As an aspiring cello player or a student cellist, you will undoubtedly be looking to some of the greats in the industry for some inspiration or perhaps encouragement. If you’re thinking along this line, you’re not alone. But, most people do not know where to look or even whom to look for. If you fall into this category, we are here to help!
We have compiled a comprehensive list of ten famous classical cellists that every cello player (aspiring or learning should know). In a few moments, we will present our list to you.
But, before we go into that, there’s something you should know. When it comes to the listing of GOATs (Greatest(s) of all time), it is almost impossible to get a unanimous decision. For instance, look at the Ronaldo vs. Messi debate. People always argue who is best, but the point is they are always in the discussion. In case you’re wondering, Lionel Messi is the real GOAT!
What this means is that not everyone can make it into every list of the famous and talented. While some names may always be present, others may not make every compilation.
List of The 10 Best and Famous Cellists
That said, keep reading to find out our top ten famous cello players that every cellist today should know. (If you think we left out some names, take it up with us in the comments).
1) Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805, Italian)
Luigi Boccherini is one of the true greats of classical cello music. You see, Boccherini was there at the beginning of the cello’s classical era, not only as a cellist but also as a composer. He was famous for his performance style, which many referred to as courtly but uniquely different from what other centers for European musical offered.
Also, it may be difficult to talk about Luigi Boccherini without mentioning his remarkable ear as well as his love for lengthy and texture music passages.
Over his lifetime, Boccherini composed more than a hundred quintets, which is arguably the reason for his ageless influence. You see, rather than compose for a cello, a viola pair, and a violin pair (in the traditional way), he wrote his quintets for a violin pair, a cello pair, and a viola. Also, he placed his cello lines in the forefront instead of the supporting role other composers customarily assigned.
Besides his unique-style quintets, Luigi Boccherini also composed many cello sonatas as well as concertos. As a result, he ensured that the coming generations of cellists have numerous pieces to enjoy.
2) Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 -2007, Russian)
Another famous name on the cello scene is Mstislav Rostropovich. Many will agree that Rostropovich was the most remarkable classical cellist in the 20th century. During his time, he was unrivaled for his exceptional technique and his interpretative prowess.
Indeed, Cellist Julian Lloyd (also immensely talented) described Mstislav Rostropovich saying:
‘He made the cello “speak” like no other. The secret lay not only in his phrasing but in his sound. Rostropovich cajoled his audience through his cello and its sound was filled with the breath of God’.
By those words, you can already imagine the level of talent Mstislav Rostropovich had. However, he wasn’t as much a composer, but he inspired several people to do so. Nevertheless, what Rostropovich lacked in composition prowess, he made up for with his relationship with classical composers in the 20th century.
Indeed, composers including Leonard Bernstein, Britten, Alfred Schnittke, and Prokofiev, amongst others, wrote several compositions for him and even gave him some to premiere. Besides, Mstislav Rostropovich was an inspiration to the next generation of cellists, even mentoring some, including Pablo Casals, who is also on this list.
3) Adrien-François Servais (1807 – 1866, Belgian)
In the 19th century, it was virtually impossible to talk about classical cello music without mentioning Adrien-François Servais. During his years as a cellist, he quickly grew to become a critically acclaimed composer. Furthermore, Servais was among the people who founded the Modern Cellistic Schools of Paris and Madrid.
Interestingly, Adrien-François Servais first began training as a violinist before he made the switch to the cello. Aren’t we all glad he did? Today, he is remembered for his superior techniques and extravagant vibrato. Indeed, his one-of-a-kind cello mastery earned a Stradivarius cello from 1701. Till today, that cello still bears his name.
Besides, Servais is also famous as the first cello player to use the bassist’s endpin due to his larger-sized Stradivarius cello. However, today, every cello has a built-in endpin.
During his lifetime, he composed several musical pieces with his cello, including four concertos and almost twenty duos for either a cello and violin or a cello pair. He was quite an accomplished cellist, and Hector Berlioz even referred to him as ‘the Niccolò Paganini of the cello’.
A few years after the death of Adrien-François Servais, his hometown, Halle, honored him by erecting a statue of him in their central market square. His son-in-law, prof. Cyprian Godebski was one of the people that pushed for the project.
4) Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973, Spanish)
Here is another great cellist you should know. Many describe Pablo Casals as one of the people that seamlessly combined this modern age with the cello’s real history. Furthermore, Casals is the brain behind some of the most brilliant Bach recordings out there.
During his years as a cellist, Pablo Casals earned the respect of both his contemporaries and the general music community. Indeed, he even played alongside accomplished instrumentalists such as Fritz Kreisler and performed for Theodore Roosevelt.
The Spanish man was not a top-notch cellist but was also a conductor and composer. If you were looking to name a person as the preeminent cellist in the first fifty years of the 20th century, Pablo Casals would be the name to call.
Over the course of his career, he made and recorded numerous orchestral music, chamber, and even solo music. Some of his works as a conductor are also recording. However, his most renowned works are his Bach Cello Suites recording, which he worked on from 1936 until 1939.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy awarded Pablo Casals the Presidential Medal of Freedom. However, it was Lyndon B. Johnson who presided over the award ceremony.
5) Steven Isserlis (1958 till date, British)
British cellist Steven Isserlis is another one of the greats of classical cello music. At the beginning of his career, he quickly became a national treasure not only because of his exceptional skills but for his oh-so-adorable personality. His fine head of hair has also won many hearts over to his side.
Today, Steven Isserlis has written many children’s books on the subject of music. He has also premiered several modern compositions and continues to thrill concert-goers on a global level.
6) Fred Katz (1919 – 2013, American)
Fred Katz was one of the prodigies of another great cellist, Pablo Casals (we mentioned him earlier). But, his career took a slightly different turn from that of his master’s.
Fred Katz is the jazz cello pioneer, and he had his premiere in Chico Hamilton’s Quintet. Indeed, his unique style (Katz’s style) paved the way for the new generation of jazz cello players worldwide. Some of these cellists include Jacob Szekely (JS3) and Mark Summer (Turtle Island Quartet).
During his years as a cellist, Fred Katz used arco to create melodies. Quite unlike other cellists who only tried to copy the bass’s through pizzicato and slapping.
7) Yo-Yo Ma (1955 till date, American)
If you ask a random cellist who the world’s most famous cello player is, the chances are their answer will be Yo-Yo Ma.
Undoubtedly, Yo-Yo Ma is the most famous cellist today. He is loved and respected in the cello community and beyond. Indeed, if the cello were to have an ambassador, it’d be Yo-Yo Ma.
Today, the cello genius is famous for his large but diverse recorded collection of various musical genres. Yo-Yo Ma has recorded more than 90 albums and participated in numerous films, TV, and radio programs. As a result, he is mostly responsible for increasing the popularity and appreciation of cello music around the world in recent times.
While some other cellists would only dip their toes into the waters of different genres, Yo-Yo Ma dives right into the mix. He immerses cello music into every project. Some of his more famous work includes his collaborations with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, folk music (Argentinian tango, Chinese traditional, and of course, American Bluegrass), and film music of John Williams.
8) David Popper (1843 – 1913, Bohemian)
Many call David Popper a musical royalty, not because he is of royal descent, but for his tight relationship with figures like Liszt and Hans von Bülow. However, he didn’t earn a spot on our list of famous cellists based on his relationships.
David Popper is the author of High School of Cello Play (Op. 73), the most used study book for advanced cello students. Indeed, his book has helped many cellists worldwide expand their technical skills on the cello. Besides, Popper has also composed several pieces for the solo cellists, including four concertos, Hungarian Rhapsody, Tarantella, and more.
9) Lynn Harrell (1944 – 2020, American)
Next on our list is Lynn Harrell was renowned for his impressive sound and agelong performance history. Indeed, the American man’s career as a musician spanned over 60 years. During that time, he performed at hundreds of concerts all over the world every year.
Furthermore, this famous cellist, Lynn Harrell, was the first-ever winner of the Avery Fischer Prize for Classical music. He also earned himself two Grammy Awards for his chamber music.
In 1971, Harrel debuted his recital in New York, and barely a year later, he performed at a concert organized by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. This concert earned him massive critical acclaim so much that Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times wrote in a review saying ‘it would be hard to over-praise the beautiful playing of Harrell. This young man has everything’.
10) Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser
In recent times, 2Cellos, a duet of classical cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, is all the rage on the cello scene. Indeed, in 2013, their cover video to Michael Jackson’s song, ‘Smooth Criminal’ went viral and had more than three million views in under two weeks. Today, the video has over 36 million views.
The duo of Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser have four studio albums and have recorded alongside renowned musicians such as Lang Lang, Elton John, and even the London Symphony Orchestra.
2Cellos are most famous for their covers of modern music, with their cover of the Game of Thrones soundtrack going viral early in 2017. However, they also perform and take part in competitions on the classical cello music scene.
By now, you should have all the inspiration you need to dive into your journey to cello mastery. Besides, the greats of cello have left a repertoire of music pieces that can challenge you to do better.
Remember, we can’t get every talented cellist on our list of the ten most famous. If you think there is anyone we left out, let us know in the comment section,