This Fall I’ll be starting to work on a new piece featuring a solo cello part, and last week I was glad to spend a couple days meeting with the soloist. Naturally, when writing for a soloist who can pretty much play anything, it’s been helpful to look at all kinds of examples of virtuoso cello-playing. But the cellist made a very good recommendation as I set out to embark on some serous score-study: that if I really wanted to understand how to write for his instrument, it would be important for me to look not just at passages written with the virtuoso in mind, but also at works with more modest technical demands written with student performers in mind.
What is the value of a composer studying works that make only very basic technical demands on the performer, in preparation for writing a work designed to explore the extreme outer reaches of cello technique? For one thing, it’s not enough just to know the highest note available on the A string, or the widest hand-spacing that is physically possible—these are literally just the “outer limits” of playing technique, and information like this doesn’t really provide any context about what comes naturally. And that’s just where studying the simpler scores comes in; by grounding myself in what is most natural for the cello I find I have a much better understanding of its extended possibilities.
The cellist also showed me many examples of “bad cello writing”; interestingly, these examples were mainly defined by lack of economy—difficult passages whose difficulty didn’t change or add to the developing musical texture in any discernible way. To this end, I remember a “student piece” I had once played on violin: William Potstock”s Souvenir de Sarasate, which distilled the kind of virtuosic writing found in Pablo de Sarasate’s many violin showpieces down to something a student could manage. Pieces like Souvenir de Sarasate (as well as many of Popper’s easier works for cello) are really great examples of how to get a lot of bang for your buck—by writing passages that are no more complex than they need to be to create a striking effect.
I have heard many, many composers express frustration in working with performers, often to the effect that the “outside world” failed to adequately express their intentions; and while it’s true that this is often the case, these unhappy situations would become much more infrequent if all parties—and especially composers—took a more active role in the creative process, before the double-bar gets slapped down and any changes are likely to lead to bad feelings. I’m all for us composers expressing our most deeply-felt, quirky, and unheard-of musical ideas, but if reality never butts up against any of those ideas they never react and develop into something really interesting.