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10 Great Female Cellists

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Who are the most talented female cellists of all time? Read on to find out!

Who are the most talented female cellists of all time? Read on to find out!

1. Jacqueline du Pre: 1945–1987

When you think of a female cellist, for most people the first one who comes to mind is the English cellist Jacqueline du Pre.

That said, she divides opinions, with some arguing her style was too emotionally over the top. But then again, she was very young when she came to prominence - only seventeen - and as Sir John Barbirolli argued, ‘When you’re young, you should have an excess of everything. If you haven’t, what are you going to pare off later on?’

Her formidable technique placed her in the enviable position of approaching music totally in the moment - she played it as she found it, or it found her, within that precise time. In other words, like most of us mere mortals who play an instrument, she didn't practice a piece in a fixed way, the music was always totally natural, as a stream will never run an exact course, yet always recognisable as the stream you know, but with every variation of movement possible within the constraint of the banks the water flows between.

I am in the camp which loves her. I grew up with her iconic recording of the Elgar concerto with Barbirolli conducting - she can barely be separated from it. It's as if she explores every nook and cranny, winkling out every ounce of remorse and regret, playfulness and pathos that Elgar intended his audience to hear.

Jacqueline du Pre, for me at least, seems is at one with her cello. According to a memoir from David Kristol when he saw her in a concert in Philadelphia playing the Saint-Saens concerto, she "wrapped herself around the instrument".

Tragedy struck Jacqueline du Pre at the age of 26 when she could not feel the strings under her fingers or hold her cello bow properly and was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion. She took a year out, resuming concerts the following year but it soon became clear she could not perform anything approaching the fluency and surety of touch she had formerly. Further tests revealed she had multiple sclerosis and she retired completely from the concert hall.

She met her husband Daniel Barenboim at a party who said to the shy cellist, "You don't look like a musician." She promptly got out her cello and they sat down and played the Brahms E minor cello sonata. They married after a whirlwind courtship and collaborated on many musical ventures.

Jacqueline du Pre may have played professionally for only a decade or so she but left us with energised and carefree memories. When she was well enough she taught. I watched her televised masterclass on the Elgar cello concerto broadcast by the BBC. The cellist under scrutiny boldly played the main theme after the great sweeping chords. No! she was told, it should sound like a question, be much more subdued. I've never forgotten her remark and think of it every time I hear a performance of it. Her direction seems so appropriate, as if it couldn't be any other way.

She was the archetypal English rose and has one named after her - Rosa Harwanna "Jacqueline du Pre". This pretty fragrant double headed rose is white and red and flowers in summer through to autumn.

If you could sum up her attitude to playing in one word it would be spontaneity. Yo Yo Ma now plays her Davidov Stradivarius cello.

Beatrice Harrison recording the Elgar Cello Concerto with the composer conducting

Beatrice Harrison recording the Elgar Cello Concerto with the composer conducting

2. Beatrice Harrison: 1892–1965

From the cellist whose interpretation of the Elgar cello concerto remains a benchmark - so much so some cellists are reluctant to perform it in public - to the British cellist who premiered it.

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Beatrice Harrison was one of four daughters who all played instruments. Beatrice and May Harrison were exceptionally talented, performing the Delius and Brahms double concertos together. Beatrice gave the first performance of the Delius cello sonata, after which Delius started work on a concerto for cello alone at Beatrice's request.

By this time she had come to the attention of Sir Thomas Beecham having already performed under Sir Henry wood at the age of only 14. Elgar's own cello concerto appeared the same year as the Delius (1921) and was premiered by Beatrice Harrison at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford, close to Elgar's home. She recorded the work some time after with Elgar himself and she remained closely associated with the work throughout her professional life.

Margaret, the pianist among the sisters joined May and Beatrice for tours which they undertook around Europe. More premieres followed, the Kodaly sonata for solo cello, and the Ravel sonata for violin and cello, again collaborating with her sister May.

She is buried with three of her sisters in the village of Limpsfield, Surrey.

Beatrice Harrison's grave

Beatrice Harrison's grave

3. Caroline Dale 1965–

Television lights illuminated Caroline Dale when she had just entered her teens and won the first ever string section final of Young Musician of the Year, capturing the nation's heart. Her heroine, Jacqueline du Pre who inspired her to take up the instrument, invited her for tea after the competition. She went on to be the youngest cellist to receive the Isserlis Scholarship at 15. Refreshingly she does not confine her approach to classical music but embraces many other styles.

Although she is currently principal cello of the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Metropolitan Orchestra, she has toured with Sinead O'Connor, David Gray, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and many more. She also composes, and wrote the music for the group she formed, Ghostland. Her talent for composing has led her to arrange string parts for other bands she has worked with - U2, Squeeze and Simply Red and has made appearances with Led Zeppelin and Oasis and Nigel Kennedy's band.

Caroline Dale was the cellist on the soundtrack Atonement which won an Oscar for the best original film score. The composer, Dario Marianelli wrote a suite for for cello and piano based on the music and dedicated it to her. Other film soundtracks she has performed include Truly, Madly Deeply and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

She also plays regularly with her sister Miranda (principal 2nd violinist of the Britten Sinfonia) in trios and has been a member of the Balanescu quartet.

Away from the intense world of music Caroline Dale winds down by spending time with her horse and dog.

4. Natalie Clein 1977–

Like Caroline Dale, Natalie Clein's career kick started by means of the Young Musician of the Year competition which she won in 1994.

After studying at the Royal College of Music she relocated to Vienna to have lessons with the great cellist Heinrich Schiff. These days she is herself a professor at the Royal college of Music and Artist in Residence and Director of Music Performance.

A review of her playing from The Times wrote "Magically deft, soaringly passionate, without any trace of self indulgence, Clein conjures a full orchestra of colours and textures from her precious Guadagnini cello".

She has also established her own chamber music festival in Dorset combining familiar established works with contemporary less well known composers. Tickets come with a very affordable price tag and children are actively encouraged to participate.

Collaborations are important to Clein, most notably with the writer Jeanette Winterson of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit fame and choreographer Carlos Accosta, as well as working with fellow musicians Kathryn Stott, the Belcea quartet, and the legendary Martha Argerich.

For Elgar's 150th anniversary of his birth, Natalie Clein recorded the cello concerto for EMI, the work with which she won the Young Musician of the Year, along with a few miniatures.

She tours extensively, but hates travelling on an aeroplane. She doesn't take kindly to folk asking her why, when they see her bringing her cello on board, she didn't choose the flute.

5. Sharon Robinson 1949–

"A cellist who has simply been given the soul of Caruso" is how the Indianapolis Star described Sharon Robinson.

And what a busy cellist she is, performing as a soloist with orchestras all over the United States and Europe, and notably with the renowned Kalichstein, Laredo, Robinson piano trio as well as separately with the violinist of the trio who also conducts and happens to be her husband, Jaime Laredo. To celebrate thirty five years of married life she commissioned Inventions on a Marriage for, appropriately, violin and cello from friend and composer Richard Danielpour.

Sharon Robinson has a tremendous interest in contemporary music and has played the concertos of many of the leading composers including Arvo Part, Ned Rore, Stanley Silverman and Katherine Hoover, many writing especially for her.

As both her parents were professional musicians and members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra the chances of their daughter also following a career in music were fairly high - her siblings are also string players. Not many make it to the apex of acclaimed performers, though, starting early with her first introduction to the limelight aged seven. She also had a stint with the Houston Symphony orchestra herself and can bring this experience of orchestral playing to her pupils..

In between recitals and solos performances, she finds time to teach at the Cleveland Faculty of Music and is co-artistic director with her husband of the Linton Chamber Music Series in Cincinnati and the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle at Bard College.

Her integrity as a cellist has resulted in her receiving the Piatigorsky, Pro Musicis and Avery Fisher awards as well as a Grammy nomination.

6. Angela East 1949–

Angela East is a versatile cellist who has increased her profile playing with off the wall group Red Priest essentially a group of four who have rung the changes of baroque music with their unique and sideways vision on works of the period.

Before joining them in 1997 she had become sought after as a dedicated early music specialist, playing as co-principal with the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and has founded her own ensemble, The Revolutionary Drawing Room, which drew the attention of Stanley Sadie of Gramophone magazine who awarded them the critic's choice for their recordings of Donizetti and Boccherini.

She gives recitals at the Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall with one of her themes entitled A Tale of Five Cellos. The five are viola da gamba (gamba meaning 'legs'), bass violin, baroque cello, five stringed cello and the cello we are familiar with dating from 1828. Bach's sixth suite for solo cello was written for the five stringed cello which has an extra high E string, without which this sixth suite is extremely awkward and difficult to negoitate, requiring the player to use the thumb position to stretch to the very high notes. Thumb position is where the thumb is held on the string so the hand can reach further up the instrument.

Unsurprisingly Angela East has recorded the cello suites with rave reviews, being favourably compared to Paul Tortelier and Pierre Fournier.

Teaching is one of Angela East's enthusiasms and is a level five Suzuki teacher. She runs weekend courses not just for those already learning the cello but for those who want to start. These courses encourage parents to participate - mirroring my own philosophy of teaching - I would always ask parents to come along when the child first began to learn so they can see what and how the child needs to practice!

There is such spark and dynamism around her playing that is delivered with consummate ease. Her hands are masters of anything she tackles and fabulous to watch. You can observe the infectious joy Angela East imparts - she appears to be married to her instruments. Music making is clearly her world. If Jacqueline du Pre sits on the Elgar throne, Angela East's sovereignty over the early music scene is secure.

7. Jennifer Ward Clarke 1935–2015

Jennifer Ward Clarke started off her career with an intense interest in contemporary music before making her name at the opposite end of the scale in early music.

Initially Jennifer Ward Clarke was drawn to avant-garde home grown composers performing works by Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies and playing modernist repertoire with the English Sinfonietta.

Discovering a love for music from earlier times she was a founder member of the Salomen quartet, performing on period instruments. From then on she played with many of the main British ensembles throughout her long career - she retired only in 2009. These included the Monteverdi Orchestra, the Taverner Players and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment.

After studying at the Royal College of Music she attended master classes with the legendary Pablo Casals. There she encountered Jacqueline du Pre who performed the first Saint-Saens cello concerto which she described as 'breathtaking'. Unlike Jacqueline du Pre, Jennifer Ward Clarke chose not to follow a solo career, preferring to play in ensembles. She was also an inspiring teaching, drawing pupils' attention to composers' characters to enlighten them on how to approach and perform their works.

She remained a keen traveller all her life, starting as a student in Africa, not afraid to park her cello on top of a bus on a 400 mile trip, proving herself to be a person with quiet determination and a sense of adventure.

8. Natalia Gutman 1942–

Natalia Gutman was born in Kazan, Kazakhstan into a long line of musicians. Her stepfather, Roan Sapozknikov was a famous cellist and teacher but she quickly outgrew his tuition and progressed to the Gnessin Music School in Moscow. There she studied with Galina Gosulupova and later Mistislav Rostropovich culminating in landing the first prize at the Dvorak competition in Prague.

After a lauded American debut playing Prokoviev's Sinfonietta she was banned from further travel abroad by the Soviet authorities, a restriction that lasted ten years, imposed possibly because of her association with Rostropovich who had left Russia for the west a little earlier. Nevertheless she had a productive Russian career, appearing with the leading conductors of the time and forging musical relationships with fellow high profile instrumentalists with whom she played chamber music, including violinist Oleg Kagan who she went on to marry. World famous pianist Sviatoslav Richter, with who she collaborated said of her "she is an incarnation of truthfulness in music".

Once she was permitted to visit places outside Russia once more, she soon became heavily in demand, playing with the top orchestras including both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic and the Philadelphia.

Her intense interest in chamber lead to a partnership with pianist Martha Argerich, co-directing the Berliner Begegnungen Chamber Series with Claudio Abbado, and for twenty years she was also artistic director of the International Musikfest am Tergensee in Germany with her husband.

She is committed to bringing on the younger generation of cellists, and has teaching posts at the Moscow Conservertoire and the Private University of Vienna, and is Fellow of the Royal College of Music

Her superb abilities hailed her "Queen of the Cello", that particular cello being a 1731 Guarneri del Gesu, and with sublime recordings she is sure to be remembered as a distinctive cellist of our time.

9. Laura van der Heijden 1997–

Not only is Laura van der Heijden already a distinguished cellist, her career barely out of the starting blocks, but she is also an accomplished pianist - she'd tucked both cello and piano grade 8 distinctions under her belt by the time she was ten.

Another graduate of the Young Musician of the Year scheme she won first prize in 2012 playing the Walton cello concerto and has been collecting awards ever since including the Landgraf von Hessen Prize and the Esther Coleman Prize, both in 2014.

Despite still being very young she has performed with the London Mozart Players, the Philharmonia orchestra and the European Union Chamber orchestra as well as recitals in Britain and abroad. On top of this she has formed a trio with Huw Watkins and Tobias Feldman and is an ambassador for the Prince's Foundation for Children and the Arts and the Brighton Youth Orchestra - all this while completing her normal schooling.

Her style is a mixture of intimate thoughtfulness, virtuosic assuredness, and a maturity beyond her years. If ever there was a instrumentalist to follow on their musical life's journey Laura Van der Heijden is the perfect candidate.

10. Ofra Harnoy 1965–

Originally from Israel, Ofra Harnoy's family moved to Canada where at the age of six, under the tutelage of her father, she took up the cello. By the time she was ten she was playing solos with orchestras and in 1982 received critical acclaim when she performed at Carnegie Hall aged seventeen. She has been taught by some of the most eminent cellists in recent decades including William Pleeth, Mistislav Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pre.

Having won the Concert Artists Guild Award in 1982 in New York, the youngest ever to do so, the following year Musical America Magazine named her Young Musician of the Year. The next year Ofra Harnoy gave the North American premiere of the Bliss cello concerto after which Vivaldi concertos were heard for the first time in the modern era. She has also won Juno Artist of the Year on several occasions. She was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1995.

Ofra Harnoy's attitude to technique is fluid, letting the music control how she approaches difficulties moving around the fingerboard so the overall line remains unbroken. During a masterclass with Janos Starker he remarked, "I don't like cellists like you. I've spent years writing books about the technique of cello playing and then you come and demonstrate that you don't need any of it." From the start her father, an amateur violinist, far-sightedly advocated she not be restricted to traditional methods of practice and encouraged his daughter to play anywhere on her instrument - high up, or low down - as took her fancy. This freedom enabled her to overcome technical obstacles and lead her to devise her own most effective and comfortable ways to negotiate her way around the cello.

Painting pictures is a way Ofra Harnoy imagines how the piece of music she is playing sounds and encourages others to enhance their experience of hearing classical works in this way. For example when it comes to Mahler symphonies, she says she conjures up deer and running away chased by hunters.

Her rather isolated childhood (she was an only child) filled Ofra Harnoy with a determination to bring up a family of her own and took time out from the rigours of concert touring to raise her young son and daughter. Nowadays she is back into the swing of appearing on concert platforms and if you happen to see her at one of her recitals you might speculate that she is wearing a gown she designed herself.

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on April 03, 2019:

Hello Kate

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I'm so glad you found out more about your teacher, Jenny Ward Clarke. I bet she was wonderful at conveying what she wanted to put over as she had a wealth of worldly experience and resourcefulness mixed with hues of other cultures that she came across. Happy playing!

Kate Kennedy on April 02, 2019:

Jenny Ward Clarke was my teacher, and I adored her. Thank you for including her, and for telling me things about her I didn't actually know!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on October 06, 2017:

Thanks Chitrangada!

Yes, I did a lot of research but it was a labour of love as it's one of my favourite instruments - so mellow and resonant but can also be very playful. And there are of course, some wonderful female cellists to show off this sensitive instrument's qualities!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 05, 2017:

Interesting and informative article about the great female cellists!

You must have done lot of research to write this wonderful hub. I love the sound of this wonderful musical instrument. Enjoyed the read and I feel enlightened.

Thanks for sharing!

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