Music for One Unaccompanied Cello
On this page can be found links to music (original repertoire and transcriptions) for one unaccompanied cello by the following composers:
Pianists are used to playing on their own, because their instrument is a one-man band. Not only can they play with their ten fingers all at once, they also have a sustaining pedal (wouldn’t it be great if we had that also), so playing rhythm, harmony, melody and counterpoint simultaneously is just part of the privileges of their job. Sometimes pianists might feel a little lonely, but apart from that, musically they don’t really need us ………. or anybody else for that matter.
We cellists however inhabit a different musical world: we usually need company to create a complete musical experience. Only the double bass, horn, tuba and trombone are less versatile, while the violin is somewhere between the piano and the cello. The cello is very much like the human voice, it loves playing glorious lyrical melodies (with an accompaniment underneath), but also loves providing that beautiful accompaniment for someone else to glide on. Either way, we really come into our element when we are playing with at least one other instrument. Trying to play both melody and accompaniment simultaneously is not an easy job on the cello because we will probably need to make use of doublestops and chords to provide the harmonic underlay. Unfortunately however, doublestops on the cello often make one good player sound like two very bad ones! (open the highlighted link).
Why would a composer want to write for only one instrument when it would be so much easier for both composer and player if there were two (or more)? Unaccompanied music for string instruments often makes frequent use of chords and doublestops, most of which would normally sound a whole lot better (and be much easier to play and compose) if there were two people available to play them. Imagine having “an assistant” to fill out the harmonies and play all the uncomfortable doublestops and chords! All tonal music has an implied harmony, so why not just separate out that harmony, dividing up the music comfortably between two instruments instead of asking one player to struggle with it all?
There are many different possible answers to this question, most of which seem to relate to the attraction of the technical, emotional, philosophical (and compositional) challenges that this music poses. Let’s start with the philosophical. Unaccompanied music is a perfect vehicle for a deeply personal voyage to our centre, an intimate encounter with our own soul, with “god” and with the universe, unadulterated by the hustle and bustle of social relations. When we play completely unaccompanied, we are physically alone, but intensely connected spiritually – through the music that we are playing – to some vibrant part of the universe. This solo voyage into the timeless world that music occupies could be compared to the solo voyage that we will make when we return to nature ….
All this is very well for Bach’s Sarabandes, but what about Paganini Caprices? Being all alone in front of an audience (or microphone), the sole centre of attention, and playing extremely difficult, dangerous and flashy music has more in common with a gripping, death-defying circus stunt than with an intimate search for spirituality. Here, it is the extreme technical and emotional challenges that make this type of music attractive, for performer, composer and audience alike.
Perhaps one of the reasons for our interest in unaccompanied music is our profound need for heroes and heroism. Unaccompanied playing is like an extreme sport in which the musician goes out alone, naked and starving, in the most difficult conditions and by the most difficult route …….. on purpose! This is so much more exciting than seeing two well-equipped people enjoying doing exactly the same route, comfortably helping each other, and therefore without undue danger or stress. Perhaps this is why the magnificent duo repertoire for strings is considered “low-status”, whereas we glorify unaccompanied works by the same composers (Bach, Kodaly etc) considering them the pinnacle of artistic achievement! If someone was to simply transcribe a quite ordinary string duo into a very difficult piece for only one player, then that same piece would probably become quite popular. In fact, on this website we have done just the opposite to some of Bach’s most famous unaccompanied works for solo violin, transcribing them for two cellos (rather than one), in order to preserve all the (impossible) chords and double stops. In this way, we ensure that this music has every chance to sound as magnificent on the cello as it does on the violin …….. and who cares if it takes two cellists to achieve the same result as one violinist!
Playing unaccompanied music on any instrument, but especially on the cello, is a mixed blessing. If we are looking for intellectual or spiritual purity, or if we have no one else to play with, then why not, but if we are feeling more sociable and have other people to play with then it is nice to have that as an option also. This is why Bach’s Cello Suites are offered here not only as solos, but also with the accompaniment of a second cello. Those movements of his unaccompanied violin music that are most contrapuntal and have the most chords and double-stops are also presented as duos and even sometimes as trios.
The unaccompanied cello repertoire is presented here simply in alphabetical order. The pieces will also appear in searches according to other classification categories (classical/popular, historical period, genre, region of origin etc).