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Black History Month – February 2022 Postcards from Erica

Trying to find unaccompanied cello music by Black composers? Look no further.
February is Black History Month in the USA, and cellist Erica Lessie is back with special “postcards” to celebrate.

Postcards from Erica

Welcome to my new series of postcards celebrating Black composers beginning in February for Black History Month (in the USA). I hope you enjoy exploring these pieces as much as I did selecting them.

Want to know more about my previous digital postcards featuring some amazing compositions by women? See my first installment for more information, then browse the series archive to discover (or rediscover) some amazing music.

I want to thank cello repertoire specialists Corbin Keep and Dr. Megan E. Hill for compiling a list of works by Black composers for unaccompanied cello. I have taken information from their list for these postcards and will continue to do so in the future.

Black History Month Postcard #1:

It is a rare treat to find an outstanding piece for solo cello composed by a percussionist. Not surprisingly, the multi-talented Greg Jackson has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in composition, was a semi-finalist for the American Prize in Chamber Composition, and won 2nd prize in the 2019 American Prize in Conducting. In addition to “Deference for Bach,” and many pieces for percussion and percussion ensembles, he has composed several string quartets and full orchestral symphonies. A dedicated educator, Jackson regularly travels to give percussion masterclasses and clinics in addition to his composition and conducting work.

Composition Details

  • Title: Deference for Bach, Op. 72
  • Composer: Gregory J. Jackson
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Year Composed: 2013
  • Movements: 1
  • Duration of Work: 1:05
  • Number of Measures: 24
  • Number of Pages: 1
  • Tempo: quarter note = 98-104
  • Difficulty Level:  Late Beginner/Early Intermediate
  • Highest Position Reached: 5th
  • Techniques Employed: bass clef, 4/4 time signature, slurs, triplets, accidentals, 1st-5th positions
  • Publisher: Gregory J. Jackson
  • Where to Find Score: Email the composer
  • Cost of Score: $3.99*


Program Notes

“The composition uses the motif of B-flat-A-C-H, in which the letter H is represented by a B natural. It is a musical cryptogram that many composers have used, and the motif appears five times in this composition. The work was inspired by some of the movements from Bach’s Cello Suites. The goal was to infuse some modern tonality with the realm of the Baroque tonal language. Though most of my compositions are not using Bach’s style, he has been a major influence on me as a composer and personally. After I completed Op. 72, I began to add SDG to all of my compositions, which stands for Soli Deo Gloria. It became my only ambition as a musician and serves as a constant reminder as to why I compose.” – Gregory J. Jackson

Cellist’s Guide

Cellist’s Guide: Appropriate for cellists who have reached late Book 3 Suzuki and beyond. This would be a good choice for a student solo contest or recital piece. “Deference for Bach” provides ample opportunity for cellists to practice playing multiple notes per bow, accidentals and shifting within sixteenth note passages.

Black History Month Postcard #2:

Award-winning composer Tania León draws on her Cuban roots to give musical voice to a broad range of works, including collaborations with renowned poets, authors, and directors. Several of her works have received Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations in the category of Best Classical Contemporary Composition. León was the first Music Director of the Dance Theater of Harlem and founded the New York-based nonprofit and festival Composers Now, empowering living composers by “celebrating the diversity of their voices and honoring the significance of their artistic contributions to the cultural fabric of society.”

Composition details

  • Title: Four Pieces for Violoncello
  • Composer: Tania León
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Year Composed: 1981
  • Movements: I, II, III, IV
  • Duration of Work: 11′
  • Number of Measures: 35, 42, 32, 30
  • Number of Pages: 6
  • Tempo: quarter note = 96; Lento doloroso; quarter note = 72; Vivo
  • Difficulty Level: Late Advanced/Professional
  • Highest Position Reached: thumb
  • Techniques Employed: bass, tenor, treble clefs;  4/8, 5/8, 6/8, 9/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4 time signatures; triplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, and septuplets; double, triple, and quadruple stops; grace notes, trills, harmonics, and false harmonics; pizzicato and left-hand pizzicato; glissandos, foot stamping, knocking on soundboard, playing between the bridge and tailpiece, and sul ponticello
  • Publisher: Peermusic Classical
  • Where to Purchase Score: 
Product Cover
look inside
4 Pieces
Cello Solo. Composed by Tania Leon (1943-). Peermusic Classical. Classical. Softcover. 8 pages. Peermusic #61892-623. Published by Peermusic (HL.228846).
  • Cost of Score: $14.95*


Program Notes

In 1979, León returned to Cuba to spend time with family. The following year, her father died.

“Upon her return to New York she began work on a new composition, Four Pieces for Violoncello (1981), which reflected the distress of losing her father. The second movement is ‘a eulogy, but it [was] filled with great pain. I called the third movement Jumbao (groove) […] As the cello begins to express el tumbao [the basic rhythm played on the bass in Afro-Cuban music], that’s where I first introduced the elements of Cuban music that would appear in my later work.’ – from Tania León’s Stride: A Polyrhythmic Life by Alejandro L. Madrid.

Cellist’s Guide

I must confess that when I first received the score several years ago, I took a quick look at it and shelved it. At the time, I wasn’t able to find a video or recording and couldn’t fully make sense of the piece. I am so glad that Angelique Montes recorded the complete work and I was able to give “Four Pieces for Violoncello” a second chance.

Despite the wide pitch range, “Four Pieces for Violoncello” falls surprisingly well in the hand. It does take time to come up with good fingerings, but it is well worth the effort.

Black History Month Postcard #3:

Chad “Sir Wick” Hughes is a man of many talents: euphoniumist, trombonist, composer, producer, arranger, conductor and educator. Since 2014, he has served as the Director of Bands at Morehouse College. In addition to his solo compositions for cello, viola, and violin/piano, Hughes has composed multiple works for chamber ensemble, concert band, and symphony orchestra. Ever the innovator, he is also the author/composer of “A Tale of Two Fools,” the world’s first novical (novel + musical); or, as Hughes describes it, “a new literary and listening experience.”

Composition details

  • Title: 1st Suite for Solo Violoncello
  • Composer: Chad “Sir Wick” Hughes
  • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
  • Movements: Minuet, Courante, Gigue
  • Duration of Work: 5:50’
  • Number of Measures: 4393, 36, 36
  • Number of Pages: 7
  • Tempo: half note = 64, quarter note = 72, dotted quarter note = 68
  • Difficulty level: Advanced/Professional
  • Highest Position Reached:  thumb
  • Techniques Employed: 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8 times signatures; bass and tenor clefs; double, triple, and quadruple  stops; triplets and sextuplets
  • Publisher: Maestrowick Publications
  • Where to Find Score:
  • Cost of Score: $15*


Program Notes

“My love for the cello suites came in September of 1995. As I came home (to the dorms) from marching band practice at the University of Michigan, I heard not only a glorious euphonium sound, but I heard this beautiful melody in C coming from the dorm’s practice rooms. I had to find out who and what it was. As I knocked on the door, I introduced myself and then met Matthew Summers, a fellow music major (now currently in the President’s Own Marine Band. A week or two later, we went to the library so I could get my own copy of the music.

Coincedently I had just met Leo Eguchi and Minitria Slade who were violoncello performance majors. They had a sound that was just quite mesmerizing. I would ask them questions repeatedly so I could learn how to write for this instrument. I had no idea about bowings, double-stops, bow techniques. I was a kid in a candy store.

Years later, the tuba/euph studio at UM had to learn various movements from the cello suites. I went to the library to grab some recordings. Somehow someway, the video of Mstislav Rostropovich performing the Suites was already playing in the library. He quickly became my favorite cellist. Maybe it was the quality of his CDs. His tone just captured me. The musicality of his cello suites got me hooked on his first note. Forever a fan!

Right around the time I was about to graduate, I ran into our cello professor, Anthony Elliott. He kindly asked me to write him a piece. I was floored. No professor had ever asked me that. Honestly, I was nervous. I hadn’t really written solo music before, mostly orchestra music. Unbeknownst to me, Prof. Elliott was putting together a concert and CD of African-American compositions. I just used Bach as my mode and listened over and over to Rostropovich. I didn’t write six movements as he did, but decided to use the dance forms.” – Composer’s website

Cellist’s Guide

Over the years, I have learned to listen to a recording of a piece or get a sneak peak at a score before purchasing a work. (On multiple occasions, I have regretted a music purchase.) Upon listening to Anthony Elliot’s recording of this suite, I was happy to discover that a wonderful new work has been added to our solo cello repertoire, and I went ahead and purchased the score.

At first glance the score looks innocuous enough, but be forewarned that this piece requires a working knowledge of 3rds and 6ths. That is not to dissuade anyone from learning this work, but if double stops are not your forte, it is time to get out the Popper etudes!

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