In this article, we will introduce you to some of the greatest cellists who have ever lived, each of whom has contributed to the popularization of the instrument and the enrichment of the cello sound through the unique voice that each of them possessed.
These are the greatest cellists of all time:
According to many, the best cellist of the first half of the 20th century is Emanuel Feuermann. Feuermann is one of the few who was extremely appreciated and respected by other cellists and musicians. The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein called him the greatest cellist of all time.
He is most famous for his revolutionary style of playing, especially in the high registers, which could rarely be heard at the time. This fact is not surprising if we keep in mind that he comes from a musical family, in which the older brother played the violin and was a child prodigy.
Young Emanuel often listened to his brother’s lessons taught by the famous Shevčík, which shaped his notion of tone and musicality on string instruments.
At just 11, he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic playing Haydn D-major Concerto. He had his first recording at the age of 19, and in 1928 he recorded Dvorak, which is the first recording of this concert.
As early as 1929 he became a professor at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, but the rise of the Nazis in 1933 removed him from that position. Because of his Jewish origins, he then fled to America where he taught at the Curtis Institute and founded what people called the “Million Dollar Trio” with Jascha Heifetz and Rubinstein.
He died at the age of only 39 after complications from routine surgery. He left behind countless extraordinary recordings, and it was nine years after his death that Heifetz played again with another cellist and continued the work of the trio.
Mstislav Rostropovich is considered one of the most prominent figures of classical music of the 20th century. His influence was greater than just artistic – it spread to the socio-political circumstances in which Rostropovich participated (advocating cultural freedom in the Soviet Union, as well as playing cello suite at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989).
He was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the USSR in 1927. His mother was a talented pianist and his father was a successful cellist who studied with the famous Pablo Casals.
At the age of four, he started learning the piano with his mother, and from the age of 10, he started learning the cello with his father.
In addition to his extremely prolific career as a cellist, which he began in the 1950s, he was a highly regarded conductor and pianist.
What is especially noteworthy is how much he inspired the composers to write works for cello – among them are Shostakovich (with whom he also studied), Britten, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky.
A rough estimate is that he performed over 240 world premieres and thus became a significant part of the musical heritage of the 20th century.
There are many great recordings of Rostropovich, but we single out the Brahms Double Concerto which highlights his incredible technical virtuosity. He also shows great communication and understanding in performing with other artists.
Pablo Casals, or Catalan Pau Casals, was a Spanish cellist and composer who would mark the 20th century. From a father who was a local organist and choirmaster he would start learning singing, composing, and piano early, but he fell in love with the sound of the cello when he first heard it at 11 years old.
An event that significantly affected his later life was his accidental discovery of Bach’s suites for solo cello. When he was 13, he found Bach’s works in the bookstore which, until then, were almost unknown and considered more of study exercises.
He became fascinated with them, and for the next 12 years, he studied them daily and gradually discovered the charms and complexity of these suites, which he later often performed and became famous for.
He had his first performance with the cafe trio when he was heard by Albéniz who helped him go to school in Madrid.
At the beginning of the 20th century, his world career began as well as life in Paris. While living in Paris, he formed a string trio that would be active until 1934.
He refused to return to Spain after the Spanish Civil War, and in 1946 he announced his withdrawal from the public due to the worldwide recognition of the Franco regime in Spain.
In 1956 he moved to Puerto Rico, where he continued to play music until his death in 1973. In October 1971, he was invited to the United Nations Assembly, where he received the Medal for Peace, and on that occasion, he performed the Song of the Birds.
Like other great cellists, Tortelier was both a conductor and a composer. Born in 1914 into a working-class family, his mother had the greatest influence on his early orientation towards music. She wanted her son to be a great cellist, so he started playing at the age of six.
Tortelier later said that his mother supported him immensely and was responsible for his early discipline. The results were not lacking, so Tortelier enrolled at the Conservatory of Paris in the class of Louis Feuillard at the age of 12.
At the age of 16, he won his first competition and thus began his world career. His biggest role model was the great cellist Pablo Casals, who was also his friend and they performed together several times.
The transfer of knowledge was extremely important to him, so he was a professor at the Conservatory of Paris, Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, and the Conservatory of Nice.
He recorded masterclasses for the BBC in the 1970s that were interesting to a wider audience, and Jacqueline du Pré also took part in them.
He was a great storyteller who, in addition to music, had extensive knowledge of art and literature. He himself best described his life and work – “To play beautifully the cello is a great achievement. It takes a lifetime. But that is not the purpose of my life. My purpose is to help seek peace.“
Jacqueline du Pré
Despite her tragic fate and prematurely ended career, Jacqueline du Pré remains remembered as one of the greatest cellists of all time.
After hearing the sound of cello on the radio at the age of only four and expressing her desire to play, the development of her musical journey began. Along with her mother, who was a pianist, and her older sister, who is a flutist, she began to play actively and win awards.
By the age of 16, she made her debut solo recital in Wigmore Hall in London, where she enchanted the audience with his naturalness and free movement while playing.
In 1965 she recorded the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, and her performance was declared definitive and still remains a hallmark of her career.
She was in a relationship with Daniel Barenboim, another young virtuoso, with whom she had world tours. At the peak of their fame they reached in those years, in 1970, Jacqueline experienced weakness and a loss of sensation in her limbs, which would take her away from performing for a while, and after the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, completely prevented her from continuing to play. She continued her pedagogical work until her death in 1987 at the age of 42.
With the dark memories contained in Elgar’s concert and the fate experienced by Jacqueline, they will forever remain associated with each other.
All these people were great artists in a broader context than just playing the cello, and each of them had a unique voice, attitude, and message with which they ennobled the world and the people around them.
Their legacy is the music they played and recorded, the pedagogical work they did and thus enabled many young people to realize the beauty of music and cello as instrument.