By Emily Taubl
Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major has a particularly special story, having been completely lost for almost two centuries before it was rediscovered in the 1960s. In the decades since, it has become one of the most performed concertos in the repertoire. It’s also one of the first major works a student will learn, although its technical challenges remain daunting to any cellist. The work sparkles with energy while soaring through beautiful melodies supported by intricate harmonies. The light orchestration (two oboes, two horns, and strings) allows the soloist freedom to show off a wide range of colors while moving through the instrument’s full range.
One of the principal challenges throughout the concerto—and what will make this music shine—is how to make it sound immaculately clean in the upper register. At the highest part of the fingerboard, you have to work extra hard to maintain sparkling bow strokes, lots of energy in both hands, and perfect intonation. In the first movement, there are two passages in particular that deserve special attention.
“You should be able to feel your arm and elbow leading your hand. Searching for this sensation will help you avoid diving hand-first down the fingerboard.”
I’ve worked with many frustrated students to overcome the “fear of heights” that we all experience at times. At the end of the first movement exposition, the melody comes to a climactic ending. There is an exposed climbing scale passage reaching all the way to a high G two octaves above middle C, immediately followed by a scale returning down an octave to end on a trill (Ex. 1).
In moments like this, I find it helpful to imagine that I’m a nimble gymnast—connecting one challenging move to the next as seamlessly as possible while staying centered and balanced. In order to feel this way, it’s vital to have a strong daily scale routine. You will save yourself hours of frustration by investing time in practicing scales with a variety of tempos, bowing patterns, and rhythms. Remember that clean shifting comes from making smooth connections between hand positions. The more organized your fingers are in replacing each other, the smoother the transaction will be. You don’t want to just hop and hope, because you’ll end up with jerky and imprecise movements.
A further insurance policy is to formulate a specific plan for how to travel up and down the fingerboard. The left elbow plays a particularly critical role and should be your primary focus when practicing shifts. There should be a slight circular motion that propels your arm forward starting from the upper muscles in your left arm. To practice this motion, try putting your hand lightly on the strings and drawing large circles in the air with your elbow. Gradually make the circles smaller and then try shifting (still with your fingers lightly resting on the strings) to fourth position. You should be able to feel your arm and elbow leading your hand. Searching for this sensation will help you avoid diving hand-first down the fingerboard.
As you work on the ascending two-octave scale in the Haydn, play it slowly, pausing at each level of the shift (every beat). Imagine that you’re on an escalator stopping at each floor of a building. At each stop, evaluate whether your arm is in the right position, whether your hand shape is correct, and whether you can visualize where the half and whole steps will fall in each position. After you feel totally comfortable playing the passage with the pauses, start to work on making smooth connections between each shift until the motion is seamless and you feel totally secure.
You then need to practice the end of this passage where you reverse directions and travel back down the fingerboard. You’ll need to reverse the circular motion so that your arm and elbow move in a clockwise motion, helping your hand anticipate the shift to avoid any jarring jumps. As always, you want to find an organized finger pattern. One good option is to slide your third finger from the top G to the next F sharp. You then continue a pattern of 3-2-1, 3-2-1 down the scale ending with your thumb on the low G. You’ll then be in the position to trill with your strongest fingers. The neater you can make the fingerings, the more manageable the passage will feel.
There is a second somewhat precarious scale passage near the end of the development of the first movement (Ex. 2).
After the intensely dark development, the solo cello line moves up in a blaze of fury to a high E, then jumps down an octave to cadence in A minor. The practice techniques I have already covered will apply here, too, but focusing on the bow stroke for both scales will be just as important.
Think about where you need to be in your bow to achieve a crisp, clean stroke. You’ll want to start in the lower to middle section of the bow and elongate the stroke as you move up the scale. This helps give the dramatic swell to the top note and, as always, when your right hand is confident, your left hand feels more confident as well.
Both of these scale passages can feel like such triumphant moments when played properly. Invest time in your scale practicing and in all of these techniques, so that you’ll have the tools you need to play the passages magnificently.