PROGRAM NOTES: Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello I & II
by Eric Bromberger
Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello date from about 1720, when the composer was serving as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, about thirty miles north of Leipzig. Bach did not play the cello, and it may well be that he wrote these suites for one of the cellists in the small professional orchestra that Prince Leopold maintained at court and which Bach conducted. Bach may not have played the cello, but his knowledge of that instrument appears to have been profound–the writing for cello in these suites is idiomatic and assured, and he makes full use of the instrument’s lower register. These suites are also extremely difficult and demand a topflight performer: like the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, written at this same period, they represent the summit of the music written for these unaccompanied instruments. Bach’s suites for solo cello remained for years the property of a handful of connoisseurs–they were not published until 1828, over a century after they were written.
Bach understood the term “suite” to mean a collection of dance movements in the basic sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, which is the same sequence of movements of his instrumental partitas. But Bach added an introductory prelude to all six cello suites, and into each suite he interpolated one extra dance movement just before the final gigue to make a total of six movements. All movements after the opening prelude are in binary form.
Bach’s cello suites have presented performers with a host of problems because none of Bach’s original manuscripts survives. The only surviving copies were made by Bach’s second wife and one of his students, and–lacking even such basic performances markings as bowings and dynamics–these texts present performers with innumerable problems of interpretation. In a postscript to his edition of these suites, János Starker playfully notes that one of the pleasures of going to heaven will be that he will finally be able to discuss with Bach himself exactly how the composer wants this music played. In the meantime, individual performers must make their own artistic decisions, and these suites can sound quite different in the hands of different cellists.
Program notes below are in order of performance.
Suite No. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1007
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig
The noble Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in G Major rides along a steady pulse of sixteenth-notes, and it is the responsibility of the performer to breathe musical life– manipulation of tempo, contrasts of dynamics within phrases, the gradual building to a great climax–into these otherwise bare sequences of steady notes. Bach makes full use of the resonant sound of the cello’s open G-string that underlies so much of this movement, and–in a nice touch–the movement’s concluding line is effectively an inversion of its opening line. The Allemande (that title originally meant “German dance”) moves along a similar sequence of steady sixteenths, though here the tempo feels slower and more dignified; in this and the other binary movements, the performer has the option to take or ignore the repeat of the second section. The Courante (French for “running”) sails along somewhat harder-edged rhythms, while the Sarabande dances with a grave dignity; Bach makes effective contrast here between the resonance of great chords and the steady flow of the melodic line. The interpolated movement in the First Suite is a pair of minuets. Their sprightly rhythms remind us that the minuet had its origins in a quick dance rather than the stately tempo we have come to associate with the court dance; the second minuet is the only section in the suite not in G major–Bach moves to D minor here, though even this continually edges back toward the home tonality. The concluding Gigue is an athletic and quite brief dance in 6/8 that flows smoothly to its brisk close.
Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1010
The Fourth Suite in E-flat Major is one of the most difficult of the cycle, not just for its technical hurdles but also because the key of E-flat major is awkward for stringed instruments. The opening Praeludium proceeds sturdily on a steady flow of eighth-notes that continues for nearly fifty measures; a quasi recitativo, full of sixteenth notes and chords, provides a brief interlude before the return of opening material, now varied rhythmically and harmonically. The gentle Allemande leads to a more energetic Courante; this movement is full of rhythmic variation, as Bach switches between progressions of eighths, sixteenths, and then triplets. The grave and graceful Sarabande is the suite’s slow movement, built on double-stops and dotted rhythms; despite the slow tempo, the movement’s roots in dance are clear. The “extra” movement in this suite is a pair of bourrées, which form one ABA movement. The opening Bourrée is athletic and long, while the second is quite brief, virtually a double-stopped transition passage in the cello’s lower register before the return of the opening bourrée. The concluding Gigue is by far the most difficult for the cellist. It is in 12/8, giving the effect of flying triplets, and the movement becomes a non-stop tour de force.
Suite No. 5 in C Minor for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1011
The Suite No. 5 in C Minor has long been regarded as one of the finest of the cycle: the somber minor tonality gives the music a dark, expressive quality, and Bach himself appears to have been taken with this music–several years after writing it, he arranged it for solo lute. An unusual feature of the cello version is that Bach asks the cellist to re-tune his instrument, tuning the A-string (the top string) down one full step to G; this makes possible certain chord combinations impossible with normal tuning.
The lengthy opening Praeludium has been compared to French overture form, though the relation is distant. The Praeludium does open with the dotted figures characteristic of the French overture and does introduce fugal-sounding material, but the opening section never returns. The slow Allemande retains the dotted rhythms of the opening movement, while the Courante is in a quick 3/2 meter, full of multiple-stopping. The grave Sarabande is entirely linear–there is no chording at all here–and this ancient dance form (the sarabande was originally a sung dance) proceeds with great dignity. Two gavottes form the “extra” movement in this suite. The first is athletic and graceful and full of double-stopping, while the second is quick and built on flowing triplets; Bach asks for a da capo repeat of the first gavotte. The gigue is of British origins, but Bach’s concluding Gigue seems far removed from its ancestor, the merry jig. Here the metric and phrase units are short (a quick 3/8), and the movement ends with the somber gravity that has marked the entire suite.
Suite No. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1009
The Suite No. 3 is notable for its broad, heroic character, which comes in part from Bach’s choice of key: C major allows him to make ample use of the cello’s C-string, and the resonance of this lowest string echoes throughout the suite. The preludes of all the suites have an intentionally “improvisatory” quality: though the music is carefully written out, Bach wishes to create the effect that the performer is improvising it on the spot. The Prelude of the Third Suite is built on a virtually non-stop sequence of sixteenth-notes, though at the end a series of declamatory chords draws the music to its climax. The Allemande is an old dance of German origin; that name survives today in square dancing terminology (“Allemando left with the old left hand”); in this movement Bach enlivens the basic pulse with turns, doublestops, and thirty-secondnotes. The Courante races past, while the Sarabande is dignified and extremely slow. Many listeners will discover that they already know the first Bourrée, for this graceful dance has been arranged for many other instruments; Bach presents an extended variation of it in the second Bourrée. The concluding Gigue dances quickly on its 3/8 meter; Bach offers the cellist some brisk passagework as well as extended doublestopping in this good-spirited dance.
Suite No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1008
The D-minor tonality gives the Second Suite a dark and somber spirit–only in the second minuet does the music move briefly into the sunlight of D major. The stern opening Praeludium is built on a steady pulse of sixteenth notes, while the Allemande dances gravely, its progress enlivened by dotted rhythms and turns. The Courante moves along swiftly, while the noble Sarabande makes its dignified way at a slower pace. After this, the two minuets offer some relief, with the sunny second dance serving as the trio section. A Gigue (derived from the Irish jig) usually swings along easily on a 12/8 meter, but here Bach sets it in a much shorter metric unit (3/8), and this Gigue dances sternly, with strong accents cutting into the rhythmic flow.
Suite No. 6 in D Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1012
The Sixth Suite is unique within the cycle because it appears to have been conceived originally for an instrument other than cello. Bach’s manuscript notates the part in soprano and alto clefs, and scholars have guessed that he may have written this suite for the now-obsolete viola pomposa or the violoncello piccolo: both these instruments had a fifth string–an E a fifth above the cello’s A-string– though the viola pomposa was played under the chin. For performance on the cello, the part has been transposed to the tenor and bass clefs; the range of the part, however, is still high in the cello’s register.
The Prelude of the Sixth Suite is set in 12/8, and the effect is of an energetic rush of triplets; near the end, however, Bach moves from the eighth-note pulse to sixteenth-notes, and the music seems to rush ahead at twice its opening speed. The stately main idea of the Allemande is decorated with ornate swirls of 64th-notes as it proceeds, while the Courante is brisk and propulsive–it grows increasingly athletic and chromatic in its second half. The Sarabande, in a broad 3/2 meter, is based on double-stopping, much of it high in the cello’s range. The interpolated movements in this suite are a pair of gavottes. Vigorous and spirited, this music may be familiar because it has been arranged for other instruments; in the second strain of the second gavotte, Bach creates a drone-like effect on the cello’s open D-string as the melodic line dances above it. Not only is the concluding Gigue very fast, but much of it is built on doublestops, and Bach’s final suite comes to its close in a great cascade of energy.