Five cellists who changed the world

Five cellists who changed the world


norman lebrecht

March 07, 2016

pau casals

Pau Casals (1876-1973) restored Bach to cello repertoire, fought Fascism, became symbol of freedom

slava with gun

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), known as ‘Slava’ for glory, fought Soviet oppression, premiered 100 new works, brought joy to the world.


Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (b. 1925), survivor of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, a living witness for humanity.

cellist brussels

The cellist of Sarajevo, Baghdad, Brussels…. someone will always play a cello in all the worst places.

Harnoncourt cello

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016), ‘an interpreter who changed our world more than any other over the past 50 years.’ 


  • Dan Oren says:


  • Janis says:


  • Oded Zehavi says:

    Bravo Norman. Touching and smart list.

  • Duane says:

    Janos Starker

  • Whitney says:

    Yo yo ma

  • Ludwig Grossauer says:

    If you include Harnoncourt as a cellist, then Toscanini for sure changed the world by broadcasting the sound of the NBC symphony worldwide.

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Yes but while Toscanini was the famous conductor standing in front of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, it was actually the brainchild of RCA’s then chairman Gen. David Sarnoff and my uncle by marriage Walter Koons was among those entrusted by Sarnoff to execute the plan and to assemble the musicians that became the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

  • MacroV says:

    You are to a large extent talking about how they changed the world outside of music. In which case I’m not sure Harnoncourt qualifies; yes, he had a huge impact on music, but hard to argue his impact outside of it.

    If you were to talk about influences on cello playing, you would have to put Janos Starker up there, not only for his peerless mastery of the cello, but also his commanding role as a teacher, his Organized Method of String Playing, and such.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    Number four on the picture is Karim Wasfi from Baghdad, who kept the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra alive, and who on this picture went to play where a bomb attack just had taken place.
    And the topic is about cellists who changed the world, it does not read who changed cello playing. And for sure Harnoncourt changed the music world.

  • Daniel F. says:

    How odd (and touching somehow) that the two preeminent cellists of the 20th century–Casals and Rostropovich–had so many things in common.
    1. Renowned for their struggles against totalitarian regimes in their native countries.
    2. Were also distinguished conductors
    3. Married singers and accompanied them in public at the piano.
    4. Were prematurely BALD.

  • Marilyn says:

    I would add Elsa Hilger, who was the first permanent female member of a major orchestra, not counting harpists. I grew up seeing her play with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I think she would have made first chair, if she hadn’t been a woman. She died at age 101, and I believe she was hired by Stokowski. There is still one major orchestra that has few if any permanent female players.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    NB Norman did not write ‘The Only Five Cellists Who Changed the World”.

  • Vedran Smailovic says:

    The Cellist of Sarajevo – Vedran Smailovic

  • Whitney says:

    Paul Katz.Bernie Greenhouse. Pierre Fournier. George Neikrug.Bonnie Hampton.Ron Leonard.Frank Miller.Zara Nelsova Jacky du Pre.
    All world class and world changing players…