Trying to find unaccompanied cello music by women composers? Look no further.
Cellist and women’s music specialist, Erica Lessie, is back this month with her final “postcards” in this current series. Usually, these are pieces for three different levels: novice, intermediate student, and seasoned player. This month, to celebrate International Cello Day and the birthday of Pau Casals, they are three pieces inspired by Casals and/or his setting of “El cant dels ocells” (“The Song of the Birds”), a traditional Catalan Christmas song and lullaby.
Here is my December 2021 installment of “That’s What She Said . . . Unaccompanied Cello Works by Women Composers.” This is my final regular set of postcards in this series. In the new year, I will begin a new series. As I find more pieces to add to this series, I will add more postcards, but not on a regular schedule.
I hope you enjoy exploring this month’s pieces as much as I did selecting them. Want to know more about my digital postcards? See my first installment for more information, then browse the series archive to discover (or rediscover) some amazing music.
December Postcard #1: Song of the Birds
German cellist, composer, and pedagogist Ursula Keusen-Nickel was born in Düsseldorf in 1932. Her career as a performer took her around Europe, including a lengthy sojourn in Spain, which may have been where she encountered “Song of the Birds” and opted to develop a version of this Catalan Christmas carol for solo cello. As a pedagogue, Keusen-Nickel focused on understanding the relationship between people and their traditional music. This may be why she chose to contribute by helping preserve this haunting melody for future generations of cellists while indulging her own creativity by exploring variations on the theme.
- Title: Das Lied der Vögel: Variationen für Violoncello solo über ein katalanisches Weihnachtslied
- Composer: Ursula Keusen-Nickel
- Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
- Sections: 4
- Duration of Work: 4:40
- Number of Measures: 111
- Number of Pages: 2
- Tempo: not specified
- Difficulty Level: Intermediate, comparable to Suzuki late Book 3 (except for the Adagio, which might be considered advanced level because of the double stops)
- Highest Position Reached: 6th
- Techniques Employed: 2/4 time signature; bass clef; grace notes; double, triple, quadruple stops; triplets, trills; con sordino
- Publisher: Edition Tonger
- Where to Find Score: Sheet Music Plus
- Cost of Score: $13.95*
This piece is based on “El Cant dels Ocells,” a Catalan Christmas song popularized by cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals. The theme is followed by a Fantasia, Adagio, and Quasi Recitativo, three short variations written in the baroque style.
This would be a nice concert piece for the intermediate player. The first variation is written in constant triplet sixteenth notes, from 1st-6th position, and allows the cellist to work on shaping phrases. The Adagio, which has a number of double stops, would be a good prerequisite for a Bach Suite Sarabande. The Quasi Recitativo is good practice in subdivision and the ever tricky trills. After the third variation, there is a D.C. back to the theme, which is reprised using the mute.
December Postcard #2:
This innovative tribute to Casals comes from a fellow Catalan: composer Elisenda Fábregas. As a concert pianist, Fábregas performed across Europe and the U.S.; she draws on her broad performance experience and comprehensive education to compose an array of pieces ranging from solo instruments through ensembles and symphonic orchestras. This particular composition transforms a well-known melody in unexpected ways, exemplifying the ways in which music builds on tradition while evolving with each generation.
- Title: Homenatge à Pau Casals
- Composer: Elisenda Fábregas
- Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
- Year Composed: 2015 (ed. 2019)
- Movements: 1
- Duration of Work: 7:40
- Number of Measures: 144
- Number of Pages: 5
- Tempo: quarter = 55-70
- Difficulty Level: advanced/professional
- Highest Position Reached: thumb
- Techniques Employed: 3/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 time signatures; bass, tenor, treble clefs; double, triple, quadruple stops; pizzicato, left-hand pizzicato; triplets, quintuplets, sextuplets; glissandos; grace notes; harmonics
- Publisher: Friedrich Hofmeister Musikverlag
- Where to Purchase Score: elisendafabregas.com
- Cost of Score: $15*
“Homenatge à Pau Casals” (Homage to Pau Casals), was commissioned by American cellist David James Kim, in occasion of its premiere at the ‘Mas i Mas Festival’ in Barcelona on August 7, 2015. In this solo cello work, I pay homage to Catalan cellist Pau Casals by using ‘El cant dels ocells’ (The song of the birds), an original traditional Catalan Christmas song popularized by Pau Casals himself that became internationally known as a symbol of peace and freedom. Throughout this homage, I use the beginning ascending scale of Cant dels ocells as a recurring motive embedded in the melodic structure. The tune in its entirety does not appear until the end as a symbol of hope for the future. – Elisenda Fábregas
Though this work incorporates notes from Song of the Birds, the fragments are small, and the listener may not recognize the theme until the very end of the piece.
For much of the composition, Fábregas alternates between treble and low bass clef, as if there is a dialogue between the instrument’s high and low registers. Her liberal use of double stops makes “Homenatge” a bit of a challenge to learn but well worth the work. As the piece jumps around the instrument, the player would greatly benefit from a solid knowledge of the fingerboard.
December Postcard #3:
Lera Auerbach made her mark first as an international concert pianist, defecting from the Soviet Union to pursue her career and advanced musical study, but she knew she was meant to compose from a young age. A prolific composer, Auerbach has written operas, ballets, symphonies, and concertos, as well as pieces for solo instruments, duos, and small ensembles. Often compared with Shostakovich and Schnittke, Auerbach frequently draws on traditional musical forms, blending a virtuoso flair with modern tastes. This particular work was described by critic Stephen Brooks as “a sort of postmodern homage to Casals, drawing on the Bach suites and a song from the cellist’s native Catalonia and rethinking them in a contemporary musical language.”
- Title: La Suite dels Ocells (Hommage à Pablo Casals)
- Composer: Lera Auerbach
- Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
- Year Composed: 2015
- Movements: 8
- Duration of Work: 23’
- Number of Measures: 43, 54, 27, 14, 38, 40, 110, 78
- Number of Pages: 16
- I – half note = 50
- II – half note = 54
- III – quarter note = 72
- IV – quarter note = 56
- V – quarter note = 63
- VI – half note = 66
- VII – half note = 56, quarter note = 63, quarter note = 84, quarter note = 54
- VIII – quarter note = 58
- Difficulty level: professional
- Highest Position Reached: high thumb position
- Techniques Employed: 5/8, 7/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 3/2 time signatures; bass and treble clef; tremolo; grace notes; trills; flautando; sul ponticello; sul tasto; glissandos; double stops; pizzicato; left-hand pizzicato; harmonics
- Publisher: Sikorski
- Where to Find Score: I could not find the score, so I had to write the company and request it. Use this link to request this piece.
- Cost of Score: 26,90 Euro*
Recording of the Fugue (movement VIII):
It was commissioned by Washington Performing Arts, Washington DC, with the generous support of Jane and Calvin Cafritz.
Amit Peled premiered the piece on 8 November 2015 at Terrace Theatre, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
I don’t know why this work has not gained more popularity. Auerbach is a fabulous composer, and the way she weaves together contemporary harmony, Bach-like elements, and motifs from The Song of the Birds is masterful. This is a fitting tribute to Casals, who was most frequently associated with the Bach Suites and the Catalan folk song.
Though this Suite works beautifully as a whole, I would not hesitate to play just one or two movements in a concert. The Preludio and Adagio sognando are written in the stratosphere and would be good practice for those wanting to improve reading in the upper reaches of treble clef and/or practice false harmonics. The Moderato incorporates glissandos, while the Allegretto grazioso employs glissandos, flautando, sul ponticello and sul tasto. The Sognando libero makes use of glissandos and left-hand pizzicato, all of which add a contemporary flair to this work.
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