Always Reaching for a Higher Level of Technique
In 2019, Brinton Smith of the Houston Symphony asked me to transcribe Henryk Wieniawski’s tour de force violin Etudes-Caprices for two cellos. I took him up on the challenge. Smith is always reaching for a higher level of technique. He lists his favorite etude book as Grützmacher’s Op.38, book 2, which is a challenging set both mentally and physically.
A Technique Toolbox
When we learn a new technique, we need to remember that we are adding another tool to our performer’s toolbox. Its purpose is not to show off but to craft a beautiful work of musical art.
There are basic techniques that we all need to play any cello piece, including good posture, bow hold, contact point, etc. In addition, we develop an ear for accuracy in intonation, rhythm, and articulation. The most important part of transforming these building blocks into music is imagination.
Our goal is not to mechanically recreate the little black and white dots on the page. Instead, we must convey the composer’s message – and our own – with confidence and conviction.
Cellists’ Favorite Etudes
The point of etudes is to distill a particular technique and to drill it in a way that is still musical. Many of our favorite etudes and methods are deeply rooted in the baroque era, including those by
For cellists, that means a large body of etudes sound, in essence, like they were written by Bach, Vivaldi, and other Baroque composers. Duport’s etudes are rooted in the classical era’s sonatas and concertos. Servais and Popper’s etudes are rooted in operatic fantasies and orchestral excerpts.
Friedrich Grützmacher, an indefatigable educator, tried to transcend the cello’s left-hand technique in his Op. 38 etudes. These etudes are as close as we get to Paganini’s caprices without playing Paganini. The Grove Music Dictionary says of Grützmacher:
“His left-hand technique is said to have been brilliant.”
Cello historian Edmund S.J. van der Straeten suggested, however, that Grützmacher’s tone was
“not much appreciated by those accustomed to the rich and powerful tone of Kummer.”
Perhaps he put all of his eggs in one basket.
Etudes – the Choice of a New Generation (of Cellists)
Cello etudes are still being written today. Oxford University Press published Aaron Minsky’s Ten American Cello Etudes in the late 1980s and others after that. During the pandemic, he challenged string players around the world to
make a YouTube video of any of his solo pieces in the first two months of the worldwide time out. (“The Aaron Minsky Challenge!” YouTube playlist description)
Robert deMaine has his own set of caprices, one of which he enjoys playing as an encore, called “Brasilia.”
Always Reaching for Higher Cello Technique
Purchase my two-cello transcription of Wieniawski’s Etudes-Caprices here.
What are your favorite cello etudes/studies – and why? Non-cellists – have you ever heard any cello etudes? If so, what’s your favorite?