As we continue curating our playlist of relaxing classical music, we need to include more instruments. So far, we have discussed piano and violin, but there are so many other instruments.
Even though we are only discussing relaxing music, having a wide range of instruments is important to be a well-rounded listener. And with more choices, you can create a personal playlist that best suits you.
Personally, I think it’s fun to explore each instrument’s repertoire. And as you explore, you begin to familiarize yourself with both the repertoire and the performers. This allows you to become more than just a casual listener, but a knowledgeable one. And with knowledge, and familiarity, you begin to refine your personal taste in music and interpretation.
And you can do all of this while listening to music just for relaxation.
So today we are adding to our curated playlist and discussing the top 5 most relaxing cello music.
(If you’d like to see this content in a video, watch my YouTube video here)
Criteria and Considerations
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of the four criteria that can make classical music relaxing:
- Instrumental only
- Simple form
- Consistent “calm” tempo
Also keep in mind that the pieces I have chosen are my personal opinion, and you may know of another cello piece that you find more relaxing. Music is subjective, and that is a good thing.
Finally, as with my top 5 violin pieces, I have chosen to omit any music by Bach, as well as any movements from a cello concerto, as both of those categories deserve their own lists.
With those considerations in mind, and in no particular order, here are the top 5 most relaxing pieces of classical music for the cello.
1. Saint-Saëns: “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was a French composer, and The Carnival of the Animals is his most well-known work.
Arguably the most famous piece on this list, “The Swan” is the penultimate movement of The Carnival of the Animals. This piece, as a whole, is a musical suite that humorously depicts several different animal species, and was written in 1886. The piece is written for a small chamber orchestra, but includes two piano parts.
“The Swan” is one of the few “serious” movements of the work, and only uses the cello and two pianos in the orchestra. Saint-Saëns was adamant in not allowing The Carnival of the Animals to be published during his lifetime, however he allowed “The Swan” to be published after personally making an arrangement for cello and one piano.
The piece’s design is simple, yet beautiful. The cello melody is comprised of mostly scales, and the melody is written in the cello’s higher, sweeter range. The two pianos are strictly accompaniment, with the first piano playing consistent arpeggios (broken chords). This helps create a lush, elegant atmosphere. And the second piano takes on the role of the harp, playing occasional chords to emphasize the phrase.
We shouldn’t forget the legend of the “swan song,” that swans are mute their entire life, only singing once before they die. This adds an additional, possibly poignant, element to the piece. This is also another example of the relationship between death and sleep in the arts.
2. Dvořák: Silent Woods
This piece, I feel, is often overlooked in Dvořák’s repertoire. However, it is absolutely gorgeous.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer who explored with the folk music of his native Bohemia in his compositions. He also spent a period of time in America, and composed his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” with its famous second movement and finale. (You’ve heard both before; the finale starts like the soundtrack from Jaws.)
Silent Woods was originally the fifth movement of a piano suite called From the Bohemian Forest, written in 1883. The piano piece was somewhat popular, but Dvořák made a special arrangement of Silent Woods for cello and piano for a cellist friend’s farewell concert. This arrangement was so successful that Dvořák created an arrangement for cello and orchestra. This orchestral arrangement has become a popular choice for encore performances by high-profile cello soloists.
The piece is written for a small orchestra. Notably, there are no oboes in the arrangement, possibly to eliminate their somewhat harsher tone compared to flute or clarinet (I can say that, I’m an oboist).
The cello melody relies heavily on syncopation, which (like Brahms’ Lullaby) creates a rocking feel to the work which is very soothing. The orchestral accompaniment is simple, relying mostly on the strings. When the woodwinds join they often play the melody to create even more familiarity with the melody.
3. Bruch: Kol Nidrei
Max Bruch (1838-1920) was a German composer who is most known for his Violin Concerto No. 1, which is a standard of violin repertoire.
Kol Nidrei, written in 1880, is composed for solo cello and orchestra, and is based on two Hebrew melodies. Bruch was not Jewish, but became friendly with a known Jewish family, the Lichtenstein family. The head of the family was a cantor who had important relationships with Christian musicians. Bruch himself stated that he did not write Jewish music, but music that was inspired by Jewish music because he felt the melodies were so beautiful.
Kol Nidrei is inspired by the Kol Nidrei declaration from the evening service of the Yom Kippur Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is the most important Jewish holiday. Jewish religion believes that on Yom Kippur God seals his decision for who will live and die in the coming year. The Jewish people are supposed to atone for their sins of the previous year in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, and the Kol Nidrei declaration allows the religious service to be held with “sinners.”
Bruch’s music is meant to imitate the religious chanting of the cantor at the Kol Nidrei service. The music is relaxing, and less dark than you might imagine considering the subject matter. However, it is somber and reflective, which are good qualities when preparing to go to bed.
4. Chopin: Cello Sonata in G Minor – 3rd Movement
Chopin mostly composed music for solo piano (one of his piano pieces made it on my top 5 stereotypical pieces of relaxing classical music list), but he seemed to have a fondness for the cello. He wrote several works with a prominent cello part, and this sonata is a wonderful example.
Cello Sonata in G Minor, written in 1846, was the last piece published during his lifetime. Additionally, this is one of only 9 pieces published during his lifetime written for a solo instrument other than piano.
The third movement of the Cello Sonata is one of the most simple pieces Chopin ever wrote. Chopin is known for highly virtuosic and improvisational-sounding music. This movement, however, is simple, beautiful, and straightforward. The piano accompaniment has little motion, but it does have a call-and-response relationship with the cello soloist. This is a common technique used by composers, and it just so happens to help solidify familiarity of the music.
The cello part also uses a large portion of the instrument’s range. Cello is often considered to have the closest resemblance to the human voice. So hearing music that imitates the human voice can be comforting due to its familiar tone and resonance.
5. Strauss: Cello Sonata in F Major – 2nd Movement
Richard Strauss (1864-149) was a German composer who is famous for his numerous large-scale tone poems. Perhaps most famous is the opening of his Also sprach Zarathustra, which was used as the opening music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Written in 1883 when he was 19 years old, Cello Sonata in F Major is considered standard repertoire for the cello. The piece lacks many of the typical characteristics we expect in Strauss’ mature works, but this doesn’t detract from the piece’s quality or beauty. Some musicologists have noted this piece has a strong resemblance to Mendelssohn’s music.
The second movement is the most turbulent piece on this list, which is due to both its minor key and a more involved piano accompaniment. As with all sonatas for a solo instrument and piano accompaniment, the music should be thought of as a conversation. In this piece, the piano has more involved moments as if it were trying to outshine the cello solo. But every time, the cello regains control and brings the piano back to a more simple accompaniment.
This back and forth may be too energetic for some, but I find it enjoyable to listen to the conversation. If you are listening to all five of the pieces on this list, perhaps you should listen to this one first.
As with the piano and violin, the cello has an enormous amount of repertoire. Let me know in the comments which cello pieces you think are relaxing that weren’t included on this list.
I hope you enjoy exploring the relaxing cello repertoire.