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What Are Cello Concertos?

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  • Written By: A. Elms
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2014
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A cello concerto is a musical work composed of three movements for a solo cello — a bowed string instrument that is a member of the violin family — with orchestral accompaniment. Possibly deriving from the Latin words conserere, meaning "to tie" or "to join," and certamen, meaning "to fight," a concerto is presented as a musical composition in which the soloist and the orchestra alternate between periods of opposition and cooperation to create a cohesive musical piece. Although cello concertos began during the Baroque period of the 16th to 18th centuries, few of them were written before the 19th century because of an initial preference for violin and piano concertos. The cello became fully recognized as a solo instrument during the Romantic Era and has been used for notable cello concertos by popular composers such as Robert Schumann, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Antonín Dvořák. By the 20th century, the cello had matched the piano and violin in the respect and recognition that it was given as an instrument used for concertos.

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One significant difference between cello concertos and concertos that are written for other musical instruments is that cello concertos are often composed with a sparing amount of orchestral components. Larger than some of the other instruments belonging to the violin family, the four-stringed instrument produces sound at a lower register than a piano or violin, causing music produced by the instrument to become more easily lost among the background of a full orchestra. Compositions of cello concertos are considered to have been most prevalent during World War II, written by modern day composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, György Ligeti and Edward Benjamin Britten.

Probably one of the most noteworthy cello concertos is Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. Written in 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War and immediately following a risky surgery that Elgar had to remove an infected tonsil, the mournful piece is said to represent an introspective look at death and mortality. It begins with interchanges between a solo cello and the contributing orchestra, following by a lighthearted middle section and ending with a slower version of the composition’s main theme. This cello concerto didn’t become popular until the 1960s, when renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of the composition became a classical best-seller.

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