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The 8 greatest (and most famous) cello pieces of all time

In the past, you’ve probably heard a beautiful cello piece in passing. The best pieces leave a melody spinning in your head for a while. Unfortunately, you may struggle to find what song it was.

We believe that by listening to this list, you will be able to refresh your memory and finally those pieces endlessly.

greatest and most famous cello pieces, concertos
Image credit: Canva / Joaquín Corbalán

Please enjoy the examples we’ve selected as some of the best cello pieces that were ever written!

1. Bach – Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude

Bach rightfully starts this list with one of the most famous cello pieces – Bach’s Prelude from the first Suite. As one of the greatest composers ever, Bach wrote a lot of music. Most of his work was for the church where he played every week.

A significant part of his work includes the six suites for solo cello. The most famous part of these suites is the prelude from the first suite written in G major, which consists of arpeggios that are repeated throughout the composition.

At the same time they build a harmonious progression that culminates in a pure and beautiful piece that may be the most perfect composition ever written for cello.

Interestingly, this work (as well as the rest of the suites) was only discovered and officially published in 1825. The Prelude didn’t get its full recognition until after 1889 when cellist Pablo Casals rediscovered and popularized it.

If you want to know more about this famous cello piece, you can hear cellist Alisa Weilerstein explaining the prelude at the following link.

2. Saint-Saëns – Le Cygne

Swan, a famous melody written by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns is part of a larger musical composition known as The Carnival of the Animals.

It is a suite consisting of many humorous elements but this movement written for cello, the thirteenth movement in the suite, differs from the rest of the suite because of its elegance and seriousness.

It can often be heard on film, and many consider it the most beautiful and touching composition for cello.

Originally written for cello and two pianos, today it is mostly performed in a cello and piano version.

One of the most touching versions is the performance of the famous Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott, which is part of their album titled Songs from the Arc of Life.

3. Dvořák – Cello Concerto Op. 104

According to many, the best cello concerto that was ever written is Cello Concerto by Antonín Dvořák. The concert was written in 1895 and premiered the following year in London.

Dvorak was inspired to write this famous cello piece by composer Victor Herbert and his cello concerto. Dvorak allegedly stated that he would have written it if he had known that the cello could sound like that.

From wonderful melodies to extremely virtuoso passages, this concert is a real treat for music lovers. It was inspired by the nature of Russia that he missed during his stay in New York and by the death of his wife’s sister, with whom he was in love in his youth. Inspired and heart-broken, Dvorak wrote one of the most significant and beautiful concerts for this instrument.

Particularly intimate is the second movement in which Dvorak quotes a part of his song Leave Me Alone (Lasst mich allein), which was a favorite of Josefina – his love from his youth.

You can hear this movement in the performance of the great Norwegian cellist Truls Mork.

4. Brahms – Double Concerto

Brahms’ entry on our list shows the cello’s versatility perfectly with Brahms’ Double Concerto – concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra. This extensive and powerful work of the Romantic period was composed by Brahms during his vacation in Switzerland.

The work is dedicated to violinist Joseph Joackim and cellist Robert Hausman. The concert, full of powerful but also extremely lyrical and expressive themes, presents both instruments in the best possible light.

Solo parts are equally divided among the instruments, and the cello usually brings the first performance of the theme, which is later repeated with slight changes by the violin.

You can listen to and watch the historical performance of the great David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich at the following link.

5. Elgar – Cello Concerto Op. 85

For many, the most beautiful cello piece may be Elgar’s Cello Concerto, especially considering its connection with Jacqueline du Pré, which brought a special level of emotion.

Elgar wrote this concert in 1919 after the First World War. After everything that hit Europe in those years, he sometimes lacked the inspiration to write music.

He was even so depressed at some moments that he considered withdrawing from musical life. Fortunately, his prolific creative period followed. It was during that time that he completed several chamber works and he wrote a cello concerto.

While it was painted with the colors of the difficult years of his life, the concerto exudes enormous emotionality and beauty.

You can listen to one of the most impressive performances of this beautiful concert by Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim here.

6. Bruch – Kol Nidrei

Bruch wrote Kol Nidrei specifically for the Jewish community in Liverpool. The name Kol Nidrei itself is translated to “all vows”, and it represents a prayer that is sung in Jewish synagogues at the beginning of the service before Yom Kippur.

Although Bruch was a Protestant Christian, materials deeply inspired by Hebrew melodies and stories flow through his composition.

The work was written in Liverpool in 1880 but was published in Berlin in 1881, and, interestingly, it was performed by cellist Robert Hausmann, who also premiered Brahms’ double concerto.

You can listen to the emotionally tense version of this beautiful cello piece performed by Soviet-born Israeli cellist – Mischa Maisky.

7. Haydn – Cello Concerto in C major

Such a list could hardly have passed without any of Haydn’s works, given that he wrote extensively for cello and popularized the instrument in various segments of both chamber and solo music.

His most famous cello concerto and generally exceptional work is the concerto in C major. He wrote it between 1761 and 1765 while conducting the Prince Nicolaus’s Esterházy Orchestra, and dedicated it to a good friend named Joseph Franz Weigl who was also the principal cellist in that orchestra.

There are some doubts about the originality of the work because it was not known to exist until 1961 when it was discovered by musicologist Oldrich Pulkert at the Prague National Museum.

Experts agree that this is Haydn’s original work, which plays a significant role among the most famous cello concertos today and is considered one of the most important works from the classical period.

The next performance is with the Queen Elisabeth Competition 2017 semifinals (which was held for the first time that year in the cello category) and the young promising musician from the recording is Santiago Cañón-Valencia.

8. Brahms – Symphony No.3 (3rd movement)

As one of the most touching and famous cello solos, we must single out Brahms’ third symphony and its third movement. The attitude begins with a heartbreaking theme represented by cellos with the subtle accompaniment of strings and winds, which is then taken over by violins who continue the dialogue with the cellos.

The especially melancholic and romantic third movement of the symphony can be heard here in the performance of the Philharmonic, which premiered this work.