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.


Do You Speak My Language?

Have you ever been in a room where the majority of people are speaking a language you don’t understand? Most of us have encountered situations where we can’t follow the conversation, whether it is being held in a foreign language or because the topic is unfamiliar to us. Either way, I think you’ll agree that it’s not much fun.

Isn’t it a relief, then, when someone comes up to you and makes an effort to include you or speak your mother tongue?

I recently had a (very civilized) argument with a coworker on the subject of how much material we offer translated into English. She felt that having the class schedule available in two languages was overdoing it. Why should we go out of our way to speak English, she asks? “People who live in Israel should learn to speak Hebrew.”

The last sentence of the above paragraph is definitely in the top three phrases which piss me off the most. To me, instead of saying “We’ll help you integrate into society!” that sentence says, “Go back where you came from.”

My coworker certainly has a point, but her statement fails to acknowledge that a) learning another language is not easy for everyone, b) the most spoken language in Israel is Arabic, and c) having English material available is very little effort for us, while reading Hebrew may demand a humungous effort from the client and may actually discourage them from taking our services. In my humble opinion it is more important to make the client feel at home than to force them to stumble over foreign characters just because they live here.

And speaking of Arabic, two days ago I learned a lesson about human communication – it doesn’t always happen through words. I was playing the cello in Liberty Bell Park and accompanying my boyfriend who was practicing some Contact Juggling. A little while in, a group of Israeli Arab children gathered around to watch us. My Arabic vocabulary is limited to about 5 words (not including curses or food products), but we were able to communicate through art and body language. They were an excellent audience – enthusiastic, paying close attention, retrieving fallen juggling balls, clapping for an encore. I wondered how often these children get to see a free juggling/cello show. Probably not very often. It was so gratifying, walking back to the car feeling like we did something good, like we broke a cultural barrier even without talking. It’s not necessarily the fact of sharing a language that makes connection possible, it’s the act of wanting to connect that makes people feel you care enough to make it happen.

Book Review: The Time traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveller's Wife  The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to admit: I didn’t cry when Dumbledore died. But I was moved to tears by The Time Traveler’s Wife.

This is not the kind of book which is impossible to put down. Instead, you get to read it at your leisure, enjoy it, and actually remember it when you’re done. The author succeeds in giving the reader the same experience as the characters. Clare moves through time linearly, to keep the reader grounded, while Henry jumps from time to time and allows the reader to experience the suddenness and confusion he does. The love story pulls the reader into the book so that even when you aren’t reading, Henry and Clare are present at the back of your mind, as a real life lover would be.

Audrey Niffenegger writes with a lot of words, but she uses them masterfully. Her metaphors and descriptions only contribute to bringing the book to life.

“I eat ten Oreos, slowly, gently prying each one apart, scraping the filling out with my front teeth, nibbling the chocolate halves to make them last.” (page 31)

And yet, it’s not just long breathtaking cookie eating scenes like this. In some places the writing is so concise you do a double take and ask, did that really just happen? For instance, I think this is the shortest sex scene I’ve ever encountered:

“[Henry] says, ‘Does that door lock?’ and I flip the lock and we’re late for lunch.” (page 165)

From the first page, the book is ringing with moral dilemmas and existential questions. The author asks her own questions through the characters, but also uses the questions to tell the story. The fact that her characters ask makes them even more human, especially because it makes the reader wonder if they will change their answers as the story progresses.

“But don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to just be okay for your whole life?” (page 231)

Any book in which one of the characters is a cellist becomes an automatic favorite of mine. In this case, the cellist is Alicia, Clare’s younger sister. There aren’t many references to it, but the few were done well. “Alicia is seventeen and a senior in high school. She’s a cellist.” (page 16) It is as if being a cellist explains everything about her character, which is quite accurately how we cellists feel about ourselves. 🙂

It is rare to find a love story which begins in childhood and continues through entire lives, especially in books which are meant to make money. This love story is so detailed and so real, and still it is so gripping as Henry and Clare grow up and get married. Their relationship changes, and their lives change, but the love story is intriguing to the last moment. There is one moment where Clare describes them sitting on swings on a playground which made me think of how a love story can be thought of as a sequence of memories – the moments we choose to string together into a chain we call “romantic.”

“I try to put my heart into hers, for safekeeping, in case I lose it again.” (page 370)

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