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4 Famous Cello Pieces You Should Know

famous cello pieces

Mike Block knows a lot about playing music, and we're so proud that he's now teaching people how to play cello online at ArtistWorks!

We recently asked him which famous cello pieces stand out as important ones to become familiar with as an aspiring cello player. Here's what he says:

Cello Suite No. 1, The Prelude - Bach

I like to call this piece the 'National Anthem' of cellists, because everyone learns it growing up.

In fact, whenever I perform this in front of other cellists I like to make them stand up and put their hand over their heart to show the proper respect! I remember performing Prelude 1 for the first time as an auxiliary solo during an Elementary School Strings concert in the gymnasium when I was in 6th grade. 

Bach’s Cello Suites are infamous for inconsistent bowings, and I can’t think of any other movement that has started more arguments about the 'proper' bowing than this one. Be that as it may, it is still one of my favorite movements, and is a good one to pull out in almost any performance situation.

This piece has appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows--it is the quintessential cello piece. You’ve heard it in concerts, at weddings, at funerals, in restaurants, in hotels. It’s so famous that if you Google “that famous cello song”, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, the Prelude will pop up in the search results. 

Perhaps one of the interesting things to learn about The Prelude is that it is exactly that: a prelude to a series of dances, such as the Gavotte and the Minuette. But it is amazing because it achieves so much with so little: it’s only two pages, and yet perfectly timeless. 

One of the miracles of the Prelude is that Bach himself was not a cellist, and yet he managed to create this masterpiece all the same.


The Swan from "Carnival of the Animals" - Camille Saint-Saëns

This is one of my favorite Classical pieces for cello – it is beautiful and elegant, just like the animal it's named after.

Known as one of the most famous elements of Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns composed the entire piece as a kind of musical satire, and only performed the full piece in private settings in early 1896, until he relented and allowed for The Swan to be published. It wasn’t until his death in 1921 that the entire Carnival of the Animals was publicly played, and it quickly became one of his most famous works.  

The slow-moving cello melody, like a swan gliding over the water, is played in rippling sixteenths on one piano and rolled chords on the other (which are said to represent the swan’s hidden feet that propel it around the river). 

It’s a great opportunity to pull the most beautiful sounds possible out of the instrument. I originally learned this piece in High School, but also had a few unique opportunities to perform it as a duo with Yo-Yo Ma (I was pizzing the chords behind him), and I also got to play the melody in a live dance collaboration with Lil’Buck (Jookin’ style dancer) at the Vail International Dance Festival in 2011.

Cello Concerto - Elgar

Elgar composed this concerto after World War One, which was after his style had gone out of fashion, and his first public performance was considered a debacle--Elgar and the performers had little practice time. However, a critic at the time, after noting the problems, said “The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar's music in the last couple of years – but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity." It wasn’t until the 1960s that the recording became a massive hit with audiences. 

I worked on this piece for a good year and a half while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

I was fortunate enough to win the school’s concerto competition in spring of 2003, which meant I got to perform the entire piece with the CIM Orchestra that Fall. It was a transformative experience to dive so deep into practicing such a dark and melancholy piece for so long, only to eventually get the release of performing it with all my friends on stage in the orchestra. 

The final movement of this piece yearns strongly for a time that no longer exists, and I remember during the performance trying to stretch every moment as long as possible so that the piece would never end.

Cello Concerto - Dvorak

Dvorak was often asked to write for the cello, but he always refused, stating that the cello was a fine instrument but “totally insufficient for a solo”. Later Dvorak wrote to a friend that he was probably most surprised of anyone that he had written it after his long held reservations.

He wrote the third movement as a tribute to his sister, who died in 1895, shortly after it was finished.

I grew up listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s version of this piece, dreaming of getting to play it some day. 

In fact, at age 15, right around the time I was trying to figure out whether I was going to pursue music professionally, I got to see Yo-Yo perform it live with the Kansas City Symphony. I left the performance thinking, 'how can I go through life and NOT get to do THAT!?' I decided I would become a professional musician after that concert.

Ironically, I never ended up learning Dvorak Concerto in college, as I was focusing more on 'new music.' At this point in my multi-style career, I doubt I will ever get the opportunity to perform it live with orchestra. However, I’m actually fine with that, and when I listen to this piece I get a strong dose of nostalgia for my younger years.

Click here for free sample cello lessons! 

yo-yo ma with mike block - photo by todd rosenberg

Mike Block playing cello with Yo-Yo Ma, photo by Todd Rosenberg

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