Bach: Conversations Across Art

The Cello Suites are constantly inspiring cellists and composers, but have also made their mark across the arts. Here are two notable examples:

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude (from Weir’s Master and Commander)

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 5: Sarabande (from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers)

In fact, Bach’s Cello Suites have featured in a ton of movies, from classics like Autumn Sonata, Antonia’s Line, The Pianist and Through the Glass Darkly, to more recent Hollywood fare such as Hangover Part II, MI-5, and Still Alice.

But the greatest influence of the Cello Suites must be in music. As noted last week, Rostropovich chose the prelude of the first suite to perform as the Berlin Wall fell (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiwXUJJjL6g), claiming that “nothing in the world is more previous to me than these Suites.”). Perhpas this is why his great friend, the English composer Benjamin Britten, chose to compose his own suites for unaccompanied cello.

Britten’s first suite has a direct compositional line back to Bach. Like Bach’s suites, Britten’s Suite No. 1 draws inspiration both from Baroque dance and Baroque composition (the fugue, which recalls the first fugue of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). But these are no mere homages. Britten was surely influenced by Rostropovich’s muscular technique and unique timbre as much as he was by Bach. Echoes of Debussy, Ravel, and Elgar can also be found in the score. This is, in the end, a reflected Conversation–it is Britten speaking to Bach through Rostropovich.

Benjamin Britten, Cello Suite No. 1:

Finally, a word about the remarkable cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. His influence on the history of music is as immense as anyone who was not a composer in their own right. As one critic noted:

His unique technique, inimitable sound and abundant enthusiasm made him a magnet for composers the world over. The ‘speaking’ quality he imparted and the depth, power and expressivity, his power of communication, most remarkably in the lower register of the cello, opened up all sorts of possibilities. He was also not backward at begging, cajoling and commissioning works, either. The list of compositions written for, dedicated to, or commissioned by Rostropovich is a subject in itself: Glière, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Messiaen, Bernstein, Dutilleux, Khachaturian, Schnittke, Piazzolla, Lutosławski and Penderecki are just a few of the most famous names. No cellist, and few musicians of any sort come close to expanding the repertoire of an instrument quite so widely during their own lifetime.

A true titan of the music world, we will not see his like again.

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1:

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