Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Six Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007–1012

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission

© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019

Bach’s six solo suites are the companions of every modern cellist. Some are simple enough to play after just a few years of study, others wait for a higher level of technical mastery. But none of them are ever static in a cellist’s mind or fingers: they change and grow from concert to concert and from year to year.

They also combine musical sophistication with convenience. A cellist needs nothing but a cello to play them, indoors or outside, at weddings and memorials, in conservatories and concert halls, in airports and hotel rooms. Each suite has a different mood, and there is one to fit any occasion imaginable.

Bach wrote the cello suites sometime before 1720, likely during his time as Kapellmeister in Köthen, though they may have earlier origins. In Köthen he worked for Prince Leopold, a young aristocrat Bach said “both loved and knew music.” Though his principality was small, Leopold built one of the finest instrumental ensembles in Europe, hiring six accomplished musicians, including at least one cellist, from Berlin four years before Bach’s arrival.

In the previous decades, the cello had rapidly developed from a hulking bass violin into an elegant, medium-sized instrument. The invention of wire-wound gut strings made it possible to produce lower pitches at shorter, more manageable lengths, allowing for nimble solo playing. Bach was clearly writing for a skilled cellist with the latest equipment, and in Köthen he had such players close: the musicians in Prince Leopold’s Kapelle were a tight-knit bunch who rehearsed in Bach’s apartment.

Around 1721, Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, copied out the cello suites, leaving us with one of two important sources for them (the other by Johann Peter Kellner, Bach’s student). Only a copy of the Fifth Suite, in an embellished transcription for lute, exists today in Bach’s own ink. Ambiguities in the sources, and small differences between them, contribute to the suites’ reputation for interpretive puzzles.

Still, this perception is a bit misplaced, emphasizing less than the primary concern of most players. The suites are clear in their ideas even when particular details are thin on the page. Cellists are more likely to ask what they can do with these ideas, how they can shape and clarify them, both for themselves and for their listeners in the setting at hand.

Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007

The Suite No. 1 in G Major is almost certainly the most famous piece in the modern cellist’s repertoire, and one of the most familiar works in all of classical music. Bach sets the First Suite in a comfortable, resonant key—the cello’s open G and D strings ring out unstopped. In German, the name Bach means brook, and many have drawn a connection between that image and the rippling harmonies of the Prelude.

The Allemande, a German dance, adds an amiable, improvisatory melody in contrast with the Prelude, which put the focus on harmony. Next comes the Courante, a running dance—darting, leaping, tumbling, around and finally charging forward.

The Sarabande is poised and solitary, a Spanish dance with roots in colonial South America that in time lost its once-erotic connotations.

Next come two Minuets, French dances that were considered optional additions to the Baroque suite. The first is elegant and warm while the second visits the key of D minor, offering a change in tone and a slinkier feel. The first Minuet repeats after the second.

The Gigue derived from the British Isles—literally, a jig—and drives itself out with wound energy to the end.

Suite No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008

The Suite No. 2 in D Minor may be the broodiest and most lonesome of the set. The Prelude is filled with questions, quite unlike the First Suite’s famous opening with its comforting rolling harmonies. The Allemande is stark, building toward the urgent Courante. These first three movements are especially close, conspiring together on a forward trajectory.

The Sarabande takes a step back. Like all Bach’s Sarabandes, it is poised and contemplative, but this one is especially glum, carrying only the faintest erotic charge of the original Spanish dance, which had roots in colonial South America.

Next come two Minuets: the first heavy-footed and reproachful, the second lithe in the parallel major key. A handful of low notes suggests a bass line, nudging the melody forward with wide dissonances. The Minuet I is repeated after Minuet II.

The Gigue seems to answer the Prelude’s questions, though it doesn’t offer a particularly comforting conclusion. The minor key casts pessimistically over this vigorous dance, which visits the relative major just briefly in the second half. It ends on an upward arpeggio: the only one of the six suites to end on an ascent and not be brought down to earth.

Program notes for the complete Cello Suites available upon request.

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer