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Cello - Sound combinations

All stringed instruments form a group with a homogeneous overall sound and perform tasks ranging from the subtlest tonal effects to the most eloquent reinforcements of sound and from the greatest possible tonal compactness to the greatest possible diversity. The stringed instruments are the most homogeneous of all groups in the symphony orchestra. Since Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) the strings have been the heart of the orchestra.

The same playing techniques can be played on the cello as on the other, higher-pitched bowed instruments, but in a lower register (tenor, bass). In the orchestra its tasks range from performing the bass part to expansive melody lines in the tenor register. In works of the classical period it forms a familiar sound pattern by playing in octaves with the double-bass.

String sections
String sections in large orchestras are composed as follows:

  • 1st violins: 16
  • 2nd violins: 14
  • Violas: 12
  • Cellos: 10
  • Double-basses: 8.

In late romantic works – R. Wagner, G. Mahler, R. Strauss – and 20th century pieces the strings are divided into a large number of parts (divisi ).

Cello + string orchestra

The cello section
The sound of the cello section achieves an intensity which is characterized by firm substance which serves in the lower register as a bass foundation as well as in the middle register for cantilenas. The cello has a particularly good blend with all the other instruments in the orchestra.

Cello + violin
The full sound is dominated by the cellos. In octaves an expansive effect is produced for cantilenas in the tenor register. This combination must be treated judiciously since the greater volume of the cellos can drown the violins.

Cello + viola
The cello sounds more powerful and more intense. Played together the two instruments produce a full sound which is dominated by the cellos. In the upper register the viola takes away some of the cello’s brightness and the sound becomes more mellow. In the highest register the bright elements reinforce each other. In octaves an expansive and harmonious effect is produced for cantilenas in the tenor register.

Cello + double-bass
Cellos playing in octaves with double-basses is a “classic” combination. The bass voice in octaves it produces has the great virtue of retaining its credibility as a sustaining bass even at low volume; in other words it forms a bass foundation that always allows the other instruments to the fore. The bright sound of the cellos combines well with the relatively dull sound of the double-basses. Playing both instruments pizzicato produces a particularly resonant effect.

Cello + harp
The pizzicato blends well with the harp.

Cello + woodwinds

There is a great affinity between the strings and the woodwinds.
Generally speaking woodwinds provide the strings with more volume and power, while the strings make the woodwinds more mellow, especially when playing in unison. If the strings are playing with a single woodwind instrument in different registers the latter can assert itself.

Cello + oboe
The oboe accentuates the bright and clear properties of the cello’s sound and its vibrato. The resulting sound is very sharply defined.

Cello + clarinet
The clarinet makes the cello sound mellower.

Cello + bassoon
The bassoon accentuates the cello’s sonority, especially in the bass.

Cello + brass instruments

Cello + horn
The combination of cellos and horns played piano is particularly pleasing. As a rule a better tonal blend is achieved with the woodwinds.
The blend is strongly influenced by the playing technique employed by the strings (pizzicato, col legno). The use of the mute on brass instruments makes them sound similar to the strings and improves the blend. If the two groups are joined by the woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, the blend between strings and woodwinds is improved.