1961 and 2021: What My 60th Birthday Means for the Cello!

I turn 60 in a little over two months, and it makes me reflect on what occurred in the cello world the year I was born. In 1961 the Haydn C major Cello Concerto was literally dusted off after nearly two centuries of neglect, and it quickly entered the cello repertoire; Benjamin Britten wrote his Cello Sonata, op. 65, the first of a series of works he wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich, a relationship that was not only musically fruitful but had geopolitical ramifications; and, also significant on both musical and political fronts, Pablo Casals played a memorable recital in the Kennedy White House.

It was the peak year of the baby boom, and among the 4.3 million people born that year were the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk and the American cellist Matt Brubeck (son of Dave, and someone I was privileged to know back when we both lived in the Bay Area back in the late 1980s).

Continuing the theme of both musical and political significance, it was also the year a noted non-cellist named Barack Obama was born, and the year the Berlin Wall went up. (I’ll never forget the chilling way the guard looked at me as I went through Checkpoint Charlie in the summer of 1978, when my teenage self visited East Berlin with the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra.) It was also the year the US tested its first Minuteman ICBM and sent 18,000 “advisors” to Vietnam, and the year Amnesty International was founded.

In this summer that feels like a fraught rebirth after a traumatic year, it seems apropos even for those who aren’t my age to look back at 1961, the year of unprecedented birth in the midst of unprecedented trauma and uncertainty. The world was on the precipice of tumultuous changes, the country was deeply divided, and the feeling that the collapse of civilization or even the demise of life on Earth was imminent was not irrational paranoia but the conclusion a reasonable person could come to after reading the morning paper.

But it was also the beginning of a new chapter in music. This was the year that the Beatles got their name and met Brian Epstein while performing almost nightly in Liverpool and Hamburg; the year that Bob Dylan performed almost nightly in New York and recorded his debut album; and the year Motown Records scored its first #1 record, “Please, Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes, which would later be re-recorded by the Beatles. But it was also the year Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra for President Kennedy’s inauguration, saw his hit musical West Side Story released as a hit movie, and led the New York Philharmonic in its last season at Carnegie Hall before moving to Lincoln Center the following year. It was the year Krzysztof Penderecki led the world premiere of his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It was the year Bruno Walter, who was Gustav Mahler’s assistant, made his final recording. It was the year that Benjamin Britten, while not working on his Cello Sonata, composed War Requiem, premiered in the spring of 1962. And it was also the year that a sixteen-year-old cellist named Jacqueline Du Pré made her formal debut in Wigmore Hall and her very first recordings, a pair of works by Handel and Falla with pianist Ernest Lush, in the BBC studios.

Cellos and cellists have a way of ushering in new eras. It seems likely that the C major Cello Concerto was the first work Haydn wrote for a soloist in the Esterházy orchestra, his first composition following his initial assignment, the “Morning, Noon and Night” trilogy of symphonies. Thirty years later it was with two cello sonatas and a series of variations on the symbolism-laden theme of “See the conquering hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus that the 25-year-old Beethoven introduced himself to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, himself a skilled cellist, and earned a hundred Louis d’or for his efforts, a turning point in his early career. Two centuries later, Britten helped thaw a corner of the Cold War with his works for the Soviet cellist Rostropovich, which helped burnish Rostropovich’s reputation in the West and paved the way for his eventual defection. By breaking his self-imposed silence in protest of the Franco regime to play at the White House, Pablo Casals signaled that the election of President Kennedy was a sign of hope that the world’s most powerful nation could forge a path of peace in a world that seemed once again to be on the precipice of global war. The following year, in 1962, a 7-year-old cellist named Yo-Yo Ma gave his own performance at the White House, demonstrating not only that the future of cello playing was in capable hands but demonstrated in the most eloquent way possible that America’s own future depended upon its ethnic diversity and welcoming of immigrant families such as the Mas. Meanwhile in England, the rising star of Jacqueline du Pré signaled, that, after losing two generations of young people to two devastating wars, there was finally hope that a new generation of musicians would both carry the flame of tradition (exemplified in her recording of England’s greatest contribution to symphonic literature, the Elgar Cello Concerto), and light the way for a path forward. And today, two generations later, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is playing a similar role in English culture, and it seems not coincidental that he just released his own recording of the Elgar.

But it’s not just professional cellists who can build communities and shape the future of music. Because a group of cellos makes for a sonically satisfying orchestra, cello players can forge a bond unique in the realm of music. We can create an incredibly rich resonance that is as glorious to be in the middle of as it is to listen to. As the cello produces the closest approximation of the human voice, a cello orchestra can be an idealized choir, one that can communicate directly to the heart. And the joy of playing in such an ensemble is complete in and of itself; it’s an activity, not a commodity.

I can’t think of a better way of spending the summer of my own personal milestone than to once again immerse myself in the company of fellow cellists. Let’s make this a great summer!

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