A surprising amount of cello music, both accompanied and unaccompanied, can be played as cello duos with very little “arranging” necessary. This can be quite a fun way of practicing – much more enjoyable than practicing alone – and it is usually easier for a cellist to find a cellist friend to play along with than it is to find a pianist. When we play cello duos, we have the added advantage that we can always take turns, swapping voices at will. By playing the accompaniment as well as the “solo” cello part, our understanding of the piece usually takes an exponential leap.
It is important to distinguish between “equal” duos (in which the two voices share the protagonism and difficulty) and “solo + accompaniment” duos (in which one voice has all the melodic protagonism while the other voice is simply the harmonic accompaniment). One way to convert any duo into an “equal” duo is to repeat each section or movement with the voices inverted (swapped).
BACH SOLO CELLO SUITES AS CELLO DUOS
Playing the Bach Solo Cello Suites with a simple accompanying line for a second cello is a good example of both the pleasures and benefits of hearing (and playing) the harmonic accompaniment. When we can hear these harmonies – either played or imagined with our inner ear – then the phrasing and musical structure suddenly become a lot clearer. The accompaniment lines for a second cello that are presented here are simple “walking bass” lines, almost certainly better played pizzicato rather than with the bow. These accompaniments are also better played while standing (this needs an extra-long spike) because when standing we can rock, sway and literally dance to the music. To find the right character just try to imagine Paul McCartney playing them! The harmonies chosen are normally the simplest and most unsophisticated. There is great room for improvement of these bass lines – Lennon and McCartrney would have done a lot better.
BACH SOLO VIOLIN SONATAS AND PARTITAS, ARRANGED AS CELLO DUOS
For the Bach Cello Suites, our objective in playing them as cello duos is simply to hear the harmonies better. With the highly polyphonic movements of Bach’s Solo Violin music however, we have additional compelling reasons to play them as cello duos. Firstly, we can liberate the “solo” line from a lot of the uncomfortable (if not downright impossible) chords and double-stops. Secondly we can now, thanks to this help from the second cello, play them in the original key, which brings them one fifth higher, sufficient to get us out of the hippopotamus register and up into the singing register.
BAROQUE SONATAS WITH FIGURED BASS, PLAYED AS CELLO DUOS
The accompaniments to sonatas from the Baroque period were most often written out as simple monophonic bass lines with numbers above or below the notes to indicate the specific types (inversions) of chord that are required at each moment. These bass accompaniment lines – called “Figured Basses” because of those numbers – are a sort of musical shorthand (code) from which the accompanist was expected to improvise a more complex polyphonic (multi-voice) accompaniment in a remarkably similar system to that used by jazz and pop musicians with their “charts” and “lead sheets”.
But these Figured Bass lines don’t necessarily need to be “filled out”. They can also be played on the cello, exactly as written, without any chordal or polyphonic elaboration. This procedure instantly converts any Baroque Sonata – for any instrument – into a simple duo with cello.
There are quite a lot of Baroque sonatas written for the cello (Vivaldi, Marcello, Geminiani etc) …….. but there are so many more for violin and other treble clef instruments. Vivaldi, for example, wrote 10 bass clef sonatas (all for cello apparently), but more than 60 sonatas for treble clef instruments. If we transcribe the solo voice of these “treble clef” sonatas for cello then we gain an enormous amount of new cello repertoire, and this repertoire can be played perfectly satisfactorily as cello duos. These Baroque sonatas are available on this website in both forms: here, as Cello Duos, but also on the page Music for One Accompanied Cello (as Cello Sonatas with Keyboard Accompaniment).
Of course the cello duo combination is not as interesting or attractive as as the cello-harpsichord pairing, but it is usually a lot easier to organise. We usually have more cellist friends than we do harpsichordists, especially harpsichordists who know how to elaborate on sight a figured bass. In fact it’s probably easier to find a jazz pianist (used to filling out the harmonies in jazz style) ……… now wouldn’t that be an interesting combination!
Whereas Bach’s three sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord (like his Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord) have a very elaborately written out keyboard part, his “Violin Sonatas with Basso Continuo” were written with only the simple (figured) bass line accompaniment. This means that they are quite appropriate to be played as string duos.
And here are some other transcriptions for cello duo.
The webpage www:johnstone-music.com has a huge selection of fine transcriptions for all sizes of cello ensemble. Clicking on the highlighted link will take you directly to the page of cello duos and trios on that wonderful website with a selection of over 100 pieces for these two combinations. Be aware that the number of separate cello voices does not limit the maximum size of the group. For example, while these pieces of music will normally have two or three different individual voices (and will require a minimum of two or three players respectively), they can in fact be played by larger groups, simply by doubling the voices.