Fred Lerdahl - music for cello


Arches  (2010) for cello and orchestra

Premiere: November 19, 2010, Miller Theater, New York; Anssi Karttunen, cello, Argento Ensemble, Michel Galante


Arches (2010), for solo cello and large chamber ensemble, was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation for the cellist Anssi Karttunen. The ensemble includes flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion (two players), piano, harp, two violins, viola, and contrabass. The piece is in one movement lasting about 19 minutes. 

Arches is not a traditional concerto but a dialogue for cello and ensemble. Its expressive character comes from my feeling of the sound of the cello itself. This, the most human of instruments, covers the range from bass to soprano and conveys deep melancholy in the midst of rhetorical force. 

I found the form to harness these inchoate expressive impulses through Renaissance cantus firmus technique allied with my spiral methods of construction. An expanding and contracting melody of my devising appears throughout, both overtly and covertly in different instruments and registers, everywhere influencing the voice leading and harmony. The title refers not only to the characteristic rise and fall in melodic contour but more especially to the arcs of formal expansion and contraction. These cycles grow to the midpoint and recede quasi-symmetrically to the end, motivating palindromic patterns at multiple structural levels—arches within arches within arches.

There and Back Again (2010) for solo cello

Premiere:  February 12, 2011, Theatre de Chatelet, Paris; Anssi Karttunen, cello


There and Back Again (2010), a four-minute work for solo cello, was composed as a surprise present for the extraordinary cellist Anssi Karttunen in honor of his 50th birthday. The composers invited to participate were asked to base their contributions on a 17th-century cello piece, Chiacona by Giuseppe Colombi. 

My piece follows Colombi’s four-bar chaconne form faithfully but with a twist: its pitch material takes a journey through three and a half centuries and back. The piece begins with bare octaves and elaborates the chaconne pattern until Colombi’s original melody arrives in the fourth variation. The material becomes increasingly chromatic, alluding to 19th- and 20th-century usages, until it reaches 12-tone and finally microtonal variations. The reversal is comparatively short, leading to a climactic statement of Colombi’s tune before subsiding to the opening octaves.

Give and Take (2014) for violin and cello

Premiere: February 9, 2015, Music Centre, Helsinki; Anssi Karttunen, cello - Ernst Kovacic, violin


I composed the violin-cello duo Give and Take in the summer of 2014 for the Musica Nova Helsinki 2015 Festival. Dedicated to Anssi Karttunen, cellist and artistic director of the Festival, it is in one movement lasting about 15 minutes. This is the third work I have written for Mr. Karttunen, the first two being There and Back Again for solo cello and Arches for cello and chamber orchestra.

The title Give and Take evokes the responsive and varied interaction of the violin and cello throughout the piece. They are in an intense conversation, sometimes echoing and elaborating one another, other times each going its own way in its own tempo, still other times one breaking off with a change in direction that is soon followed by the other. To achieve this flexibility, I built a form in three cycles, each made up of musical ideas that seem heterogeneous but possess underlying similarities. The second and third cycles freely and progressively expand the material of the first.

Give and Take has a twin, Time and Again for chamber orchestra. The two works were composed at the same time and cover the same musical course despite contrasting sound worlds and textures. One piece is the ink drawing, the other the oil painting.

Duo (2017) for cello and piano

Premiere: April 22, 2017; Reid Hall, Columbia Global Center, Paris; Anssi Karttunen, cello - Nicolas Hodges, piano


Duo for Cello and Piano (2017) was composed for the cellist Anssi Kartunen and the pianist Nicolas Hodges. I couldn’t resist writing for these two great musicians who are fostering a larger repertoire of contemporary works for this traditional medium. 

The Duo is in one movement of approximately 15 minutes and falls into three progressively expanding cycles. Within each cycle, sharply contrasting musical ideas move seamlessly from one to the next. In conceiving the work, I grappled with how sonically unlike the two instruments are. I responded by treating them as if they were in different tempi and oriented to different pitch centers, each with its own material seemingly unrelated to the other. Within this challenging framework, I sought and found common ground for the cello and piano to interact in an intricate structural and expressive dialogue.

Program notes: © Fred Lerdahl

photos © Muriel von Braun