‘Write without thinking about the cello: I am the cello!’
Augustus Johns’s portrait of the cellist Madame Suggia was prescient: with her magnificently confrontational stance, head thrust back, she’s an icon of reckless heroism. Indeed, the 20th century saw the rise of the cellist as political rebel and musical revolutionary: Pablo Casals is cherished as keenly for his life-long stand against Fascism as for his exhumation of the Bach Suites. He lived out his protest as an exile in Prades, shaming Western governments by his refusal to perform in any country that recognised Franco’s government.
‘Slava’ Rostropovich’s explosive interactions with the Soviet administration gave him moral authority: he not only sheltered Solzhenitsyn before defecting, but wrote an open letter to Pravda attacking cultural oppression which even now startles with its fierce honesty; in 1991, he rushed to support Yeltsin during the attempted coup d’état. His encounters with composers transfromed the repertoire, producing more than 200 new works from Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Britten, Lutosławski, Gubaidulina, Pärt, Piazzolla and Dutilleux, to name but a handful.
Another inspirational creative force, Yo-Yo Ma, set out in 1998 on an intrepid adventure into Silk Road territory, a bold act of cultural reconciliation, and one that acquires a new urgency with each passing year. Radical masters Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Anner Bylsma forged an equally fruitful new alliance with the past by reinstating the Baroque cello and reviving its repertoire.
For others, the cello itself has given voice to protest: Vedran Smailović, the courageous Cellist of Sarajevo, risked sniper fire to play in the burnt-out ruins of his besieged city, while more recently Karim Wasfi has done the same by performing, without protection, at bomb sites in Baghdad.
From the cri de coeur to the voice of lament, the cello’s role as chief mourner is unassailable: it’s no accident that it was a cellist who was asked to play at the memorial for the Paris attacks in 2015 or that Yo-Yo Ma commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with Bach’s Sarabande from the Suite in C minor. Think of the cathartic sorrow of Fauré’s Elégie, Britten’s Third Suite, Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
So what is it about cellists that might make them so rebellious, restless and ruggedly independent? Is it the potential in the sound for outcry? the subversive creativity of the underdog? their role as the engine of the orchestra, the drivers not the divas? I see this questing spirit in so many cellists today, united in their rejection of the status quo. I think Slava would be proud.