Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras

Cellists in Umm Kulthum's firqa (orchestra) photo ca 1965

This week’s installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will focus on the cello in Arabic Orchestras.

Stringed instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern art ensembles.  Whether the kamancheh, djoze, rebab, or eventually the Western violin, bowed strings have nearly always played an integral role in the sound of the ensembles from that region.  Once western instruments, especially the violin, were introduced many of the folk instruments began being replaced by the violin.

By the 20th century, and especially after the first Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932) the rest of the Western strings began to be incorporated into the traditional art music ensembles of the the Middle East (due to the influence of Muhammad Fathi) and eventually larger orchestras started to develop and composers from the region started writing music for these larger forces while also adapting some Western composition techniques and music ideas and fusing them with the indigenous art music traditions.

The difficulty with incorporating Western strings into the Arabic Orchestra has nothing to do with the instruments themselves, per se, but with the tunings and scales (maqamat) and the standardization of ornamentation for a whole section of strings rather than one string soloist in a smaller takht ensemble.

Arabic oudist, Saed Muhssin, lays out some of the fundamental differences in tuning at his blog post, The Arabic String Section.  The primary difference for the cello is the A would be tuned to a G which gives the four string tuning CGDG rather than CGDA.  While it is possible to play Arabic music with a Western tuning, which I generally do since I prefer not to retune my instrument much, as he notes

While it is possible to play the notes in the alternate tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore, from string players who’ve done the switch after trying to play in western tuning, the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.

he is correct in that the Arabic tuning is far less cumbersome for a lot of the maqams.  Once I get any of my spare  cellos set up for playing I will likely leave one in Arabic tuning specifically for my performances of Arabic music.

Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras”

tentative solo cello recital program

So I’ve taken a bit of an unintentional break from blogging. I’m trying to post at least once a day for my own benefit (I’d like to get used to writing again–more as a way to develop how I organize thoughts on the page than for anything else).

But back to the Solo cello recital issue, here are the current definite picks and picks that are in the immediate queue for inclusion on a program.

Definite picks:
Narong Prangcharoen’s “Far from Home”
Jeff Harrington’s “The Empty Fist”
Jacob Gotlib’s as yet to be named [and composed] piece for cello and electronics
Jeffrey Radcliffe’s “Postbactum”
Jon Silpayamanant as yet to be determined (probably one of my “Improvisation” scores)

in the queue:
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz’s “Windows on the Moon”
Michael Gordon’s “Industry”
Chinary Ung’s “Khse Buon”
Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s “Partita”
Toshiro Mayuzumi’s “Bunraku”
Cassadó suite
Kodály solo sonata

Obviously, the very recently composed works are at the top of my list–and I’m really tempted to drop doing the Kodály and Cassadó altogether as there’s no lack of cellists performing those works. Any thoughts, comments, and/or suggestions (not just from the repertoire listed above) are very welcome.

update on solo cello repertoire bibliography

So after finding another one of my composer friends, Steve Layton, on facebook (this site has got to be one of the best networking tools I’ve come across) he directed me to the new netnewmusic ning website.

I put out a call for solo cello repertoire there and have gotten quite a number of responses onsite and through private messages.

As is often the case when I’m researching music of any sort, genre, style, I am overwhelmed by the wealth of what’s available. I remember, during my college days, reading a number of articles bemoaning the dearth of cello repertoire, but I think so much of that has as much to do with how accessible scores are. The net has made finding a number of things so incredibly easy – at the same time, as I said, it can be overwhelming.

Anyway, as you folks can see from the link above (unless viewing the site requires registration) there are a few scores available for download from composers’ sites. Otherwise you may join the site and get in touch with the other composers for questions about their solo cello works.

In the meantime, I will keep chugging away with the tedious task of compiling a bibliography: and really–it’s not as bad as it sounds–it’s actually a bit exciting!

Cello Repertoire Wiki

This is more for my own sake, and also for the sake of not cluttering up this blog with lists of cello repertoire, but I’ve set up a Cello Repertoire Wiki so that I can quickly make a note about any repertoire I may come across for my Bibliography Project.

20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo

20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo
20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo

One half of the pleasure of doing research at a more general level (e.g. “Solo Cello Music Repertoire” rather than “Cello Repertoire by Popper”) is finding gems you’d never think to come across. Earlier I found a full CD recording of 20th Century Bulgarian Music for Cello Solo. I’ve never heard of any of the composers, much less the compositions.


The other half of the pleasure is finding the scores to these works.

track listing:


1. Fantasia for Cello solo, Op. 15 by Petar Khristoskov
2. Sonata for Cello solo by Marin Goleminov
3. Kells by Georgi Arnaudov
4. Reflected Meditation by Milcho Leviev
5. Augusburg Polka for Cello by Milcho Leviev
6. Bis by Emil Tabakov
7. Sonata for Cello by Dimitar Tapkoff
8. Entrata e Capriccio for Cello by Simeon Pironkov
9. Rhapsodic Improvisation no 1 by Rumen Balyozov
10. Rhapsodic Improvisation no 2 by Rumen Balyozov
11. Sonata for Cello solo no 1, Op. 39 by Nikolai Stoikov