After a video of musician Wells Cunningham playing the “Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia” went viral in 2008, people started referring to it as the “Impossible Duet.” We’ve included his “impossible” performance at the bottom of this article.
Many assumed it was called impossible because the piece required such great technical skill.
But “impossible duet” is simply a nickname Cunningham gave the video because, if you look closely, he is playing both the cello AND the violin in a split-screen. (You can see Cunningham wearing headphones in the video so he can hear a recording of himself playing the other instrument.)
In case you were wondering, I couldn’t find a violinist to play with, so I decided to just learn the violin part myself! he said.
Even more impressive is the way Cunningham plays the violin – basically upside-down! Requiring a completely different hold on the instrument, he learned to play it just as you would a cello.
Over 2 million people have viewed “The Impossible Duet: Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Cello and Violin” on YouTube, but very few people know anything about the origins of the music.
The challenging piece originated from composer’s George Frideric Handel‘s 1720 “Suite in G minor,” which was originally written for the harpsichord. The last movement of the suite, “Passacaille (No.6),” is meant to resemble a style of music known as a passacaglia, hence the name.
The passacaglia originated in Italy, but is known for resembling the music of Spanish street dances. The style typically requires one musician to play a solid foundation of chords while the other plays variations on a rhythm.
But this particular passacaglia isn’t famous because of Handel. It only became popular over 100 years later when it was re-arranged by a Norwegian composer named Johan Halvorsen.
Halvorsen re-wrote the piece as a duet for the violin and cello in 1894 and it became one of his best-known pieces.
The duet itself has been played many times (occasionally for violin and viola), so is far from impossible. Below, famous violinist and violist Itzhak Perlman & Pinchas Zukerman perform another rendention of the piece:
Still, the expertise Cunningham exhibits in his video explains why it’s been shared around the world for the last 10 years.
It’s no surprise that Cunningham has had an illustrious career, attending one of the top music schools in the country (the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY) before becoming the principal cellist for the New World Symphony from 1998-2000.
His contributions to popular music include music for albums by Nelly Furtado, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez. Check out his Spanish guitar skills:
“Bravo on your amazing Paganini performance! What a feat!”
The performance he is referring to has been viewed over 700,000 times on YouTube, in which Cunningham performs the famous Caprice No. 24, originally written for the violin by Niccòlo Paganini, a piece that is widely known as one of the most difficult string solos ever written.
“I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your magnificent playing on your website. My wife and I just listened to all of your downloads, and we’re just spellbound. You’ve given me more reason to practice hard! I haven’t been this inspired in quite some time.”
Needless to say, Cunningham is just as much a superstar among his fellow musicians as he is among YouTube watchers.
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Source: Wells Cunningham