20 of the Most Famous Cello Players of All Time
The cello is a complex instrument to play. Many years of practice are required to master it. It’s not surprising that cello players are passionate about mastering this challenging instrument.
The most famous cello players in history have become known for their exceptional skills and achievements. This list will explore some of the most famous cello players of all time. These renowned cellists have made a name for themselves through their outstanding abilities and contributions to the music world.
- 1. Yo-Yo Ma
- 2. Leonard Rose
- 3. Mstislav Rostropovich
- 4. Pierre Fournier
- 5. Jacqueline du Pré
- 6. Adrien-François Servais
- 7. Pablo Casals
- 8. Paul Tortelier
- 9. Stjepan Hauser
- 10. Bernhard Romberg
- 11. Fred Katz
- 12. Natalia Gutman
- 13. Luigi Boccherini
- 14. Arthur Russell
- 15. Julian Lloyd Webber
- 16. Steven Isserlis
- 17. Sol Gabetta
- 18. Mischa Maisky
- 19. Emanuel Feuermann
- 20. Gregor Piatigorsky
1. Yo-Yo Ma
Starting this list with a renowned cellist in the music industry who started playing cello at the age of four and a half. Yo-Yo Ma has won a glorious 19 Grammy Awards, received the National Medal of Arts in 2001, and other notable awards.
Given that his father was a violinist and his mother was a singer, it is evident that music runs in his blood. Ma has been able to instill his passion for music by performing heartfelt melodies that screams hope and unity among social barriers.
His playing style is often classic, utilizing traditional Chinese songs, American bluegrass music, and contemporary melodies with his distinctive rich, smooth, and enthralling sound. Yo-Yo Ma is an internationally successful cellist with over 90 albums, who has played with the Silk Road Ensemble and achieved recent successes in the world of music.
2. Leonard Rose
A teacher and a marvelous cellist, Leonard Rose is one of the most influential cellists in history. At 20 years old, he completed his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music and joined NBC Symphony Orchestra.
The following year, he joined the Cleveland Orchestra and became the principal cellist. After several years, he joined the New York Philharmonic, left, and began recording as a soloist. In 1952, Rose joined Isaac Stern and Eugene Istomin and they became a trio but their collaboration was short-lived.
Rose’s cello playing is exquisite, he credits Felix Salmond, Dounis, Oscar Shumsky, and Kreisler for it. Rose delved into teaching because of Felix Salmond’s emphasis on the need to teach future generations. He started teaching at Juilliard, Meadowmount Summer School, and Curtis Institute. His students include notable cellists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Lori Singer, Desmund Hoebig, Fred Sherry, and others. Leonard Rose has left a significant mark on the world of cellists, and his recordings are still studied by aspiring cellists today.
3. Mstislav Rostropovich
Power and grace define the playing style of Mstislav Rostropovich, who was a Russian cellist and conductor. He is known for playing the cello with minimal surface noise and strong kicks and pops.
He has mastered his craft by not letting a tune stray away from the timing and technicals. Rostropovich was one of the first cellists to use the tonal resources of the cello and had an impressive career as a conductor.
Out of the 100 pieces he has either inspired or premiered, all are connected to the cello repertoire. Rostropovich was also known as a political activist and was exiled. But he continued to make music, even in the worst of times. Rostropovich’s performances are some of the most influential and his name will continue to be remembered by cellists for years to come.
4. Pierre Fournier
An elegant and beautiful player, Pierre Fournier was a French cellist who is also considered one of the best cellists in the music industry. He is best known for his recordings of Beethoven’s cello sonatas and the Bach suites.
He originally played the piano but due to his mild polio, he had trouble using the piano pedals so he switched to cello and realized he excelled in it. In addition to his teaching position at the École Normale de Musique, Fournier also taught at the Paris Conservatoire.
His repertoire was known to be comprehensive, from playing Bach to contemporary music in which other composers wrote several works for him. Being known as the “aristocrat of cellists,” Pierre Fournier’s name will continue to be remembered in the music industry.
5. Jacqueline du Pré
A cellist by nature and passion, Jacqueline du Pré is one of the most well-known female cellists in the world. Being a female cellist in a male-dominated industry, she quickly made a name for herself because of her radiant and pure playing style.
Jacqueline du Pré’s mother was a pianist and instructor, which might help to explain how Jacqueline suddenly developed an enthusiasm for the cello at age five and quickly excelled. By eleven, she had become the youngest recipient of the Guilhermina Suggia Award.
She performed with her sister, Hilary du Pré, in competitions. Du Pré’s multiple sclerosis forced her to end her musical career at 28 years old. Jacqueline’s music was greatly characterized by her charisma, and to this day, fans savor her recordings.
6. Adrien-François Servais
From violin to cello, Adrien-François Servais was a Belgian cellist and composer who made a major impact in the cello world. He was known for using vibrato and giving the cello more operatic quality.
His virtuosity on the cello is incomparable and he made many cello compositions that are still used today by aspiring cellists.He was given a Stradivarius cello as a gift, which was named after him. Servais is one of the first people to use endpins due to how large the Stradivarius is. In addition to his passion for playing the cello, he was also a teacher at the Brussels Conservatory.
7. Pablo Casals
A reflective and sincere cellist, Pablo Casals was a Spanish-Puerto Rican conductor, composer, and pianist. His skill in playing is evident in his perfect intonation, finest bowings, and free movement of his hands on the fingerboard.
He is known for his interpretation of Bach’s suites and his recordings are distinctly identified by his continuous and expressive vibrato. Throughout his career, Casals played for notable individuals such as Queen Victoria, President Theodore Roosevelt, and President John F. Kennedy.
Being referred to as the “greatest man who ever drew a bow,” Pablo Casals was one of the cellists who made a difference in the music scene by founding music ensembles and the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico.
8. Paul Tortelier
Putting emotions into his music, Paul Tortelier was a French cellist and composer. As a soloist, he composed concertos, sonatas, and symphonies while making his variations of Bach Cello Suites.
His notable style included a wide range of dynamics and bowing techniques. He popularized teaching on BBC television. He also held three honorary degrees, including one from the Royal Academy of Music in London as an honorary member.
9. Stjepan Hauser
A cellist in the new era, Stjepan Hauser is a Croatian-born, world-renowned classical musician. What separates him from other cellists is his versatility in music. He often collaborates with pop, rock, and jazz artists.
He also composes his own arrangements of popular songs, which has led him to having a large social media following with over 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube. Hauser has been a part of 2Cellos with Luka Šulić and also performs solo.
10. Bernhard Romberg
One of the foundations of cello playing, Bernhard Romberg was a German cellist, composer, and pedagogue. Harry Romberg is credited with developing the “Romberg bevel,” which is a flat region beneath the E string of the double bass that allows for more free vibration of the larger string.
As one of the earliest known cellists, he created a book on his cello techniques, and his cello concertos are still being used for teaching in schools today. To make playing the instrument simpler for young children, he suggested that half-size and 3/4-size cellos be created. Romberg is credited for reducing the number of clefs used to write cello music to only three: the bass, tenor, and treble.
11. Fred Katz
A famous classical cellist who infused jazz in his music, Fred Katz was an American cellist and composer. As a pianist and cellist, Fred Katz was part of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. It was during this period that he first began to use the cello as a jazz instrument.
He organized concerts and composed musical revues for the Seventh Army of the United States during World War II. Some of his music scores have also been included in films such as The Wasp Woman, A Bucket of Blood, and Creator From the Hunted Sea.
12. Natalia Gutman
Coming from a family of violinists, Natalia Gutman is a Russian cellist who has won many competitions and has been given distinguished recognition. In 1961, she won the First Prize at the International Dvorak Competition in Prague and became a National Artist of the USSR in 1991.
She is an instructor at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole, Moscow Conservatoire, and the Private University of Vienna. She spends her time performing Bach Suites, chamber music, and duo recitals around the world as a soloist or with a trio (Sviatoslav Moroz on violin and Dmitry Vinnik on piano).
During her four additional years of post-graduate work, she had the opportunity to work with another renowned cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. She and her husband launched the Musikfest Kreuth, a festival dedicated to contemporary music and chamber music.
13. Luigi Boccherini
Luigi Boccherini was an Italian cellist and composer during the classical period. His style was known to be curt and elegant. The minuet from his composition ‘String Quintet in E, Op. 11, No. 5 (G 275)’ is one of the most notable skills that he has with cello playing.
He was a cellist who helped to popularize the string quartet as a genre in music. He wrote several chamber pieces, including more than 100 quartets, 100 quintets, 50 trios, and 50 chamber works in various genres. Boccherini is known to have written the minuet in his String Quintet in E Major, G 275, which was notably recognized.
14. Arthur Russell
A singer, cellist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Arthur Russell was an American avant-garde musician. His music was borderless and he experimented with many different genres and later moved to disco music.
He learned to play cello and piano before he turned 18. He then studied Indian classical music and played the cello with singer and poet Allen Ginsberg. He has dabbled in a few genres, releasing songs and performing compositions with elements of pop, dance, and classical music through his cello and solo format.
His album “World of Echo” includes percussion, cello, as well as other effects such as distortion and reverb- all produced spontaneously to create a pop structure with peculiar sounds.
15. Julian Lloyd Webber
Being raised with musically-inclined parents, Julian Lloyd Webber is a British cellist. His passion for music sprouted at a young age, and when he turned 16, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.
Premiering over 50 works, he inspired other composers to write for him. Malcolm Arnold, for example, wrote ‘Cello Concerto’ and ‘Fantasy For Cello’ for him. He also won accolades for his recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as conductor.
Being a driven advocate of music education, he is the founder of ‘In Harmony’ music which gives music education opportunities and programs to the community. He was forced to retire from cello playing because of a neck injury that caused his bowing arm to weaken.
16. Steven Isserlis
A British cellist, Steven Isserlis is known for his interpretations of classical music and varied career as a soloist, broadcaster, educator, and author. He frequently gives recitals with musical centers and is known to perform with the most famous conductors and orchestras.
Isserlis is acclaimed for his broad repertoire, contemporary sound, and the use of gut strings. Even if he’s often surrounded by staunch ensembles, Isserlis highly advocates the underrated composers to promote the younger generation of cellists and audiences.
He has been awarded and recognized many times over and is also inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame for his work in classical records.
17. Sol Gabetta
A child prodigy, Sol Gabetta is an Argentine cellist who started playing the cello at the age of four. Maintaining an elegant and intense style, she is known for her virtuosity and stage presence.
She describes her love for cello as “a sound close to the human voice,” which emotions are conveyed through. Gabetta has collaborated with various artists and has been a part of many orchestras. Oftentimes, Gabetta likes to incorporate chamber music into her performances.
Her favorite out of all the pieces she’s performed is Elgar’s Cello Concerto – one of the most popular and widely known music pieces in the world.
18. Mischa Maisky
A student of Mstislav Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky is one of the most popular and world-renowned cellists today. He’s a well-known musician with his flamboyant and unpredictable style. He is known to mix poetry and inventive technique in his playing, which has made him a renowned artist.
For the International Tchaikovsky Competition in the late 1960s and sixth place, he caught the attention of Mstislav Rostropovich, a famous cellist, and educator, who began his path as Rostropovich’s student. After being arrested for purchasing a tape recorder in the black market, Maisky was imprisoned for four months. He was then permitted to move to Israel.
His American debut was in 1973 at Carnegie Hall, where he played under the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Since then, he has worked with some of the world’s most renowned conductors and musicians, including Martha Argerich, who is a valued collaborator.
19. Emanuel Feuermann
Emanuel Feuermann was raised by two amateur musicians and, as a result of this exposure to music at an early age, made his concert debut playing Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major with the Vienna Philharmonic when he was only 11 years old.
He is known for his effortless and comfortable performance in the uppermost register, where he was able to maintain a rich and continuous tone, playing the cello much like a violin. Feuermann is remembered to play the cello which contains a violin-like pitch and finesse.
Once appointed as the principal cellist in Gürzenich Orchestra, he was later dismissed when the Nazi reign began four years later. He continued his recordings while being on tour throughout the world.
20. Gregor Piatigorsky
With difficult bowings and fast cello technique, Gregor Piatigorsky was known to make the cello sing with his skills. His notable low-register sound, downbow staccato, and love of music have made him pursue and master the subtle articulation of the cello. His violin-like technique in the cello has reached new levels, and his stage presence is also known to be very powerful.
Piatigorsky was born in Ukraine and studied at Moscow Conservatory. At 15, he became Bolshoi Theater’s principal cellist. Even though musicians were not allowed to study abroad during the Russian Revolution, Piatigorsky and others tried to cross into Poland on a cattle train but failed. This did not dissuade him from playing the cello.
A few years later, he played in the US with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. From then onwards, Piatigorsky played several ensembles, became a teacher, and played chamber music. A cellist with great authenticity and emotion, Piatigorsky was one of the most famous cellists of his time.
Cello is a beautiful and complex instrument, and these 20 cellists are some of the most skilled and well-known in the world. While each player has a unique style, all of them are united in their passion for the cello, music, and their commitment to their craft.
These cellists have shown their talent and love for music through their Bach or Beethoven compositions, as well as pieces they’ve composed themselves, making them the most famous cello players of all time.
Yo-Yo Ma Featured Image (Top-Left) by: Secretaría de Cultura de la Ciudad de México, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mstislav Rostropovich Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Foto: Renate Hoffleit, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons