Brasil: Bossa Nova for Cello

Bossa Nova is a most extraordinary musical style that originated in Brasil in the 1950/1960’s. This music takes us on a dream-like holiday: we can almost feel the sunshine, the warmth, the gentle breeze, the luxuriant tropical flora, the sparkling blue ocean lapping at the shore. Not only does it reflect perfectly Brasil’s climate but also seems to embody something essential about both the Portuguese language and Brasilian culture, with its gentle afro rhythms combined with sophisticated western harmonies, reflecting Brasil’s exotic mixture of world cultures. Curiously (and happily), the album cover for the record “Wave” (1967) in which both “Triste” and “Wave” make their first appearance, features an African giraffe running on a Brazilian beach!

This music is so smooth, “laid back”, flowing, soothing and gentle that it is the perfect antidote to classical-music (and modern-life) tensions, requiring absolute looseness and fluidity in both the left and right hands/arms. We are very far from the Germanic and northern worlds here, and there is little place in this music for angst and grimaces!! In this sinuous, smooth-flowing style there is little place also for hard, crisp bowchanges, and because of this, Bossa Nova is excellent for loosening up the right wrist and bowarm in general. But we will need that same looseness in our lefthand and arm also: our vibrato will be gentle and warm, and most of our shifts will be vocal, with smooth glissandos between the notes even when no position change (shift) would be normally required.

The pieces offered here can be played with the play-along CD’s (or downloadable accompaniment tracks) that come with the excellent Hal Leonard compilations of the most famous Bossa Nova music. It is these accompaniments that are used in the video performances. Most of these accompaniments will need to be transposed from their original keys to coincide with the keys that are specially chosen here to suit the cello arrangements. For this, the “Amazing Slowdowner” computer program does the job perfectly. We may also want to change the speed, which is not a big stylistic problem because these pieces can be successfully played at a huge range of tempi. For example whereas “Wave”, in a recording by its composer (Antonio Jobim), is played at a gentle soothing speed of halfnote = 72, Sarah Vaughan sings it beautifully as an ornamented and improvised Adagio. It also sounds great as a lively number, quite a lot faster than Jobim’s speed.

The length of the introductions will be variable and we can in fact reorganise these accompaniment tracks, shortening the intros and eliminating verses if we want by using the free audio editing program “Audacity”. This is what has been done to the accompaniments that are used in the video recordings of these pieces.

In the editions offered here many of the pieces are played first in the lower octave and then repeated in the higher octave. If we want to repeat the song three times we can simply go back to the beginning to finish with the lower octave version. For the “Easier Versions” we simply repeat the lower octave version rather than playing the high-octave one, as for example in “Triste”, “Desafinado” and “Girl from Ipanema”.


Even when the music is notated “square”, it most definitely should not be played exactly as notated. In fact, the Performance Versions offered here are notated rhythmically as close as possible to my own personal interpretation, which is often very different to the original (simpler, squarer) literal notation of the composer. This is why the Literal Transcriptions are also included.


Most of the notes should be played syncopated and very few of them require a crisp attack. We might think that with this freedom to play “lazily”, our note-starts might all be following the harmonies, but in fact the reverse is true: our note-starts are almost always ahead of the beat. Playing ahead of the beat would seem to have more in common with rushing than laziness, but if we try doing the contrary (playing after the beat) then the effect is truly bizarre and disturbing.


Apart from the addition of many syncopations and anticipated note-starts, one of the main rhythmic notational alterations made in the versions offered here (compared with the original composer’s notation) is the supression of many of the rests, which have often been replaced by the continuation of the previous note. This is to keep the music flowing. While there should be breaths between the phrases, these can normally be shorter and less pronounced than those indicated by the notated rests. According to a literal interpretation of written notation, rests are silences in which “nothing is happening” and “the music stops”. This is totally unmusical: we cannot suddenly stop dancing while the music continues! Pinchas Zukerman has this to say about rests…..

“in music, rests don’t exist ….. the music doesn’t stop until the piece has finished …… rests are just breaths (pauses) during which the musical intention continues …..”


Here below are a selection of compositions by Antonio Jobim (1927-1994). A YouTube video is also available for the first five transcriptions. The excellent pre-recorded accompaniments can be purchased from the Hal Leonard catalogue (“Antonio Jobim: Bossa Nova” album).

  1.   Corcovado (Quiet Nights, Quiet Stars)
  2.   Desafinado (Out of Tune)
  3.   Girl from Ipanema
  4.   Triste
  5.   Wave
  6.   Jazz Samba
  7.   Meditation
  8.   Once I Loved (Amor em Paz)