The 11 most relaxing pieces of classical music written for the cello

10 November 2020, 17:12 | Updated: 27 May 2022, 12:23

The most relaxing music written for the cello
The most relaxing music written for the cello. Picture: PA / Classic FM

By Rosie Pentreath

Classical music wouldn’t be the same without the beautiful cello. Here are our favourite pieces of music for reflection and calm, starring this stunning instrument…

The cello is the instrument most reminiscent of the human voice. It has a similar range (the notes it can reach, from lowest to highest) and the timbre, or sound it makes, feels familiar and safe somehow.

Maybe that’s why so many of us take so much comfort in its soothing tones, and beautiful melodies.

And maybe composers were onto this as well, many of the greatest opting to write their very best tunes for the dignified instrument.

From Camille Saint-Saëns to Maria Theresia von Paradis, here are the most relaxing pieces of classical music composed for the cello.

Read more: The most relaxing classical violin music ever written >

Underwater Photo Shoot with a Cellist

  1. Camille Saint-Saëns: The Swan

    ‘The Swan’ from Saint-SaënsCarnival of the Animals is one of the best known works for cello.

    The lyrical opening notes glide us into a sublime melody that’s accompanied by gently swirling quavers in the accompanying parts – just like a beautiful swan gliding over water. Sublime.

    Gautier Capuçon – The Swan… on top of a mountain

  2. Frederick Delius: Romance for Cello and Piano

    Wonderfully reflective and sombre, English composer Delius’ Romance for cello and piano is perfectly transporting.

    The glimmers of hope in the melody are reminiscent of Vaughan WilliamsLark, and, like the Lark, you’re never quite sure where the lilting tune is going to take you. But they’re twists and turns that lull you into the ultimate relaxation.

    Frederick Delius Sonata for `Cello and Piano

  3. Maria Theresia von Paradis: Sicilienne

    Austrian composer and singer von Paradis was blind, but that didn’t stop her writing and performing prolifically and successfully.

    Her ‘Sicilienne’ for cello and piano remains her most-performed piece today, and its superb melody is as relaxing and comforting as they come.

    Read more: The story of Maria Theresia von Paradis, the blind pianist, singer and composer who inspired Mozart >

    Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis

  4. Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (3rd movement)

    The third movement of the Cello Concerto to end all cello concertos is gorgeous.

    Pausing the angst and deep emotion of the fiery first movement – something that continues into the second movement like a ripple, and comes back with ferocity in the finale – Elgar opts for calm and reflection in the ‘Adagio’ third movement.

    It’s a stunning moment for the cello. Beautiful sustained notes, wonderful reflection in the orchestral parts. Ahhh.

    Cellist Sébastien Hurtaud plays Elgar Cello Concerto (3rd movement)

  5. Arvo Pärt: Spiegel im Spiegel

    For his 1978 piece Spiegel im Spiegel, Estonian composer Pärt takes a simple arpeggio (notes of a chord, spread out) on the piano and combines them with a slow-moving melody line from the cello (or in another version, the violin) to create a piece of utmost simplicity and heart-aching beauty.

    The simplicity and stillness of the result is infinitely calming – in fact, the title translates as ‘mirror in the mirror’, which refers to this state of infinity.

    It’s a hypnotic, and truly awe-inspiring piece, perfect for deep reflection.

    Luka Sulic ft. Evgeny Genchev - Spiegel im Spiegel for cello and piano (Arvo Pärt)

  6. Johann Sebastian Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G major (Prelude)

    Bach picks the very best notes and puts them in the best order (he’s good at that) for his enduring Suite No. 1 for unaccompanied cello.

    Pop it on the turntable – virtually-speaking or otherwise – sit back, relax... and let all those perfectly-chosen notes wash over you and transport you. Heavenly.

    Read more: Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach video is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen >

    Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude

  7. Johann Sebastian Bach: Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor (Sarabande)

    Sticking with Bach for a moment (and why wouldn’t we), if you’re looking for deeper reflection still, head for the fifth unaccompanied cello suite and its beautiful fourth movement – the ‘Sarabande’.

    This one is for if you like your relaxation with a heavy dose of existential reckoning…

    JS Bach - Cello Suite No.5 in C Minor, Sarabande

  8. Claude Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor

    Debussy’s Cello Sonata in D minor is sublime.

    At once impressionistic and floaty, it’s gentle and relaxing from the first note. The cello and the piano just go together so well, and this piece was made for them.

    Click here to list to Classic FM’s relax playlist >

    Debussy: Cello Sonata in D Minor / Sol Gabetta / Bertrand Chamayou

  9. William Grant Still: Mother and Child

    Originally written for violin and piano, but soon transcribed for the cello by Timothy Holley, Grant Still’s Mother and Child is lyrical and calm.

    Dubbed ‘The Dean of African American Composers’, Still was an American composer who wrote more than 150 works, including five symphonies, eight operas, and numerous other works.

    He was the first Black composer to conduct a major US symphony orchestra, the LA Phil, in his own work.

    Read more: How William Grant Still, the ‘Dean of Afro-American composers’, changed American classical music forever >

    E4TT | 'Mother and Child by William Grant Still (b.1895-1978)

  10. Max Bruch: Kol Nidrei

    Max Bruch wrote his stunning piece for cello and orchestra, Kol Nidrei, in 1880.

    The work has an instantly recognisable melody and crops up regularly on screen and beyond.

    It’s dedicated to the great cellist Robert Hausmann, and is based on the Jewish ‘Kol Nidrei’ recitation, traditionally given in synagogues before the beginning of the evening service every year on Yom Kippur, the ‘Day of Atonement’, which is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

    Margarita Balanas: Max Bruch 'Kol Nidrei' (Gautier Capuçon Classe d'Excellence de Violoncelle)

  11. Richard Strauss: Cello Sonata in F major (1st movement)

    Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata has a sublime second movement that sees the cello, along with the piano, paint a wonderful Romantic melody.

    This is music for pause and contemplation – perfect as the light dims of an evening, and a fire brings warmth. Enjoy…

    Mischa Maisky: Richard Strauss - Sonata for cello & piano in F major, Op 6 (2003)