Why do cellists have the urge to play together?
I grew up surrounded by cellos and cellists. My parents are both professional cellists and cello teachers, and there were always groups of cellists around me. I suppose it seems obvious that I chose the cello, but my true reason for playing the cello was probably this sense of community I always felt around cellists.
There was the love and excitement my parents shared as "Duo Cellissimo" in my early years, where they regularly played concerts that demonstrated how much the cello can do, and how rich and full just two cellists can be - surely this was a huge influence for me, but I only remember vague bits and pieces of those years. What I do remember came later: a yearly event called "Cellobration", where up to 100 cellists would get together for one day of playing together. The cellists would meet in the morning in smaller groups to learn new music and exchange ideas, and then in the afternoon again to form a giant cello orchestra which rehearsed all together, culminating in a public concert. Everyone spent the day sharing information with each other about technique and repertoire and just enjoying the sound of the instrument they had all chosen to play. I was incredibly proud the first year I could participate on my tiny cello, playing hardly much more than open strings, and was convinced that a cello orchestra was the best kind of orchestra anyone could play in.
My parents had a lot of classical CDs at home. They had tons of operas, symphonies, of course a lot of cello repertoire, as well as a mix of Brazilian music, mostly my dad's. My dad was always especially excited about what we would now call "classical crossover" in a broad sense, which for me at the time was personified by two CDs in particular: first was Yo-Yo Ma's amazing collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, which we children would ask to listen on repeat (especially the "Hush" track!), and the second was by the Yale Cellos. This was a cello ensemble at Yale University formed by the late Aldo Parisot, a great Brazilian cellist who taught there for decades. He had also been the one who encouraged my father's parents to send him off to Connecticut to study at Yale, where my parents met. The CD was a recording that both of my parents had participated in, and I aspired to do the same someday.
In college, I helped organize a cello ensemble to play one of my absolute favorites and perhaps one of the very best known cello ensemble pieces - "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" by Heitor Villa-Lobos. This piece and this composer are very close to my heart - it is my favorite from the Yale Cellos CD and for me the definition of cello ensemble music. It also touches on my Brazilian heritage. Though I never lived there myself, through my extended family and my father I listened to Brazilian music throughout my childhood. Villa-Lobos's music captured the soul of that folk music mixed with the classical music I had studied. And with my cello ensemble I was reliving the experience my parents had lived, as well as creating my own cello ensemble path.
Our college group also played some of my own arrangements (Pretty Woman, Because by the Beatles, to name a few) and we also found inspiration in the metal-cello group Apocalyptica. It was the most natural thing in the world for me, that we cellists find reasons to play together.
My college cello ensemble performing "Hope"
Are there other single-instrument ensembles? Yes - a few. I've heard of Ukulele orchestras and Balalaika orchestras. I have heard of Flute ensembles. Surely there are others. However, when it comes to cellos, there are countless examples of cello ensembles of all sizes, at all ages, and with music specifically written for them. A quick Google search for "violin ensemble" gave me primarily results for beginner ensembles and one professional violin ensemble, with a couple of links for violin ensemble sheet music, and several irrelevant results for other violin topics. The same Google search for "cello ensemble" was filled with professional cello ensemble group websites and cello ensemble sheet music resources. I love it. But I am still asking myself: why?
In my professional life, I have learned that not only do most casual listeners not know what a cello ensemble is, but even a lot of non-cellist musicians have no idea. I formed a cello trio several years ago and when I call about bookings I often have to explain that we are three cellists, with no other types of instruments. Orchestras, string trios and quartets, piano accompaniment - all of that is common knowledge even for casual listeners who know only the basics about classical music. A cello ensemble is something for connoisseurs. And yet, I feel cello ensembles work especially hard, or perhaps better said play especially hard, to find music to play that appeals to everyone (see for yourself on YouTube)
Living in Germany since 2012, I have found many more people who know what a cello ensemble is, especially here in Berlin. After all, Berlin has its very own cello ensemble made up of the cellists from their world-famous Berliner Philharmoniker - The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic; an ensemble which was begun practically on a whim in Salzburg when the cellists were asked if they would perform the "Hymnus" for 12 cellists by Julius Klengel. It was such a success that the cellists decided to create a fixed ensemble, and eventually to record the music they played. Among the pieces they chose on their debut album was none other than the "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" by Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Modern cellists of the 12 Cellists group play Klengel's "Hymnus"
I recently found a blog article which inspired me to try and answer the question, why cellists want to play together: "The Cello Voice" by Polish writer Urszuli Gutowskiej. In this article, they give a brief overview of the history of cello ensembles and briefly mention the important contributions of Heitor Villa-Lobos as well as those of cellists Julius Klengel and Pablo Casals to the development of the cello ensemble as a fixed ensemble type. These three composers/musicians are well-known in the cello community - Julius Klengel composed countless exercises, duets, and other works for cellists of all levels and was an accomplished performer and teacher as well. Pablo Casals dreamed of a full cello orchestra, though his biggest legacy on the world (not just the cellist world!) was the popularization of the J. S. Bach solo cello suites as concert pieces - prior to his use of them in performances, the Suites were relegated to the category of études for cellists. Villa-Lobos is specifically known for his "Bachianas Brasileiras" in cello circles, as previously mentioned, but is also one of the great composers of South America.
How do these three very different cellist composers fit together? What were their contributions to the cello world? And what is their legacy today: how are modern cellists and composers continuing or breaking away from those traditions? I will delve into these topics in the next weeks and tie together, from my perspective, how these cellists and many more have created as well as popularized cello ensembles, and perhaps, begin to answer the question: why do cellists have the urge to play together?