David Popper's Elfantanz, Op.39 or Dance of the Elves, is one of many pieces that have endeared this composer to cellists around the world. In all, the Austrian virtuoso cellist wrote close to 80 works, most of them for cello, including four cello concerti, many concert pieces, and several etude books. The most famous of the books is the High School of Cello Playing, a collection of 40 extremely demanding technical exercises and a staple in the diet of most cellists today.
The Elfantanz could easily have fit into his collection of etudes because of the high technical demand placed on the cellist. Unlike many of the etudes, however, the Elfantanz is more musically charming. Popper wrote the piece in 1881, in Leipzig, when he was in his late thirties. Taking only about two and a half minutes to play, the Dance of the Elves is often used as a showpiece or an encore among high level cellists. It is certainly impressive to hear, as the entire piece is spent playing spiccato, a special bow stroke that produces very short, light, and fast notes. Add a very high tonal register that requires the continuous use of thumb position alongside the spiccato bowing and the piece, although short, becomes something of a challenge -- even for very advanced cellists.
Popper was a teacher at the National Hungarian Royal Academy for many years, in addition to being a solo performer, and the type of technical demand found in the Elfantanz is characteristic of nearly all of his work. He undoubtedly used many of his own compositions as vehicles through which his students could build their technical facility. It is no surprise that Popper remains (along with Pablo Casals) one of the cellists most credited with expanding the level of technical ability on the cello. His works are entertaining, though not musically profound, and are studied and performed regularly by both students and professional cellists.