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Cello and the human voice: A natural pairing

I’ve heard the phrase “It’s the instrument most like the human voice and that’s why it’s so expressive” countless times over the years. As a cellist myself I’m probably biased to some degree, but I truly believe that the cello has a unique voice which wonderfully synergises with the human voice.

In addition to being a cellist, I’m also a composer of mainly choral music, so I was thrilled when Oxford University Press invited me to edit a book of pieces specifically for choir and cello, particularly as such an anthology has never been published before. How interesting and rewarding to bring together a collection of pieces where the cello is seen in all its varied guises!

The cello is hugely versatile: it is able to mingle with or stand out above or below the voices of the choir; it can provide a jazz walking bass or a baroque continuo; it can function as a soloist with the voices of the choir accompanying; it is able to produce a variety of textures and rhythmic drives with pizzicato strummed chords or arpeggiated figures; it can provide a solid bass beneath complex rhythms or harmonies in the choir. What other instrument could switch between any of these roles in a moment?

Its ambit encompasses the whole vocal range, from bass to soprano, and its timbre is very similar to the human voice. Its sound can be earthy, gritty, soulful, or joyful; able to convey the deepest emotion, just like the human voice. Cellist Steven Isserlis said of the instrument “Even physically, one’s relationship to it is somehow similar to a singer with his or her voice; the cello seems to become part of one’s body, as one hugs it close and coaxes mellow sounds from it”.   

It is surprising that over the centuries comparatively little has been written for cello and solo voice—and even less for cello and choir. However, in recent years, music for cello and choir has become increasingly popular as composers (or commissioners?) seem to have discovered the wonderful possibilities of this combination.

Music for Choir and Cello includes not only new compositions but also adaptions of pieces from the classical canon, two of which I had the joy of arranging. “Agnus Dei II”   from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis has long been a favourite of mine, and it was easy to reimagine this exquisite piece in a new setting for choir and cello.

Unlike the rest of the mass, which is for four voice parts, this final movement has an additional superius part which is in canon with the cantus, and thus seemed to lend itself perfectly to rescoring with the cello taking the superius (or second soprano) part. I experimented with bringing the cello down an octave for certain phrases in order to exploit the richer tones of the lower strings (and to give the cellist a break from playing high up on the A string for an entire piece!), but in the end decided to keep it at the original pitch throughout as this really draws the listener’s attention to the imitation between the upper two parts.

Whilst exploring other possible repertoire to arrange for the anthology, I came upon J.S.Bach’s uplifting and energetic motet Lobet den Herrn which struck me as an ideal contrast to the pure serenity of Palestrina’s music. Here, the cello functions in an entirely different way, playing a continuo part which often doubles the bass vocal line, and occasionally the tenor, and provides harmonic direction and rhythmic momentum beneath the largely contrapuntal voice parts.

I would love to think that the inclusion of these arrangements in Music for Choir and Cello might bring a couple of gems from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the attention of those who perhaps haven’t sung such music before. (After all, it’s not every choir that has Palestrina in its repertoire!) And of course, I hope very much that all the pieces in this book will be enjoyed by singers, cellists, and audiences alike.

Feature image by Isabela Kronemberger via Unsplash.

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