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Queen Elizabeth II and the Cello

Queen Elizabeth II and the Cello

There have been many tributes to Queen Elizabeth II (21 April 1926 – 8 September 2022), and we wanted to add one of our own – featuring her connections with the cello.

Perhaps the first link that springs to mind is that one of her sons, now King Charles III, plays the cello (more on him soon). In her seven decades as the Queen of the United Kingdom, with her interest in the arts, it is not surprising that she had many cello connections of her own.

Cellists Honored by the Queen through Titles

The Queen has bestowed titles upon several cellists in recognition of their service to the Kingdom through classical music. Learn more about the orders and medals, and their abbreviations. You can also see a complete list of recipients from 1940 through 2022. Thankfully The Strad compiled a list of a number of string players, including cellists, on these lists.

Here are the cellists:

1976 – Jacqueline du Pré OBE

1998 – Steven Isserlis CBE

2016: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch OBE

2020: Sheku Kanneh-Mason MBE

2021: Natalie Clein OBE

2021: Julian Lloyd Weber OBE

Famous Cellists Who Performed for Queen Elizabeth II

Although Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti (8 January 1822 – 18 July 1901) is said to have been Queen Victoria’s favorite cellist, I have not yet discovered Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite cellist – perhaps her son, now King Charles III?

In any case, we know she met and heard many famous string players, as reported in The Strad.

Yo-Yo Ma

In 1982, Yo-Yo Ma played the Elgar Concerto with the London Symphony at the opening of the Barbican Centre.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Cello

HM Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with Yo-Yo Ma at the opening of the Barbican Centre in 1982. Read the full article in The Strad.

At the opening, the Queen proclaimed:

“what has been created here must have some claim as one of the wonders of the modern world.” – as reported in The Washington Post

Mstislav Rostropovich

Queen Elizabeth II and Mstislav Rostropovich’s paths crossed more than once, but one of the most memorable times was when he was a soloist at The Prom at Buckingham Palace Garden commemorating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

Rostropovich, along with cellists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, performed the Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No.1.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Sheku Kanneh-Mason had already earned his place in cello history in 2016 when he became the first Black musician to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, but he deservedly had a meteoric rise in fame after he performed during the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018.


Cello Music by Masters of the Queen’s Music

Masters of the Queen’s Music (now, again, the King’s Music),

“originally served the monarch of England, directing the court orchestra and composing or commissioning music as required.

The post is broadly comparable to that of poet laureate. It is given to people eminent in the field of classical music; they have almost always been composers. Duties are not clearly stated, though it is generally expected the holder of the post will write music to commemorate important royal events, such as coronations, birthdays, anniversaries, marriages and deaths, and to accompany other ceremonial occasions. The individual may also act as the sovereign’s adviser in musical matters. Since 2004 the appointment has been for a fixed term of ten years rather than for life, as previously.” – Wikipedia

Although Edward Elgar met the then Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, as children and wrote music dedicated to them and their mother, he did not serve as Master of the Queen’s Music. He had passed away by the time she assumed the throne.

Sir Arnold Bax KCVO

Sir Arnold Bax (8 November 1883 – 3 October 1953) served Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, as Master of the King’s Music, and then her as Master of the Queen’s Music until his death in 1953. In addition to being a composer, Bax was also a poet and writer.

Cellist Gaspar Cassadó commissioned Bax to compose a Cello Concerto (1932) but dropped the work from his repertoire. Cellist Beatrice Harrison championed the work, and Bax wrote her a letter telling her:

“I cannot imagine a truer interpretation of what I meant writing the concerto . . . I think you are England’s finest cellist and always have done and have said so.” – Letters from Arnold Bax to Beatrice Harrison, quoted in her autobiography (p.30)

Bax also wrote several works for cello and piano and a Rhapsodic Ballad, for unaccompanied cello.

Sir Arthur Bliss CH KCVO

English composer and conductor, Sir Arthur Bliss (2 August 1891 – 27 March 1975), dedicated his Cello Concerto to Rostropovich, who premiered the work in 1970 at the Aldeburgh Festival. Composer Benjamin Britten, who was conducting this performance,

“regarded it as a major work and persuaded Bliss to change its title from “Concertino” to “Concerto.” It is an approachable piece of which Bliss said, “There are no problems for the listener – only for the soloist.” – Wikipedia


Malcolm Williamson AO CBE

Australian composer Malcolm Williamson (21 November 1931 – 2 March 2003) wrote a set of Variations for cello and piano. Please let us know if you make or find a recording of this work.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies CH CBE

English composer and conductor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (8 September 1934 – 14 March 2016), was the first Master of the Queen’s (or King’s) Music to be named to the post for only a decade, rather than for life.

One of my personal favorites by Davies is his “Farewell to Stromness,” but I haven’t found an arrangement of it for the cello. Please let us know if you know of one. Here is his Sonata, Sequentia Serpentigena, for cello and piano:


Judith Weir CBE

In 2014, Judith Weir CBE (born 11 May 1954) became the first woman to be appointed as the Master of the Queen’s Music. She is the second to be offered the post for only a decade. For more about her work, “Unlocked” for unaccompanied cello, please see the beginning of the video below, where cellist Zlatomir Fung discusses the piece before performing it.

Cellist Jonathan Miller commissioned Weir to write Three Chorales for cello and piano. According to the program notes on Miller’s video, the first movement, “Angels Bending Near the Earth,”

was inspired by a carol from the Massachusetts pastor and poet, Edmund Sears. The music features “piano arpeggios swooping down over the rich central band of sound produced by the cello.”

In the second movement, “In Death’s Dark Vale,”

she briefly paraphrases a Scottish hymn setting of Psalm 23. . . The image here is of human life lived against the prospect of impending death.”

The final movement, “O Sapienta,” quotes

“a hymn by Hildegard of Bingen. [The title of the movement] means “O, Power of Wisdom” . . . The image here is of human life lived against the prospect of impending death.”

Not a Cello

With her passing, frequently you might see a photo of Queen Elizabeth II opening a 2019 exhibition about Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. The photo is from the event shown in the video below, as the Queen looks at an exhibit including musical instruments played in Victoria’s private orchestra.

The instrument, as you can see much better in the video than in the still image most often shared, is much bigger than a standard cello and is catalogued in The Royal Collection Trust as a basse de violon. The great bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, gave this bass to Prince Albert in 1846, and the instrument subsequently became one of the resources of Queen Victoria’s Private Band. Although it looks suspiciously like a cello, don’t let it fool you.

Music for Queen Elizabeth II

Want to play or listen to something on the cello in honor of Queen Elizabeth II? One of her favorite hymns was “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven.” Here is a score you can download, and a cello part for you to use to play along.

Another option is always “God Save the Queen.”

Your Turn

What are your favorite cello memories of Queen Elizabeth II? Please let us know in the comments.

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