Nowadays it is hard to imagine that the Six Suites for Violoncello solo by Johann Sebastian Bach had to be rescued from obscurity. A youthful Pablo Casals chanced upon a copy of them published as etudes in a bookshop in Barcelona in 1890. His performances a good decade later and recordings from the 1930’s proved they were much more emotionally charged pieces than mere exercises.
The suites were most likely composed when Johann Sebastian Bach was employed at the court of Prince Leopold in Cothen (1717-1723). Since Bach was solely responsible for the chamber music at court, he could experiment continually with the various instruments at his disposal. Still very much in its infancy as a solo instrument in the German-speaking nations, it is interesting to note that Bach chose to write for the Italian-born cello in the structure of the French-influenced Suite, and alternatively, portrayed the most regal of French instruments, the viola da gamba, in the guise of the Italian Sonata in his three sonatas for gamba and harpsichord.
Admittedly the Suite was one of the most prevalent forms of instrumental music in the Baroque era, where the dance movements maintained the characteristic features of their rhythmic origins. Bach’s Six Cello Suites form a consistent structure of a free Prelude, followed by the usual Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Perhaps in order to designate an overall unity to the six suites, Bach inserted between the Sarabande and the Gigue a pair of Minuets in Suites I and II, a pair of Bourees in Suites III and IV and a pair of Gavottes in Suites V and VI. The choice of tonality for each suite and the subsequent technical development in each one allow a far-reaching capacity for the voice of the cello. The third suite in C major lends an especially confident and optimistic character, reinforced by the resonance of the four open strings of the cello.
The original autograph manuscript of the suites has never been found, however there survive four copies from the eighteenth century and an early nineteenth-century first edition, bearing the title “Six Suites ou Etudes.” As might be guessed, there are discrepancies in the various sources regarding the articulation markings, accidentals, trills, chords and even suggested dynamics. The manuscript most relied upon in today’s early music circles is the one in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second wife. She also copied Bach’s extant autograph manuscript of the violin partitas and sonatas, written in 1720.
Historical research reveals how extremely important the original text is in informing the performer of a composer’s intentions. Nonetheless, Bach’s ideas seem limitless in the manner in which he suggests to our ears a moment of counterpoint, harmony, dissonance or syncopation with the use of a single note on a single string. The challenge (and delight) still remains with the player to constantly reconsider what Bach the master intended. It is this endless journey that gives the cello suites their honoured position.
© Jennifer Morsches, 2008
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