15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Cello Players Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Since the invention of the cello, there have been many great cellists who’ve made their mark on music. From Pablo Casals to Jacqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma, these musicians’ contributions are invaluable and worth knowing about!

This blog post will introduce 15 famous cello players who have had a significant impact on music as we know it today.

1. Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma is considered to be the most outstanding living cellist today.

He was a child prodigy raised in New York City and performed before live audiences since age five.

Ma performed at the White House in 1987 and has displayed his talent at so many high-class locations it would be difficult to name them all. 

Ma’s style blends many types of music from various cultural backgrounds into a unique style that pays homage to classical music.

With over 90 albums, 18 Grammy Nominations, and worldwide renown– Yo-Yo Ma has brought cello music to center stage.

2. Mstislav Rostropovich

Often said to be the greatest cellist of all time, Mstislav Rostropovich was born in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1927.

Rostropovich’s family were all composers, cellists, or pianists, and he grew to become a virtuoso cellist and a significant influence on the cello players of today. 

Rostropovich always fought for free speech and was known to be generous raising money for charity and forming close friendships with other musicians and people around the world.

He produced over 117 compositions over his lifetime and received dozens of awards and recognitions globally.

Rostropovich is still a significant influence on current and aspiring cellists and trained multiple people on this list. 

3. Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals was born in Spain to a choirmaster father who taught him to play piano, violin, and flute before age ten.

Casals attended a musical school in Barcelona where he developed his love of cello music, especially Bach’s cello suites.  He is known as one of the greatest cellists of all time.

Casals played globally for notorious audiences, including many world leaders.

His attention to Bach’s six cello suites made his recordings of them prolific, and he revised the suites in his own style.

Casals’s music ranged from stunning solos to extensive orchestral recordings, and his talent speaks for itself.

4. Mischa Maisky

Born in 1948 in Latvia, Mischa Maisky grew up during the Soviet Union’s reign and got his early learning done in the Moscow Conservatory.

Tutored first by cellist legend Mstislav Rostropovich, Maisky later learned from a second master, Gregor Piatigorsky. He is the only person to study under both of them. 

Maisky has a loud, passionate way of playing the cello. It earned him some criticism, but that didn’t stop him from recording music with dozens of other concert artists and having over 50 recordings to his name.

Maisky continues to perform and add to his hundreds of concerts. 

5. Sheku Kanneh-Mason

English prodigy, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, made waves at only 16 years old when he won Britain’s Got Talent and BBC Young Musician award in 2016 where he was the first Black artist to do so.

He then went on to perform at the Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan in 2018 while they signed the register.

He started young, and his talent shone bright enough to have him play at the wedding of Megan Markle and Prince Harry. 

Kanneh-Mason is a part of the Chineke Orchestra, which is exclusively for minorities.

He speaks up about the lack of diversity in the concert world and proves that the next generation holds just as much talent as the legends of the past.

Kanneh-Mason has performed twice at the British Academy Film Awards, and he’s just getting started.

6. Luigi Boccherini

Luigi Boccherini

Born into a home of musicians, Luigi Boccherini had cello skills that flourished during the Classical Era, Italy.

Both he and his father performed before royalty, mainly the royal family of Spain in the 1770s. 

Boccherini was well-versed in other instruments and wrote hundreds of chamber string quintets, including cello, violins, and violas.

He wrote for guitars as well, but not all of that music survived.

He is most well-known for his charming style of cello playing.

Boccherini incorporated a violin playing style onto his cello, giving a unique sound and setting him apart.

It was his general understanding and love for music that made him a renowned cellist.

7. Lynn Harrell

Lynn Harrell was born and raised in America, learning music from his father and ultimately finding connections through his father’s name.

He was a highly regarded cellist of the age for over sixty years.

Harrell’s career as a cellist went international not too long after some of his first recitals.

He performed and made waves as a cellist while traveling.

Earning titles and praise from fellow colleagues, he moved on to teach at colleges such as The Juilliard School, Royal Academy of Music, and various other well-known schools worldwide.

8. Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber by Stephen Schowns (CC BY 2.0)

British Julian Lloyd Webber began his career young, as both of his parents had musical careers and passed their love of music on to him.

He studied at the Royal College of Music and made an appearance playing at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. 

Lloyd Webber played hundreds of times around the world, becoming a notable solo cellist, composer, and later a teacher.

He takes great care for the future generations of music and continues to fund and teach even after his retirement from the cello and all other performances.

Lloyd Webber is one of the most famous British cellists and has recorded over 50 works and has received over a dozen awards relating to his music and talent.

9. Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein is known for her contemporary takes on classical cello pieces.

She’s been playing the cello since she was four years old.

Born in New York to a violinist father and pianist mother, she grew up and eventually formed the Weilerstein Trio with her parents.

Her brother is also a conductor and violinist. 

She’s collaborated with many artists over the years and performed at well-known venues and schools all over the world, as well as being a solo cellist.

She earned the Leonard Bernstein Prize in 2006 and the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2011. 

10. Jacqueline du Pré

Jacqueline Du Pre’s name and legacy left a mark on the music industry and culture during and after her death.

She began cello lessons at age four and quickly rose to a genius-level with her comprehension and playing ability.

By the time she was eleven, she was learning from well-known cellists in London. 

She later went to study with Mstislav Rostropovich in Russia, and he later praised her as a young cellist who could overtake his own achievements.

Sadly, she developed multiple sclerosis and was unable to truly play the cello in the last decade of her life, passing away at the age of forty-two. 

A movie was later made about du Pre and her sister Hilary, one that brought controversy.

Despite this, her talent is recognized and remembered today. 

11. Fred Katz

NYC-born Fred Katz was one of the first people to bring the cello into Jazz music.

Pablo Casals tutored him for a while, as Katz was a child prodigy, he had attentive classical training under Casals. 

Katz could play classical, but he tended to work in Jazz music, later going to soundtracks for low-budget horror movies in the late 50s-60s.

His discography is a bit different than many of the cellists on this list, as he focused on developing cello within Jazz and soundtracks in the rise of Hollywood.

12. Pierre Fournier

Pierre Fournier

Pierre Fournier, a French cellist, received praise for his playing style and techniques and was often known as the “aristocrat of cellists.”

He played in dozens of concerts around Europe and at the side of many famous musicians of the time. 

During World War II, Fournier was found guilty of collaborating and playing music for a Nazi station and was banned from playing by France.

This news came to light during his tour in America and served as a stain on his record. 

13. Steven Isserlis

Steven Isserlis is a British cellist who grew up immersed in music with his family.

He plays in various ways, concerts, orchestra, and solo performances.

Isserlis focuses on teaching and supporting the children’s interest in cello, education, and writing music. 

Not only does he write music for the cello, but he took up writing children’s books based on his favorite instrument as well.

He’s critically acclaimed and has been nominated multiple times for a Grammy. 

14. Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell was a talented musician who worked alongside other musicians in the underground disco scene of the 70s and 80s.

He played the cello and sang, and his style was quirky and wild, bringing in new ways of playing the cello with electronic and pop.

Sadly, Russell died from AIDs before having his breakthrough successes.

In 2004, he got recognition for his unique style, and his legacy was born.

15. Paul Tortelier

Born from humble beginnings in Paris, Paul Torelier began cello lessons by age twelve.

He took music very, very seriously.

Performing worldwide over his career and earning praise from his teachers, Tortelier composed and played throughout his whole life. 

He learned a great deal from Pablo Casals, who even chose him to play as the foremost cellist in Prades Festival Orchestra.

Tortelier was a dynamic musician who dedicated his life to music and raising future generations.

Summing up our List of the Greatest Cellist

We hope that you’ve found this list of famous cello players interesting and informative.

After reading about all their accomplishments, we hope you feel inspired to pick up the instrument yourself or find a new favorite performer!

We’ll be adding to this list so let us know who you think we should add next.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.