The best cello solos from movie and TV soundtracks.
Bernard Herrmann, composer of the purely string soundtrack to Psycho (1960), famously said that director Alfred Hitchcock ‘only finishes a picture 60 percent. I have to finish it for him.’ In a recorded interview, now housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Herrmann went on to explain: ‘Film music must supply what actors cannot say – it must convey to an audience their feelings. It must really convey what the word cannot do.’
The cello is not used very often as the soloist for the main theme of a soundtrack, which I find very surprising. The cello is in my opinion the most beautiful sounding instrument ever made. There are very few instruments that can convey emotion like the cello. A cello can convey a message of great emotional depth, whether it is sadness, joy, love, nostalgia or even fear in a movie scene.
Here are the top five cello themes used in movie and TV soundtracks in my book:
#1 Joker soundtrack
The 2019 film Joker from director Todd Phillips, is the brilliant combination of the super talented actor Joaquin Phoenix and musical genius and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Original Score and Joaquin Phoenix won the Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Actor. This brilliant combination is displayed in the YouTube clip below.
You will search far and wide to find the genius and talent that is behind the application of the cello in this movie soundtrack.
Director Todd Phillips wanted the Joker, played by Phoenix, to inspire empathy. Empathy is a very difficult emotion to evoke for any movie soundtrack composer. Guðnadóttir was the perfect person for the job and transformed darkness into empathy and human depth. She also came up with a concept that the orchestra would represent the madness building inside Arthur Fleck’s mind. Arthur Fleck is the character who becomes the Joker.
“The very beginning piece, you almost only hear the cello,” she says. “As we get further into the movie, the orchestra gets louder and louder, and then it kind of suffocates the cello. It’s almost like the empathy that we have for his character is led by the cello, and then his darker side, his inner turmoil, is the orchestra [which is] almost inaudible, and then just slowly takes over as we get further in.”
Guðnadóttir has a sensitive musicality that is rare to find. She brings the eerie cello sounds when the Joker meets his nemesis, Bruce Wayne. Have a listen here, courtesy of YouTube:
A genius display of the different textures and emotions a cello can bring to a music soundtrack is displayed beautifully in this clip, courtesy of YouTube:
To feast your ears even more to Guðnadóttir’s genius, here is the YouTube link to the official Joker movie soundtrack clips.
#2 Ben Sollee’s song Letting go in Killing Season
Killing Season is an American action thriller starring Robert de Niro and John Travolta. It was released in 2013. The soundtrack was composed by Christopher Young who has also composed the soundtracks of Entrapment, Swordfish, Spiderman 3 and The Shipping News for which he has won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.
Young does use the cello as the main soloist for the theme to the movie, but what blew my hat off was the song that was played during the end credits. Letting go was written and performed by cellist/singer/songwriter Ben Sollee.
Have a listen to this incredible musician here, courtesy of YouTube:
What impressed me about this composition was his use of chords on the cello, as if playing the guitar. At the same time he looped his intricate bassline and on top of that he is also able to sing his heart out. What a musician and what a beautiful song!
He is also able to evoke an array of nostalgic emotions with his use of the single cello, which is perfect for the end credits of a movie.
Don’t let the simplicity of the rendition fool you, Ben Sollee is a master at what he does. The intricacies of his playing will take a long while to master. He is the definition of authenticity.
The comments on this YouTube link describe the song and performance perfectly:
Stephen Schauer says: “A genre-bending cellist and songwriter who combines classical artistry with bluegrass and pop, Sollee has created a unique and infectious take on folk music.”
Amanhasnoname says: “This makes me want to learn the cello just so I could play this song. Such an invigorating blend of classical instruments to make alternative Indy folk”
#3 Theme song for Game of Thrones
How could I not include this on my best cello theme list? It has become iconic and synonymous with playing the cello. According to the general public, if you are a cellist, you are supposed to know how to play the theme song of Game of Thrones. If you are not familiar with this HBO series, have a listen here, courtesy of YouTube:
The use of cello as the main soloist in the theme is very fitting. The tone of the cello brings about an impression of royalty which the plot is all about. Bringing in the layers of cellos also supports the plot of this award-winning series, which is all about unraveling the underlying layers.
Ramin Djawadi is the mastermind behind this iconic soundtrack. Not only has he composed the soundtrack to Game of Thrones, but also to Clash of the Titans, Prison Break, Westworld and the Grammy-nominated score for Iron Man.
In the interview below (courtesy of YouTube), Djawadi describes his love for the cello. He also describes how he used different bowing techniques and different pitch registers to get the perfect sound for a specific scene. If you are a cellist you will love this interview.
#4 The Elgar Concerto in Hilary and Jackie
Hilary and Jackie is the tragic story of the super talented and world-renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her flautist sister Hilary du Pré-Finzi.
The movie attracted a lot of criticism for the portrayal of Jacqueline du Pré, due to perceived inaccuracies and sensationalism.
Despite all of the criticism for the film, the inclusion of the Elgar Concerto performed by Jacqueline du Pré will forever be one of the best cello solos ever performed in a movie and real life.
The performance is flawless.
Have a listen here, courtesy of YouTube:
#5 Arrival soundtrack
Max Richter has provided the opening and closing theme for Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi thriller Arrival. The rest of the score has been written by Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Max Richter’s theme On The Nature Of Daylight is one of the most beautiful themes ever written for cello. It is cinematic, meditating and has a profound emotional effect on you when you listen to it. It has to be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. That might be the reason why it has been used in many movies.
The track originally featured on Richter’s 2004 album, The Blue Notebooks, was a response to both the events of the Iraq War and Richter’s childhood. He was initially reluctant to let Villeneuve use it on Arrival.
“When I was contacted by the makers of Arrival, I was initially cautious. Having allowed the work to be used in two outstandingly powerful films, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and Henry Alex Rubin’s Disconnect, I was doubtful about granting another use,” Richter says in a press release.
“But Denis Villeneuve called me and described the integral nature of On The Nature Of Daylight to the architecture of Arrival – it starts and ends the film – and, as he described the film I was drawn into his powerful world. So, in the end, it was an easy decision.”
Have a listen to this beautiful theme, courtesy of YouTube:
I would love to read your comments on the above list.
Please let me know what themes are your top 5.
Please share this with at least one fellow musician.