Who doesn't love the cello? But, where and when was it invented, and how did it evolve over the centuries? Amit Peled, cello soloist and professor at Peabody, tells us everything and performs music by Bach and Bloch!

Show Notes

Amit sits with Marta Casals Istomin while holding Pablo Casals cello

Amit Peled, holding the cellos of Pablo Casals, sits with Marta Casals Istomin.

Music by composers mentioned in the episode


Amit plays music by David Popper and also Song of The Birds after playing an excerpt of Chopin

The incredible concert Amit mentioned in the episode, in which he plays the exact recital program given by Pablo Casals 100 years later on the very same cello. 

A virtuosic showpiece by Karl Davydov, At the Fountain, performed by Amit Peled. 

 Amit plays with Mount Vernon Virtuosi a slow movement from a sonata Henry Eccles


John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by cello soloist and professor Amit Peled, and we are talking all about his instrument, the cello. He takes us through the evolution of it from the past 500 years to today, different composers that champion the instrument, and he plays for us solo works on the cello you don't want to miss, and a little something extra at the end. Plus, he talks about what he does as a professor at the Peabody Conservatory and more.
Thank you so much for joining us at the station today, Amit Peled, as we dive into all things cello.

Amit Peled: Oh, it's great to be here.

John Banther: One thing I'd like to start off with here, talking about instruments, is just to get an idea of how you would describe your instrument. So how would you describe the cello, what you do, to someone who maybe doesn't know what the cello is? I mean, the cello is a popular instrument, but some people haven't heard of it and maybe someone's never been to an orchestra or a string quartet. How do you describe it to them?

Amit Peled: Well, I would say two things. One is it's just a big violin, and the other one I would ask them, have you heard of Yo- Yo Ma? So those two things will put them maybe in context of what cello is. But cello really for me is voice. So we'll get into that later. But yeah, a big violin would do.

John Banther: And I think a lot of reactions people get when you play the cello is probably pretty positive. I think this gives a lot of cello players maybe a little bit of ego because hey, you play the tuba, you play the bassoon. Oh, okay. Oh, you play the cello. I love the cello. I bet you hear that a lot.

Amit Peled: I hear that a lot. And the cello, we like to say it and we really mean it, the cello has the closest sound to the human voice. It incorporates everything, the grandpa, the grandmother, the mother, and the little baby shouting up high. And one can relate to any of those voices, anything, the lows, the top, or the in- between. So that's really something.
And there's another human quality about cello, which I find that makes only the cello, not only the cello communicative to people, but also the cellists communicative because I found out doing it for so many years that what we do when we play, we basically hug something. We embrace ourselves and hug an instrument. It's the only instrument you hug.
And when you do that four or five hours a day, since you're five years old, you become a very welcoming person. So you go around the world, a lot of cello congresses, cello festivals, cello groups, cello choirs. I don't see violin choirs, God forbid, piano choirs. No, it doesn't exist. I mean, those people like to push each other away. We embrace. So I really think there's something to it, just the way we physically hold the instrument.

John Banther: I like that. Well, we're going to get into that and more. And so let's go maybe back to the beginning. Where does the cello come from? I'm wondering when in history, where in history, and I guess maybe almost chicken and the egg, what came first, the violin or the cello?

Amit Peled: Well, the violin came first, but the string instrument, per se, came already in the Old Testament. I mean, we know of David, the king that had a violin. We say in Hebrew, Kinor David, the violin of David. And in fact, I grew up in a kibbutz in Israel, which is very close to a big lake, and it's called the Lake Kinneret. And Kinneret is the (inaudible) name from violin. It's the shape of a violin. And the name of it came already in the Old Testament from the violin of David. So it's that far. It goes that far.
However, our knowledge of violin or sound of violin or sound of strings come from the mid 16th century. And I would say that the first family of violin makers that created those instruments are the Amati family in Cremona, in Italy. And they made violins and then they needed harmonic voice to it. So they made a little bigger violin and then a much bigger violin, which was a cello. And those instruments were called bass viol. So bass violin. They were not cello, bass violin. And the bass violin played the bassline. That's basically what it is.

John Banther: So there was a role that needed to be filled in the beginning with, well, we have this violin, this higher sound, but we need some harmony. We need something. There's something missing, it sounds like they thought, there's something missing from the sound.

Amit Peled: Yeah, again, like the human voice. You have a child, you need the parents, or you need the grandpa, and that voice needs to be fulfilling music. And that's a harmonic voice of the cello. Cellos in the beginning had a little hole in the back of the instrument, where they would put a little line to tie to the body. So cellists would walk with the cello tied to their body and play the bassline in the church. In the procession, you'd have the violin playing the melody of the hymn, and you'll have the cellist walking, playing a bassline.

John Banther: Wow. I mean a literal walking bassline.

Amit Peled: Exactly. It's a walking bass. So when a jazz player is playing the walking bass, I always tell them, " Do you know Bach? Do you know of that music?" Because walking bass started right there. And when you buy an old instrument, or I should say when a rich person buys an old cello for you, they will have that mark where there would be the hole.

John Banther: Wow.

Amit Peled: It's still there. So you can see that's how they used to play. Also, the big violin was actually also a big cello. We don't play on such big instruments today. They were cut down through history, and I'll explain why, but those Stradivarius cellos and Montagnana and Amatis were much bigger in size because they were meant to have this muddy low sound in the church service.

John Banther: So how did this progress from Italy in the 1500s, how does it progress into the rest of the 16th and the 17th centuries? How is it, I guess, utilized by composers?

Amit Peled: Well, then came one guy who we like to call Johann Sebastian Bach, and Johann Sebastian Bach, even though he lived all his life only in Germany, never left Germany, he somehow mastered all the forms of music, the English Suites, the French overture, and so on. And he also mastered a suite. A suite is a group of dances, and he decided to write six cello suites for cello solo, which was unheard of. And he did it as he did all of his stuff. He did it because he needed to do it, not because of a cellist that was there that needed to play it. So he wrote six suites, which became sort of our bible.
And those six suites brought the cello up in value from the bassline instrument to a solo instrument. Although cellists did not play it or perform it until Pablo Casals, until the early 20th century, they were all on the music stands of every cellist as exercises. And through history, cellists started playing them and pieces for themselves. I would point out one important one, Boccherini. Boccherini was an Italian cellist, but he lived also in Spain, and he was the guy who invented the thumb position. So on the cello, we don't just use a thumb in order to know where we are, like what I call a GPS, but we also play with it, which is kind of unheard of for anything before Boccherini.
So Boccherini was an inventor in a way, and he was bored of playing just bassline. So he said to himself, what will happen if I'll play up high? Then he realized instead of using the four fingers I used in a low position, I'm going to use my thumb, try to cook with the thumb, try to do other things. We try to just write emails with the thumb. It doesn't work.

John Banther: There's not a lot of dexterity.

Amit Peled: Well, he developed the thumb, so thanks to him, we have to develop the thumb. And he was a great teacher. So he would write duets for his students, and every lesson a student, if they would be able to get up high on the cello, he would award them with a duet to play with him, and each duet would get harder and harder. And then of course, his quintet, his quartet, his cello concerto, 13 cello concertos, which he wrote precisely for himself, were including those thumb position. And he developed it. And once he developed it, like the chicken and the egg, composers started to hear that possibility.
And then came the 17th century and of course the 18th century, where so many great cellists came about, including the greatest maybe one in 19th century, which is Popper, the Hungarian cellist who just was bored with what was before. So he started writing difficult stuff for himself. And then later on, we went into the 20th century, and we can talk more about it through the show, but the cello became an instrument of importance with players who could play important stuff, which means more than a bassline. But really, if I go back to the beginning, it started with Johann Sebastian Bach believing in us, believing that the cello can.

John Banther: There are a lot of incredible things there. I mean, first, I love that. You're working on your thumb position, Boccherini. You get a gold star at the end of your lesson. Here's a duet. I like that.

Amit Peled: And I do that with my students, by the way. I mean, now I have his book of duets, but I award them with duets. And then when I take them on the road and play with them, we do a Boccherini duet and I share with the audience, this is how it used to be, if they would behave. These days if you behave in a lesson, the teacher will give you a sticker or a candy. Back then he gave you a duet that actually changed the course of history of cello playing.

John Banther: That's amazing. I actually didn't realize that the Bach suites that we know and love today were really more like studies and etudes for a good while for cellists. It was on your music stand, you practiced it and you worked on it, but it wasn't something that you were playing in a concert.

Amit Peled: No, it was Pablo Casals. It was Pablo Casals who said, you know what? This is great exercise, but it's also great music and I'm going to start playing them in concerts. And then we cellists realized, wow, this is a gold mine.
But the first suite is really like birth. I had a dream when my first child out of three, my daughter was born, I wanted to play that prelude when she comes out to the world. And of course my wife said, " You don't dare doing that. You help me." So I didn't do it, but it fits perfectly. This suite is about birth, and it's not just birth of the six suites that came about after it, it's the birth of cello being a solo instrument and not anymore just a bassline.

John Banther: So we have Bach really bringing in this first example with a cello solo, as you were saying. Before we get into the later 19th and 20th centuries today, what would then be the first kind of concerto for cello? Because so many violin concertos, and a composer usually only has a couple or one, maybe, cello.

Amit Peled: Well, I should mention within Bach's time, there was also Vivaldi. Vivaldi was very important. Basically, he had a school in Venice, and it was a girls school and he composed hundreds of violin concertos because there was simply more violin players. However, there were also cello players. So there are six sonatas that we play because of that school. There are a few concertos, including one for two cellos by Vivaldi, that we still play a lot today.
So Vivaldi was an important figure, again, because of students needing to develop on the instrument and needing material. And Boccherini was a big one. He wrote, as I said, 13 concertos. Another big one is Haydn, Papa Haydn. Haydn simply had an orchestra for Esterhazy. So Esterhazy was just a billionaire, and he loved music. So he hired Haydn. He said, " Haydn, come here. I'll give you a lot of money and I'm going to get you musicians. How many do you want?" So he engaged musicians to come and live in Esterhazy in the castle and get fully paid.
And then he told Haydn, " I would like to have a symphony a week." So we have 104 symphonies. But he also told him, " Use the musicians. I'm paying them. I'm paying you. You use them." So he wrote string quartets, but he used the principals. So the principal cellist of the Esterhazy Orchestra was the cellist that got the two Haydn cello concertos, which we have today. They got lost. They got lost, and we didn't know about them until the mid 20th century. However, they were played in that time. So people did learn the thumb position from Boccherini, but then the principal of Esterhazy did play those two concertos with the Esterhazy Orchestra. So thanks to wealth, even back then, we are thankful now also as cellists, not just as musicians, having those symphonies and quartets, we also have the two Haydn concertos because of Esterhazy. So those are really important figures.
Later on came concertos by Beethoven, the triple concerto. And as we went on, Schumann wrote a concerto that sadly he never heard in his lifetime. He wrote it in 1850. However, nobody wanted to play it. They thought it's weird. So only in 1860, after he died, 1856, people started playing it. And then in 1872, so I would say the late 19th century, we have Saint- Saens, and we have Lalo cello concertos. They were all influenced not so much by pieces, but by cellists. Back then we had Piatti, the great Italian cellist, we had Davidoff, the Russian cellist. And when you say Russian cellists, it's not so separate. Russians would go to Europe, their aristocracy, and play all over Europe. And then of course we had Popper.
So those people heard those cellists slash composers in concerts. A typical concert by Popper would be an entire concert of Popper pieces. A typical concert by Davidoff would be Davidoff playing his own music. A typical concert by Piatti is the same thing. So when those composers heard them, they said, wow, we can start, since Saens even had what we say, the chutzpah to start his cello concerto with one chord, and then boom, the cello comes in. That's such a statement that you don't have with any instrument in the period. It's an amazing statement of romantic period. So the cello became really a soloistic instrument because of those few amazing cellists who were sort of the Paganini of our low voice, let's say.
They also, as I mentioned, all of them were teachers and all of them wrote exercise books which we cherish and do today. So you don't have a professional cellist these days without the Bach suites on the music stand. You don't have the Piati Capriches, the 42 Popper Etudes, the Klengel Etudes, the Grutzmacher Etudes, the Davidoff Showpieces. So all of them are mandatory. If we talk about education later on in conservatories, it's a big problem I have with students, trying to convince them that you don't play two cello songs. You play those etudes first, then you can do whatever you want. And it's a big problem because those are the essence of learning the cello. So we were lucky to have that. And then came Casals and Rostropovich, which is a different chapter and we can talk about it maybe later.

John Banther: A lot of amazing stuff there. I want to also look at how the cello is used in these early times, maybe like with Haydn, with these symphonies. How is it used in the orchestra compared to, I don't know, maybe today or how it would become? How was its early use in the orchestra compared to maybe later with Beethoven and then Brahms?

Amit Peled: Well, it's the same development as we had as soloists. In Haydn symphony or Haydn quartets or trio sonata by Vivaldi, you would mainly place the bassline. Not only that, until the early 20th century, even if you play a string quartet, even a Beethoven string quartet, the name of the quartet will be the first violinist's name, and then there'll be three players who just happened to be there, even though their part became more and more important.
Through history, even though they played the bassline, for instance, Beethoven wrote the Rosamovsky quartet. Rosamovsky was an amateur cellist. So naturally the cello line was there to impress him, to impress the person with money. It was the same with Esterhazy. The moment there was an important figure coming in, the cello in the symphony or the cello in the quartet that was presented was a little bit more significant.
When Beethoven came about, I think in music history period, it was a time where I would say late Beethoven, where he stopped writing for an instrument. It became a spiritual music, and then naturally, the cello line in Eroica and cello line in Ninth Symphony and so on after became not just cello line, it became an important line of music, and therefore the cello was much more difficult.
So today, in any orchestral audition, anyone that cannot play Beethoven five, the slow movement, you can't get a job. So this is a mandatory excerpt. If you are a double bass player, five. And so you have to have played. So that moment in history, you stopped being a not important instrument or a bassline, it became completely equal. But it became, because for Beethoven, I think, instruments were not anymore an issue. It was music, purely music. So his late cello sonatas, for instance, are not for piano and cello anymore or for cello and piano. They're completely equal.
So up to Beethoven, I would say that in Mozart quartets, in Mozart symphonies, in Haydn quartets, Haydn symphonies, Haydn trios, even though he included the cello in a trio, which we're thankful for, it's not the same. It's basically copying or doubling the left hand of the piano. So that's what it was.

John Banther: So quite a long development here with the cello. Similar pace, it seems like through the orchestra and as a solo instrument. You've said something a couple of times now, or at least once with the Saint- Saens that opens with an explosion. Statements, the composer makes a statement with the cello.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this, and maybe this is more towards the 20th century, but when I hear a composer write for the cello, they're writing differently than they write for the violin, not just of course because it's a different instrument, but they're also in a different place. They're doing something that they don't get to do all the time. They're not always writing a cello work. It's an instrument that has great solo abilities, great accompaniment abilities that the violin can't quite do with the sounds and textures that the cello can make.
So I often hear composers treat the cello very philosophically. This is something different, something special. I can let the walls down a little bit, let my voice, let myself be a little more playful, or maybe they feel they can just get away with a little bit extra when they do for the cello.

Amit Peled: That's absolutely right. However, I have to be honest, I think in that period it comes down for a composer wanting to attract attention. In the Beethoven period, and even Saint- Saens, those two specific stories actually of two composers who really wanted to attract attention. Beethoven came to Vienna right after Mozart died, and Mozart was the Beatles of the time. He was such a huge star. This one instrument he didn't write to, and it's a cello, and Beethoven needed to make money. So even when he wrote the first two sonatas for piano and cello, he's including the cello, and he wrote it for a cellist, Friedrich in Berlin, but he's showing off his piano playing so he can attract attention.
Then he masters the cello and says, you know what? I'll keep going. The third sonata is completely equal. Fourth and five is just beyond. It's heaven. So before even going into, yes, it's a philosophical instrument, it really includes all voices of the human voice. It actually to attract attention, and Saint-Saens is the same thing. He arrives in Paris. Of course there's his piano concerto to come. There's all those great pieces he wrote. But he wants people to notice him. So he chooses an instrument that nobody wrote for before in Romantic period.
As I mentioned, Schumann was the only one before him, but nobody played it. So he says, you know what? I'll choose the cello, and people will be so shocked that I choose it. But not only that, I'm not going to give it a tutti. I'm going to put the cello right in, sort of like the Emperor by Beethoven for piano. So people will just notice me. I want jobs, I want money.
So I think there's a lot to that with a cello, and with the viola in the 20th century, by the way, composers who say, you know, you have Rostropovich, you have Casals, I'll write for viola something. So I'll be noticed first. And I think after a composer did that, they also realized, wow, the sound of the cello. So Saint- Saens of course wrote the concertos and the Carnival of the Animals. Of course he'd use it for the swan because it's the most beautiful sound that can really connect you to the soul right away.
And I think that's what happened in history. First and foremost, I'll take the cello because I want to have a notice for myself as a composer. Once I did that, wow, the cello can do all those things. The cello can sound like a violin. It can also sound like a double bass and a viola and everything in between. So I'll take that and I'll develop myself through it and with it.

John Banther: And I also forgot to mention we're going to put videos and a lot of examples of a lot of the music you've mentioned so far, we've got names like Popper and Boccherini and Davidoff. Some might be unfamiliar, but we're going to put all that on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown.org. And it sounds like it was an important point when Beethoven wrote that third sonata, and now we have the piano and the cello being treated quite equally.

Amit Peled: Yeah, I think, I don't know if it's the number three, but it's like the Eroica Symphony. The third symphony changed the course of symphonic writing for sure. And Beethoven's third sonata for cello and piano, not piano and cello, literally changed the course of cello in history because it's the first time that you have three significant voices. You have cello, right hand and left hand of the piano, and they're all completely equal.
So when I teach the sonata, I use the reference of three medals. Who is a gold medal here, who is a silver, who is a bronze? And there's always three voices hierarchy there. It could be the cello many times, left hand or right hand, and they just exchange. Nobody's more important anymore. And once people knew that it is possible, composition wise, chelistically it wasn't back then. So cellists were not good enough to be compared to the virtuosic pianist. That came later. But composition wise, Beethoven thought this is an equal instrument. And when you get to later on, Schumann's writing, Brahms' sonatas, especially the second one and so on in romantic music, they're completely (inaudible) .

John Banther: Talk about then where this takes us into the later part of the 19th century, into the 20th century and today, because I know for myself, I thought this whole philosophical idea when I was listening to Debussy and Poulenc and Prokofiev and so forth, and Elgar with the cello, I feel like they do a lot with that.

Amit Peled: Yeah. So going on to the late 19th century, we already have established virtuoso cellists who makes their living out of playing the cello, not just composing, playing the cello. Popper, going back to one of my heroes for sure, but Popper traveled Europe most of his life, played concerts, played recitals. We have track of all those concerts. We have programs. He toured Europe all his life and made good money until he went by the invitation of Liszt to the Budapest Academy and started his cello class, which led to later on Janos Starker and all those great cellists who came after. But it started with Popper coming to Hungary and teaching.
So up to that moment, which is late 19th century, early, he died in 1913, I believe, early 20th century, he taught in Budapest. But up to that moment, he toured Europe. That was his job. Of course, that led us to Pablo Casals. Pablo Casals was born in 1876. We know that when he was 12, he played for Brahms, his sonata.
He knew, he was a buddy of Gabriel Fore. He was a buddy of Saint- Saens. So a few years back when I had the Pablo Casals cello in 2015, I actually repeated a program, which is fully on YouTube, at the Peabody Conservatory, my home for the past 28 years. It was Father's Day, February 12th, 2015. One of my students found the program that Pablo Casals played in America exactly a hundred years earlier on the same cello.
And I repeated that program, and that program included two new pieces for America by two of his friends, Gabriel Fore, the Elegy and the Papillon, and Saint-Saens, the Allegro Appassionata. Those three pieces by two good friends were not known in America, and Pablo Casals brought them here because they were his buddies in Paris. So that time they had a great, great cellist playing their music in parties in Paris. They used to go out, chase women in the summer. They used to play chamber music. It's all documented in letters, and they played music.
An evening would start by playing chamber music, then go to Champs- Elysees for the clubs and drinking and ending up God knows where, but this is exactly where they met. They hang out and they played music. So those composers were exposed to great, great cellists for the first time that were not just good composers writing for themselves, but also great virtuosos like Pablo Casals. Then he discovered the Bach suites and he started playing them, and he started having students. And those students were very good.
One of the prominent cellists of Europe in the early 20th century was Beatrice Harrison, English cellist, who was very close to Elgar. So after the first World War, Elgar, who was from the Victorian time, from the 19th century, was an old man devastated by the war, devastated by the death, by the knowledge that millions of people can die because of other human beings. That was the first time in history that humans used tanks or gas against each other.
So there were no men left in England, but there was Beatrice Harrison, who was a great cellist, and who, with Elgar, writing the cello concerto, which she premiered 1919. And there's even a recording of her playing it with him in 1928, I believe. It's on YouTube, amazing recording. It's of course only audio, but a great source of inspiration. And Elgar could hear his concerto in that level. Of course, Ude Menuhin played his violin concerto with him when he was 16, Beatrice Harrison played the cello concerto, which became, of course, because of Jacqueline de Pré and so on, one of the major pieces in our repertoire that was later on in the 60s of the 20th century.
But even back then, Pablo Casals, Beatrice Harrison, and other cellists were not anymore just a quartet cellist or just an orchestra cellist. They were great teachers. They were in demand as soloists. And in 1927, the birth of Rostropovich in Russia, that will change the entire course of cello playing through history. So I think Rostropovich deserves a few minutes because not only that he was a great cellist from day one, from early on when he started playing the cello, he was a great pianist. He was a great musician, and he had the urge to every composer he met on the way to bug them, to bother them to write for him.
There's a story, funny story with Britain that much later, where Rostropovich bothered him to write for him. He said, " No, no, no." And then once they met the queen in Britain, knowing Rostropovich, that he might behave a little funny, or even maybe he had a drink, a vodka, he begged him. He said, " Please behave for the Queen. You know how to bow and what to say." And he said, " I'll do that, but only if you write five pieces for me." That's what he said. And Britain had to commit right there before the queen came in that he will do it.
And he wrote the three suites for cello solo, the sonata for cello and piano, and the symphony for cello and orchestra. So those kind of stories happened with many composers, of course, Prokofiev, (inaudible) , hundreds of them actually that Rostropovich brought into the limelight because of his amazing personality and playing. He would actually play those pieces, and he premiered them by memory the day after he got the music, like the story of the Shostakovich Concerto. When he got it, he went to his hotel room and he spent 12 hours learning it by memory, and he came to play it for Shostakovich. And the story goes that, of course, he was so excited. He played this for him with Shostakovich playing the piano, and they were both so excited by this historic moment that somehow they ended up drunk and playing Saint- Saens Concerto. But it started with the Shostakovich concerto.
So those kind of stories, you needed a great cellist that is beyond anything we knew before to be able to play it. I also know these days, some of his students from that time in Russia, and they witnessed where Rostropovich would bring into the lesson new scores, and he would assign each students to learn it, like the Dutier concerto, he would give it to Geringas, David Geringas, and he would have to learn it for the next lesson. And then of course, if Rostropovich liked it, he would learn it himself. So those students at that time had this kind of culture of learning really fast those concertos by memory and playing it for their master so he can decide if he will play it. It was an exciting time. I would compare it to Liszt being the pianist or to Paganini being the pianist exactly a hundred years before Rostropovich.

John Banther: Wow. What an exciting thing to be even a part of. I mean, it's pretty funny. Hey, play this, play this, learn it quick. I need to hear it now. Nah, I didn't like it. I don't want to play it. Here, now play this. I like that. I'm going to play it. I think that's pretty funny.
And just all of the development that you've talked about and how the cello has gone from basically the beginning to now, I also get just mean positive vibes is maybe that's a little cliche, but it's just there's a lot of camaraderie and there's not a lot of, I'm sure there's of course a lot of ego, but there's not as much ego as you expect with or that you read about with some of the other stars in opera over the centuries, for example.

Amit Peled: That's true. I have to say it. And I don't know if it goes back to the fact again that we sit and hug, and I really find it to be a quality that kind of forces all of us cellists to be warm to each other. And also it's a sound that we produce. It's just a very warm sound, very human sound that can calm people in a way. And it's a fact. I mean, you don't see festivals for other instruments that are led in such a friendly way as cello festivals and cello groups and cello choirs and so on.

John Banther: Beautiful. And we are going to hear you play the cello next right after this.
So now we get to hear you play the cello. I've been looking forward to this all day. So if you can, tell us about your instrument real quick, the one you're specifically playing, and then I guess, yep, tell us what you're going to play for us.

Amit Peled: Yeah, so I'm playing these days on a Carl Becker cello. Carl Becker was an American maker, so I'm an all- American product now. I became American recently, and I have an American bow maker and a cello maker by Becker.

John Banther: Congrats.

Amit Peled: Yeah, thank you. I'm very proud of it. This cello or this maker was considered the American Stradivarius at his time. This is 1931, and I'm very happy to play it. It has a very powerful sound, a sound that I need these days in all those big halls that I'm playing in around the world. So that's a cello I'm using now, although later you're going to hear the prelude of the first suite by Bach, which I recorded on the actual Pablo Casals (inaudible) from 1733, and that will be at the end of the show.
But now you're going to hear two short examples, the jig from that first suite by Bach. And I'm playing it just to show you that in those days, a cellist could be what I call a musical or a baroque DJ, and the cellist would have to make people dance. So I'm playing a very jolly, happy English jig by Bach, although he was never in England. And that's what you're going to hear now.

John Banther: Absolutely beautiful. I mean, I just find myself nodding along with the music. I want to dance myself as I'm even listening to that. As you're playing this, what are you thinking? What is the experience like?

Amit Peled: Well, as I mentioned before, a suite is a group of dances. And group of dances means that the prelude is always the same order. The prelude is just sort of an introduction, and one has to imagine. That's what I tell my public when I play a Bach suite, one has to imagine being invited to a party, like at the Esterhazy Castle that we talked about. And in this party, you talk and you mingle before you start the dances. That's a baroque DJ.
So you are mingling. And then somebody from the authority comes to me, to the musician, and tell me, " Well, I mean today the king wants to announce the first day of spring," let's say. So I have a big book of suites, and I have to flip around to find something that will fit the first day of spring. So I go and I choose G major because what's better than G major to announce spring? And I start the suite, which is the first suite of Bach, but that spring will be announced now for the allemande, which is a German dance, for the (inaudible) , the French, the (inaudible) , the Spanish, and will always conclude with the jig, the happy Englishman with a beer dancing.
And me as a musician, I have to imagine that. So in the prelude, it's my time, about three minutes, to let my audience know, okay, put your drink away and go to your place. Women here, men here. And not only that, you need to observe the characters that will be of tonight's party. Being this G major, it'll be the first day of spring. So all of that information you should get from the prelude. Then you know if you live in that time, we will start with allemande, which has certain moves, German moves. Then we'll go to the (inaudible) . Then we'll do either a minuet or a (inaudible) , and we'll finish with a jig. So what you're hearing now is a jig. That's what we are playing.

John Banther: I love that because whenever we watch a movie that's historical and they have the little musicians that are on stage or up in the balcony while the party or the dance or the ball is happening, we always look to them because it's like, oh, look, there's us in the corner. But they really are almost like at a wedding party today, at a reception.

Amit Peled: There's a DJ.

John Banther: Yeah, there's a DJ. And that's what the function as a musician and also literally as a cellist at times, I've got to play this thing to match what the king or whoever is announcing.

Amit Peled: Exactly. And as you know from weddings, if you want the best DJ in town, you pay for it. So if you want the best DJ in the baroque time, you pay for it because you know you'll have a good party. An allemande will be a real allemande with the right emphasis on the right beats and the right ornamentation, the right improvisation. And a jig will be a real jig. So you finish the party with a jig always, and the jig has to be uplifting as if you're holding a pint of beer and you're just jolly going back home.

John Banther: I love it. And what is the next thing you're going to play for us?

Amit Peled: Well, I thought as we are presenting what the cello is, and cello for me, as I mentioned at the beginning, is my voice. Often people tell me, " Oh, I love the cello, but I'm a singer." And I always answer, " You know what? I'm also a singer, but that's my voice. I'm singing through the cello."
And I thought it would be nice to show how the cello can become really my voice or the voice of the generations that came before me and formed me as a Jewish American cellist. And I decided to play a Jewish prayer by Bloch, which is a piece that I've been playing all my life. It's sort of like my Song of the Birds. Song of the Birds is a piece Pablo Casals used to play. It's a Catalan song, Spanish song. So I'm here playing for you a short Jewish prayer.

John Banther: What a beautiful performance there, Amit. That music of Bloch sounds very, very, very personal, very much like the voice coming out that you've been talking about.

Amit Peled: Thank you. Well, that's what I'm trying to do, and as we know, the better your technique, the more you don't have to think about it, and you can just go to your subconscious being, and then what comes out is really you, and that's what people want to hear.

John Banther: And we're going to talk next about your role as a professor. But yes, stay to the end as we will have that recording of you playing the prelude to the Bach cello.
But you are a professor at Peabody. You are doing a lot of teaching and a lot of performing, but talking about teaching, I'm interested because we've talked a lot on the podcast about conservatories, and so- and- so went to this conservatory or Paris and so on, and we learned about what they did. Sometimes it seems like well, centuries have gone by, schools and conservatories absolutely have had to have changed, but sometimes it's like, well, have they changed all that much? So I'm wondering if you can talk about your role at the Peabody Conservatory and what it's been like for the schools to evolve at the same time as the cello evolved.

Amit Peled: Yeah. Well, that's a very good question and a very long answer maybe, but I'll try to make it short. First of all, I'm blessed and honored to teach at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University for many reasons. But the first reason is that simply it's the oldest conservatory in the country from 1857. So this is one year after Schumann died.
A few days ago, I conducted my orchestra in Baltimore, actually also in DC, Mount Vernon Virtuosi, and we ended up, the program, the program was titled Made in Maryland, and we did composers that live here, but we ended with a Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, and I'm saying this because Tchaikovsky as well came to Peabody, and he spent two weeks in Baltimore. I even found a letter that he wrote to his friend back in Russia about it, and he played the Tchaikovsky Serenade at Peabody, which we repeated now many years later.
So it's a significant place in the music history of America. What's interesting is that music has evolved so much, and life has evolved so much with how you talk to people, how you treat people in a good way, equality, diversity, all of those things that are really, we all cherish. However, I find that at the end of the day, when students come to school, we have new curriculum and we have what we call the 21st century artist, and we teach them how to talk to audiences. We teach them how to be well- rounded and play different kind of music.
However, the talented musicians that come to school, they want you to teach them how to phrase Bach, how to phrase a Brahms. They want the hardcore of what makes us classical musicians, and I'm so happy about that. So yes, there's so many things that are different and so many more opportunities for people who couldn't do it before, just to name a few. It wasn't open for women at some point. It wasn't open for Blacks. And now it is, and it's wonderful, and this is so great, and it wasn't open for other countries. So we have such a diversity group of people now dealing with Brahms and Bach, and when they don't, they ask us to go back to that.
So if you conduct an orchestra and you do a lot of modern music and sight reading and movie music and John Williams and all of that, which is all great, then we get these complaint letters. We want to learn the Brahms symphonies. That's why we came here. We want to do a Mahler symphony. We want to do a Mozart symphony.
And whenever I see that, I'm really happy. And it's the same with cello, as I mentioned. Yes, some of the hardcore showpieces or exercises, they want to kind of neglect it and go straight to the Rachmaninoff sonata and sing with a cello, and I have to come in as a professor and say, "No, no, no, let's do this," because it's like a doctor. Before you operate yourself, you need to have two, three years of course studies of how other people operated before you, and you have to master it. Once you know how to use a knife, I'll let you use it yourself, and you might invent something new. But first, master what people did before.
I remember going to, when I lived in Berlin many years ago, I went to one of the museums and I saw a presentation of Picasso's pencil drawings, and it's shocking to see how when he was young, he mastered the technique before he actually himself came up with his own voice. So I took that as a really important lesson for me as a cello teacher. Master Popper, master Bach, master all of them before you create your own voice, which is perfectly fine, and that's what we want, but you need to have it based on history. So that's really important.
Another important component for me is that I come from the stage. I'm still thank God a performer, and I share half of my life to the stage and half to the studio where I teach. So a big component of my teaching is to take my students with me on stage, and it's with a Cello Gang that we play a lot all over the world.

John Banther: And that's your studio ensemble, that you call it Cello Gang.

Amit Peled: We call it the Cello Gang. And it's basically, I choose three current students and three former students to play with me, the seven of us on stage, and we call it Around the World in Seven Cellos. And it's a program that we've been doing all over the world, and it's not only a chance for them to be with me on stage, so it's like, I'm sorry to say, cut the boot and the talking. Now we're doing it. So there are magical moments. There's blackouts, there's getting ready in the morning to catch a flight and not having time to warm up and all of that, and they get paid for it. It's a totally professional setup.
I also take them to play in schools in public schools in our area. In the Fairfax County, we did 25 school last year. We do it a lot in Baltimore. But also I extended it to an entire orchestra. So Mount Vernon Virtuosi is basically me being able to not only take my cello students on stage, but to take the graduates of Maryland, anybody who graduated in Maryland in a music conservatory, to put them into an orchestra, to give them money so they stay here, but also to give them the opportunity to go on stage with people that have more experience. Because I think that at the end of the day, it's the best lesson.

John Banther: Yeah, it is the best lesson, being on stage. You mentioned traveling, and it's like, well, you've had all your time sitting at the conservatory. You have your half hour, hour warmup in the morning, your practice, and then you go here to your rehearsal. Okay, now you've got to catch a flight. Now you can't warm up. Now your instrument is delayed. Now you've got to play. And you've played 30 seconds so far today.
And that's a real learning experience, and it's great to see that you are, one, taking that direction with the Cello Gang and the Mount Vernon Virtuosi. And also with the, I also like the idea of I want to break all the rules, but first I need to be able to study and spell every single rule written, otherwise I don't know what I'm breaking.

Amit Peled: Absolutely. I mean, in the Cello Gang and in Mount Vernon Virtuosi, we always choose one Bach chorale that we play and we sing in front of the audience. And I'm trying to show the audience and my students, of course, that connection, that you have to find your voice before you master it on the instrument through a Bach chorale. Nothing is better than that. That's the hardcore of what we do. And if you can sing it, if you can play it and then dive into Tchaikovsky Serenade or you name it, you find your voice and you start listening in a different way. And yes, some of my students ended up being singers. I have a student now who is an operatic singer.

John Banther: Wow.

Amit Peled: And I love it. That's great. But he found it through the cello. I demand from most of my students at Peabody to take one, at least one semester of voice lessons, or minor in voice, and to get that connection, the breathing, the phrasing as if you were to sing it. All of them have to sing in the lesson and imitate it.
I was just in Korea few weeks ago, and I taught at the National University, which is the best school there. Amazing cellists. And naturally, I asked them, " Can you sing it?" And they looked at me, what? " Can you sing what you just played? I just want to hear how it would sound if you would sing it in the shower."
And they were like, what? You never sing in the shower? They were like, " Oh my God, are you asking me that?" " Yeah. I mean, don't you walk outside and sing the phrase you are about to play?" And it took time, but by the end of the lesson when they were free with it, you never sing wrongly. It's the most natural thing one does. When you go up an interval, it takes time. It's difficult. So you will increase your voice and it will take time. Why not doing it when you play Schumann Concerto?
And vice versa, when you go down, it's like dropping something down to earth. It's much easier than to lift it up. So that's how you go down. If you play Schumann Concerto, it's a perfect example of gravity law. So if they sing it and find out that going up is so hard, they also find out that going down is a release. And if you do that through your voice naturally, why not doing it on the cello?

John Banther: Yeah. Well, this has been incredible so far, listening to you play, learning about what you're doing with the school, and also, well, just the evolution of the cello. I also have a question I like to ask, and especially for musicians, of course. What is the craziest experience you've had on stage? I also say if you have to change names, years, locations, that's fine too. But I feel like we all have some kind of pretty funny moment that sometimes the audiences would be shocked that even happened.

Amit Peled: Well, I could easily write a book about that. But I think one of the moments that stayed with me, actually two moments, that goes to the Brahms E minor sonata. One of them was when I was much younger, when I played it in Israel. And actually somebody died in the middle of the performance. And I didn't know. I felt and I saw that this commotion, something is happening. I did not stop. That was my lesson. I kept going, but later on I learned that that person passed away. It was an old lady. And that happened exactly in the recapitulation of the E minor sonata. And from then on, I was really young, whenever I played or I recorded it on the Casals cello, whenever I get to that moment, I always think about that.
And the second moment related to it was that last summer I played this sonata in Brahms' summer house next to Vienna, where he actually wrote it and played it with Clara. And before I played the piece, I read a letter that I found that was written by Brahms to Clara just after this summer vacation. So just after playing that first movement. And I also shared with the audience that moment in the recapitulation. And so reading the letter, playing this sonata in the house on the piano in the living room where he actually wrote it and played it with her probably in the evening, and then getting to that recapitulation where one of the traumatic moment happened to me in concert was something unbelievable, something I'll never forget.
And I would say in a general view that few times, it doesn't happen always, but the times where I talk now as a conductor, the times, and it's very few because I don't do it as much as cellists, times where my mind, my heart, and my baton, my hand, become one, are really rare and special. And you can feel the power of it where all the musicians are with your baton, but they're actually with your heart. So that's a moment that is very powerful. I do feel it with a cello, but that's just me. Here is you are generating that energy to a whole orchestra. So those are really special moments.

John Banther: Those are always so special when all those things come together like that as a state of flow and just, yeah, everything coming together. It's so special. Actually a conductor, John (inaudible) , last season in an interview with us talked about that very same experience, and when it all comes together, it's so special. And how surreal to play a sonata of Brahms in that place. Unbelievable.

Amit Peled: Just before playing, of course we all know, if we don't, we should, the hats that he used to wear and smoke cigars, there's a very famous photo and a painting of it. So I just went to the next room and you see that hat and his coat on a chair. I mean, it's like a museum. You can't touch it, but you see it. And I took a photo of it, and just to see that and to realize he was here, that's where he was. He wrote also the fourth symphony in that house, summer house. So amazing. Also, as a big cigar aficionado, seeing his ashtray and understanding that he used to smoke cigars too, that was pretty cool as well.

John Banther: Nice. I love it. Well, thank you so much, Amit, for joining me today for all things cello. Thank you.

Amit Peled: Oh, my pleasure. And thanks for having me and my cello and my stories, and just me, my voice.

John Banther: Well, I definitely learned so much about the cello, and I'm sure you did too, and what a performance that he was able to give us here at the WETA Classical Studios. I'll have links and videos and more information on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org, and you can send me an email at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org.
Okay. Now, as promised, an extra treat. We get to enjoy now the complete first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's first cello suite, played by Amit Peled in this recording he made back in 2019, where he is playing Pablo Casals' actual cello, which was made in 1733.