that combine the best of the classical world with the best of the popular music world.

His discography includes gems such as his album with Bobby McFerrin, his Goat Rodeo Sessions with the famous folk mandolinist Chris Thile, or the Silk Road Ensemble, which is an unprecedented convergence of how an orchestra sounds when it brings together the best musicians from every culture in the world.

Through the unparalleled integration Yo-Yo Ma achieves with the cello, he not only creates entirely original works but has also managed to reach an exponentially larger audience, making the cello a much more popular instrument than it was before his emergence.

Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something then you’re more willing to take risks.Yo-Yo Ma

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007)

Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich | Photo: Oleg Makarov

One thing that undoubtedly sets Rostropovich apart from other cellists, and why not, from other musicians in general, is that his own passion in life emanates through his music.

Rostropovich has left a legacy to humanity that cannot be confined to the musical realm alone, as he dedicated much of his life’s energy to humanitarian causes.

Musically, it’s absolutely easy to recognize a genius at work in Rostropovich, with his intense and expressive playing, and at the same time with a noticeably relaxed technique in his right hand.

However, I believe he stands out even more for the pivotal role he demanded himself to have in the political and cultural scene of his time, which he undoubtedly conveys through his sound.

According to the premises I have established previously, he is definitely one of the greatest of all time, as his life is inseparable from his art.

His contributions to changing his time are an expression of his committed nature to humanity, a quality that sets him apart from other equally virtuosic cellists.

The artist must forget the audience, forget the critics, forget the technique, forget everything but love for the music.Mstislav Rostropovich

Paul Tortelier (1914 – 1990)

Paul Tortelier
Paul Tortelier | Photo: Erich Auerbach

The first reason in my life why my attention was drawn to Paul Tortelier is quite peculiar, not what one would expect as a first encounter with a cellist.

I was in a chamber music rehearsal, and my colleague began to assemble her cello, and I saw her take the endpin of her instrument and bend it as if it had a knee.

Amazed, I asked her about this strange endpin, and she replied quite naturally that it was a Tortelier endpin, and that it served to hold the cello in a slightly more horizontal position, allowing for a more natural bow weight on the strings, and enabling much more comfortable access to the higher positions on the fingerboard.

This is something that epitomizes the absolutely remarkable personality of the cello, such as Paul Tortelier, someone who not only demanded expertise in the art of this noble instrument while respecting all its parameters but also took it upon himself to go beyond by modifying one of its parts, directly altering the perspective from which it is played.

This is more than mastery of an instrument; it’s revolutionary. These kinds of unorthodoxies have always struck me as immensely valuable, both for their innovative nature and the courage required to carry them out and leave an undeniable legacy.

Whether it is a love of God, of mankind, or of nature, like Debussy, or country, like Tchaikovsky, or theatre, like Verdi, or just the love of life, like Mozart, music can do a lot, because music unites.Paul Tortelier

Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880)

Jacques Offenbach
Jacques Offenbach | Photo: Félix Nadar

Offenbach comprises one more of the old historical cellists on this list. I can’t help but mention him, as he is one of the very few cellists prior to the 20th century who remain famous as instrumentalists, which is something that always strikes me as magical because all we have of them are the historical records that have been left behind.

Of course, like in similar cases, Offenbach is also known for his compositions; however, his fame and talent as a cellist endure.

He shares something with Tortelier, and that is his unorthodoxy, but in a different way. I mean, at the age of 15, he decided to abandon his academic studies at none other than the Paris Conservatoire because he found them unsatisfactory.

Still, Offenbach managed on his own to become one of the most important cellists of Romanticism, a true hero in a quixotic endeavor fueled by his own determination and boundless passion.

I adore art.. when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.Jacques Offenbach

Gregor Piatigorsky (1903 – 1976)

Gregor Piatigorsky
Gregor Piatigorsky | Photo: RCA/Sony Music

Finally, I have chosen to conclude this list with the cellist who shares commonalities with several of those mentioned here.

One could say he left behind an immensely important teaching legacy like David Popper, he has left recordings of his wonderful interpretations like Rostropovich, and had a passion akin to that of Offenbach.

Gregor Piatigorsky was a Russian cellist, naturalized American, who just four years after securing the position of principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the most enviable, prestigious, and difficult to obtain in the world, decided to resign to focus on his solo performances, which speaks volumes about the level of artist he was.

Richard Strauss himself was greatly impressed by Piatigorsky’s interpretation of the famous cello passage from his own work Don Quixote.

When Piatigorsky became a naturalized American, he began to dedicate a large part of his life to teaching, showing interest in leaving a legacy for future generations, rather than solely focusing on his personal prestige.

So much so that he was the teacher of notable cellists who could have made it onto this list like Mischa Maisky.

Piatigorsky held something immensely wise, and that is when an artist reaches a very high level of experience, the best thing they can do is dedicate themselves to passing on that knowledge.

This has always moved me deeply to read because it conveys great wisdom and generosity, and I would even say humility.

I’ll stop teaching when I stop learning.Gregor Piatigorsky


As one compiles this list, the desire to add more names of musicians who are equally worthy of mention, such as Mischa Maisky, Julian Lloyd Webber, or Truls Mørk, grows.

However, those listed here are the ones that have sprung immediately to mind, and that is definitely part of the magic of being among the greatest of all time, as not everything in art can be explained.

My personal recommendation to the reader is to immerse oneself in the most famous interpretations and compositions of these cello luminaries, especially those perhaps unfamiliar.

Whether you are a cellist or simply a music lover, you will be enriched by the richest art that has graced this world.


  • This is great, I had never heard about Casal’s story with the Bach Suites!!
    It’s like Felix Mendelssohn’s story!!

    I wonder if there are any other cases like this?

  • I really enjoyed the article about the top cellists in history. It was fascinating to learn about each musician’s unique contributions and personal stories. The way it delved into their impact beyond just their musical talents, like Pablo Casals uncovering Bach’s Cello Suites, was particularly insightful.