David Popper was born in Prague, the Czech capital, at a time when Czech lands were ruled by Austria.
Regarded as one of the greatest cellists of the Romantic era, Popper was a celebrated performer and an influential teacher. He mostly composed for his instrument, and his works, which include concertos and salon pieces for cello and piano, have remained part of the cello repertoire. Graceful, elegant, often demanding extreme virtuosity, Popper's music for the cello fully employs that instrument's technical and expressive resources. Although critics have described Popper's music as somewhat superficial, cellists delight in pieces such as his Gavotte in D major, in which an atmosphere of charming playfulness is created when melodic phrases are completed by delicately executed harmonics. An example of breath-taking virtuosity, his Dance of the Elves, for cello and piano, a truly frantic race up and the down the instrument's highest register, has remained a supreme challenge for the concert cellist. Popper studied the cello with Julius Goltermann, quickly developing into a performer of the highest rank. In 1863, during a tour in Germany, Popper met Hans von Bülow, who immediately acknowledged his great talent. Von Bülow not only assisted Popper as an accompanist but also actively promoted his professional career. Throughout the 1860s, Popper toured Europe as a virtuoso with great success.
In 1868, Popper became principal cellist of the Vienna Opera. Four years later, he married Liszt's student Sophie Menter, daughter of the cellist Joseph Menter. In 1873, Popper left the Opera to resume his concert career with his wife as accompanist. His marriage with Sophie Menter ended in 1886. In 1891, in London, Popper performed his Requiem for three cellos and orchestra. Five years later, he was named professor at the Royal Conservatory in Budapest, where he remained until his death. Popper also published highly regarded cello methods and collections of etudes, including the Hohe Schule des Violoncello-Spiels (1905).