Johann Sebastian Bach: Suites for Solo Cello

Program note written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Johann Sebastian 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.

Bach wrote the cello suites sometime before 1720, likely during his time as Kapellmeister in Köthen, though they may have earlier origins. He worked there for Prince Leopold, a young aristocrat who, 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 was copied 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, the suites are clear in their ideas even when details are thin on the page. Cellists tend to ask what they can do with these ideas, how they can shape and clarify them for themselves and for their listeners.

Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

The Suite No. 1 in G major is the most famous piece in the cello repertoire, and one of the most familiar works in all of classical music. Bach sets it 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, and tumbling around, then 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 energy to the end.

Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011

Bach’s last two cello suites each have a difference: No. 5 asks the cellist to retune the top string from A down to G, while No. 6 was originally written for a five-string cello with an additional high E string. Both remind us that in the 18th century the cello was not as standardized in setup as it is today. The fifth suite’s alternate tuning (a technique called scordatura) allows the cellist to play chords that would be awkward or impossible in normal tuning, and it also subtly changes the color and resonance of the whole instrument. The top string is more slack, bringing out different sympathetic vibrations and overtones from the other strings. It’s a duskier color, suited to this suite’s C-minor mood.

The fifth suite’s Prelude is unique among those in the cello suites for its two-part structure: first an introduction, and then a fugue. Normally a fugue is built from several overlapping voices in imitation—requiring a keyboard instrument or multiple musicians—but through musical sleight of hand, Bach tricks the ear into hearing it all from a solo cello. By delineating voices through different parts of the cello’s range, and giving just enough touches of harmony, the listener’s imagination fills out the rest.

The Allemande picks up rhythmic gestures from the Prelude and then unfurls improvisatory lines over hints of a sonorous bass. The Courante constricts itself in tighter phrases, which brighten in the second section.

The expressive weight of the suite rests in the Sarabande. Though this dance style is usually filled with rolled chords, here it is conspicuously bare—only single notes, an outline in contemplative dissonances, suggesting more than it says out loud.

The Gavottes are dour dances, the second shifting dramatically into running triplets before the first is repeated. The Gigue offers a rhythmic link back to the Prelude and Allemande, while shaping broad arches in its phrases. Then the Suite lays to rest on the cello’s lowest note, the open C.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.