The Beauty of Boring Cello Parts

Johann Pachelbel is not the only composer who had a bad relationship with a cellist.

If you haven’t seen the Pachelbel rant, click on the link! It’s hilarious. He raises a good point about the Canon in D – it was written to torture cellists.

I’m also a cellist, and I’ve played the Canon in D. Cellists, let’s face it, it’s a gorgeous piece. I’ve heard of many ways of dealing with the dull cello line. One of them is to pass the melody between stands in shifts, while the other cellists simply fake it (air bow!). Personally, I used to change octaves, trill, and improvise until the condudtor caught my eye. 🙂 I’d like to discuss a few cello parts I find boring and repetative other than the Canon:

1) Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Winter

In this piece, Vivaldi says, “Hey! Let’s see what happens if we give the cellos only one note to play for almost the entire piece!” In the first movement, we play F repeatedly 64 times and then eight breezy F sharps and G’s and then a lot of C’s. In the second movement, it’s B flat. I remember losing the feeling in my second finger at the end of this movement, which is a problem if you have to play the third movement immediately afterward, and I’ll explain why.

Here’s a link to the third movement of Vivaldi’s Winter concerto in the Four Seasons.

Pay close attention to the cello part. In the third movement. For the first 21 seconds, the cello plays an extended F. No rests, no other notes, just F (which is also played with 2nd finger). After that we change to a C which we play continually for 27 seconds. (Our long one note serenade is interrupted here to join the violins and play a scale.) We wait silently. On cue, we return to playing C for 11 seconds, after which we play an unending G for 16 seconds. Then we sit and wait while the violins play the sound of winter for a whole 45 seconds.

I won’t deny though that the ending of this piece is fun. Vivaldi leaves room for the cellos to express their frustration with the boring part by sawing the C string in half until the piece ends.

By the way, in The Four Seasons, there are entire movements in which the cellos are tacit (meaning they don’t play because Vivaldi didn’t feel like writing them a part.)

2) Benjamin Britten – Sentimental Sarabande 

It’s not hard to hear what’s going on in the cellos – because it doesn’t change until 41 seconds pass, when we get to play our first note other than G – A! and then B, C, all the way up to D! Whoa! For thirty seconds we get to play around a bit and then it’s right back to our ocatves – G…G! G…G! And it’s slow. Sentimental indeed. More like the Sleepy Sarabande in my opinion.

Any good teacher will tell you that a cello part is what you make of it. You can be the replacement for a metronome, as Mozart thought of us (in Quartet K157  and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) or you can be the keystone that holds the whole orchestra together. But sometimes it’s important to just memorize your boring cello part quickly so you can do as the composer intended – sit back and just listen to the violins.

What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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