Bach’s Cello Suites

For The Professor:

In 1889, a 13-year old cellist was browsing the shelves of a second-hand music shop in Barcelona. Piled under what was undoubtedly a gigantic stack of dusty scores, he made a discovery–an old and battered copy of what appeard to be the score of J.S. Bach’s Suites for solo cello. His father purchased the score and the young cellist began to study them. By this time, the score itself had passed from mystery into legend. The original score had been penned in or around 1720, after Bach’s completion of his Brandenburg Concertos, one of which had featured the viola da gamba (a predecessor of the modern cello) as the lead instrument and may have inspired Bach to create something for the cello. These early scores (or at least those that survive) are not in Bach’s hand, but were rather penned by Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife. This has led some to claim, incorrectly, that Anna Magdalena was the true composer. To accept this view would be to ignore the many parallels to Bach’s earlier music as well as the many errors that litter the manuscripts and which had to be corrected for the published version.

The “original” manuscripts are devoid of all dynamic and tempo notations, leaving only the notes themselves to offer insight into Bach’s intent. This has naturally led to considerable debate:

The hardest thing in interpreting Bach is the necessary equilibrium between human feelings, the heart that undoubtedly Bach possessed, and the severe and profound aspect of interpretation… You cannot automatically disengage your heart from the music. This was the greatest problem I had to resolve in my interpretation … I had to search for the golden medium between a romantic, rhapsodic interpretation of Bach and scholastic aridity.

Mstislav Rostropovich

The score would be finally published over a century later, in 1825, as part of the Bach Revival movement, which we will discuss later this Spring. But the score, as noted above, quickly faded from memory. It was a happy accident of history that this dusty score from 1825 was discovered, a bit battered, but still intact, by no ordinary 13-year old. The manuscript had fallen into the hands of a boy who was already on his way to becoming one of the greatest cellists in history: Pablo Casals. For Casals, there was no question as to interpretation:

Bach has every feeling: lovely, tragic, dramatic, poetic … always soul and heart and expression. How he enters into the most profound of ourselves! Let us find that Bach.

Pablo Casals

His 1936 recording of the Cello Suites is a true landmark in recorded music, transforming what some considered to be practice studies into one of the most celebrated compositions in music history by eschewing a dry, mathematical interpretation in favor of a deeply emotional reading.

To tackle the Cello Suites, a performer must resolve several issues, even after resolving more aesthetic issues. Which repeats do you observe? How much vibrato should you use? How much should you ornament the music supplied by Bach? And, of course, decisions about bowing and fingering will change not only how the music is produced, but what it sounds like. Casals famously continued to tinker with his fingerings constantly.

The Cello Suites have a remarkable performance history. Casals, who claimed to have performed a suite every day, refused to perform them in any country that recognized the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Rostropovich, perhaps the greatest cellist of them all, performed the Cello Suites at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yo-Yo Ma performed them a the concert that honored the victims of 9/11. They are 300 years old, yet still provide the soundtrack to history.

A few things to listen for. Each of the suites open with a prelude. These preludes served multiple purposes, only some of which are directly related to the music. The long gut strings of a cello need to be played in order to set themselves in tune. The longish preludes helped do that, while introducing the basic themes that Bach would later develop. The dance movemements follow the preludes. Bach’s careful study of European music is revealed here, as he draws inspiraction from the Allemande (Germanic), Courante (mostly Italian, other than No. 5 which is French), Sarabande (a Spanish dance written here in the French style), and GIgue (English). An optional dance movement features French bourrees (Nos. 3 and 4), gavottes (Nos. 5 and 6), and minutes (Nos. 1 and 2). Other than the distinctive rhythms of these traditional dances, interpretation as to tempo and dynamics lies with the performers, which has led to vastly differing interpretations. Consider:

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude (Fournier):

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude (Maiskey):

The suites are typically published in order of difficulty, with Nos. 5 and 6 proving to be extremely challenging indeed. Suite No. 5, in C minor, requires a special Baroque tuning (scordatura) which requires the cellist to tune the top A string down to G. As the notations do not change to reflect the step down tuning, the tone played will not be the same as the note recorded in the score (e.g., a notated A will produce a G). This tuning change significantly alters the tonal quality produced by the instrument. Suite No. 6 is even more challenging, as it requires a cello with 5 strings, which adds greater texture by expanding the cord possibilities of the instrument. Here is a video of No. 6 performed on an original Baroque 5-string cello:

J.S. Bach Cello Suite No. 6:

I found this amazing recording of Yo-Yo Ma’s 2015 performance at the Proms from 2015, when he played all 6 without break.  The introduction on the BBC is enough of an introduction to the music and I assume that Ma needs no introduction here, such is his fame.  As a side note, I highly recommend attending a Prom performance if you are ever in London during the summer.  This music series, presented at the Royal Albert Hall, is a fantastic experience.  The tradition of English “promenade” concerts go back to the 18th century—but those were largely outdoors affairs in the various “pleasure gardens” of the day.  Emphasis on pleasure.  “Promming”, i.e., standing and milling about the hall during the performance, is still an important part of the series.  Over 1000 promming tickets are available for each performance.  Not surprisingly, I preferred a box.  Not just because of the chairs, but also because they allow you to bring champagne in for the performance and store the bottle on ice in the antechamber.  Peak Civilization.

J.S. Bach, Six Cello Suites:

Bonus videos: Last Night of the Proms. The closing concert takes place on Saturday in September. It is a big party, from the flag waving prommers to the massive crowd that watches in simulcast outside in Hyde Park. Back in the day, everyone watched the Last Night on TV or listened on BBC radio. Everyone. Today, perhaps, the audience is a bit smaller. But it might be the last vestige of the British celebrating being British. Just remember Lully and the origin of God Save the Queen as detailed earlier in this blog and have a quiet laugh at the hosts’ expense. If you happen to be in London in September, just go. You can thank me later.

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