The cello is a beautiful and interesting instrument. The range and frequencies of the cello give it an almost human feel to it, as it evokes the same sort of feelings as the human voice, and lends itself perfectly to concertos and solos. There are many iconic cello concertos out there, and we’ve listed some of the best music for cello ever written in this fun countdown. We also explore some of the incredibly challenging concertos for people who want to play the instrument.
There are a wealth of concertos out there to listen to. It’s easy to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole! Everyone has their own opinions, of course, but there are some iconic pieces of music on this list from composers who made a real stamp on history.
Bach – Cello Suite No. 1 – The Most Famous Cello Concerto?
Even people with little to no knowledge of the cello will recognize this cello concerto. The moving piece is emotive and tranquil, conjuring images of an English Garden or serene setting. It has been used on a variety of different films and television shows and you will recognize it after just a couple of bars. As classical music goes, this is a “hit” and the Cello Concerto no 1 is still played regularly today.
There are six cello suites by Bach, but the Cello Suite No. 1 is undeniably the most famous.
Brahms – Cello Sonata No. 1
The huge names in classical music keep coming. Brahms was a German composer who was known mainly for his piano skills, but was a master of melody all through his life until his death in 1897. The Cello Sonata No. 1 is maybe not as well known as some other cello concerto and songs, but it is a moving piece that swells and swirls around until reaching its dramatic conclusion.
Cello Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann
This is a stunning cello concerto with a fascinating story to it. Some of the greatest cello performances have been witnessed as recitals of this Schumann concerto which is in A minor and comes in three movements. We’ve included a video of a modern orchestral performance, which takes around 25 minutes, a standard length of time for this particular concerto.
It was written in just two weeks when Schumann was a musical director at Dusseldorf, and was never actually played while Schumann was alive. It first premiered with Ludwig Ebert playing the concerto solo in 1860, four years after the composer had passed.
Dvorák – Cello Concerto in B minor
Dvorák was a Czech composer with a huge amount of flair in his composing. Legend has it that when the song was submitted to the publishers he demanded that it be played exactly true to the sheet music. Even the soloist attempting his cello concerto in B minor was not to make any changes.
The concerto does an incredible job of showcasing the range of the instrument, from dramatic and bold to tender and pensive. The incredible rollercoaster of this piece has seen it go down in history.
Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Elgar is another true legend of classical music, and his Cello Concerto in E Minor was actually his last work. If you want to be a solo cellist then at some point, it is likely that a teacher or conductor will challenge you to play this piece. It was written just after World War 1 and Elgar’s music was seen as unfashionable by many. This concerto is both contemplative and emotional, known for its ability to move people emotionally.
Though it was written in 1919, this is another concerto that didn’t see the light of day for many years. In fact, it was the 1960s when Jacqueline du Pré recorded the work and it became far more popular than any other Elgar cello piece.
Leading cellists around the world have provided their take on the concerto.
Camille Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor
Camille Saint-Saëns was a world-renowned musician, but in the modern age he is not the household name that some of the other composers on this list are, such as Elgar and Bach. His Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor is arguably one of his finest works, completed in the 1800s, with one continuous movement rather than being split into three movements like a traditional concerto.
This is challenging for solo musicians, and moves faster than many cello songs, with many of the nuanced techniques of this emotive instrument being displayed.
The performance of the work of Camille Saint-Saëns shown above is a stunning and dramatic version which builds to an incredible finale.
Most Difficult Cello Concertos
The greatest concertos can be moving and interesting for a variety of reasons. However, the very best cello music is sometimes the most difficult, and the most impressive to watch played by a soloist or by an orchestra. There are some truly amazing cello pieces out there which, to a beginner, seem virtually impossible to play.
Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante in e minor, Op. 125
This is a wonderful piece, and one of the best cello concertos which is also one of the most difficult. It has incredible dynamics, with beautiful tender moments combined with dramatic swells.
The second movement is where a lot of musicians struggle. Even professional cellists have a lot of trouble with the concerto. This quote from the description on Wikipedia tells you all you need to know: “For a long time, the Symphony-Concerto was considered unplayable. Even though many cellists today are now able to play it, it still remains a formidable challenge for any cellist.”
If you are just starting your cello lessons, we recommend starting clear of this concerto for a while.
Tchaikovsky – The Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra
This gets an honorable mention as one of the most difficult pieces of music to play for cello. The speed as it approaches its climax is one of many reasons why this is such a hard piece to master, but in the performance above, by the Moscow City Symphony “Russian Philharmonic” and the soloist Narek Hakhnazaryan is truly incredible and triumphant in its nature. This piece proves a challenge for musicians everywhere.
Listing the best concertos or pieces of music for any instrument is very difficult, plus it comes with the challenge of taste being subjective. Some people will have their own take on what they love, but whether it is an orchestra, a soloist or both, the performances we’ve mentioned on this list are by some of the greatest cello players, and deserve respect as some of the greatest and most famous compositions throughout our history. Names like Elgar, Beethoven and Bach are known the world over, and rightly so.
What do you think? If you have your own favorite concertos that we have not mentioned then feel free to leave a comment with your own recommendations.