The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello. They were most likely composed during the period 1717–1723, when Bach served as a Kapellmeister in Köthen.
The suites contain a great variety of technical devices, a wide emotional range, and some of Bach’s most compelling voice interactions and conversations. It is their intimacy, however, that has made the suites amongst Bach’s most popular works today, resulting in their different recorded interpretations being fiercely defended by their respective advocates.
The suites have been transcribed for numerous instruments, including the violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, mandolin, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, electric bass, horn, saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, ukulele, and charango.
The first page from the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach of Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
An exact chronology of the suites (regarding both the order in which the suites were composed and whether they were composed before or after the solo violin sonatas) cannot be completely established. However, scholars generally believe that—based on a comparative analysis of the styles of the sets of works—the cello suites arose first, effectively dating the suites pre-1720, the year on the title page of Bach’s autograph of the violin sonatas.
The suites were not widely known before the 1900s, and for a long time it was generally thought that the pieces were intended to be studies. However, after discovering Grützmacher’s edition in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Spain at age 13, Pablo Casals began studying them. Although he would later perform the works publicly, it was not until 1925, when he was 48, that he agreed to record the pieces, becoming the first to record all six suites. Their popularity soared soon after, and Casals’ original recording is still widely available today.
Attempts to compose piano accompaniments to the suites include a notable effort by Robert Schumann. In 1923, Leopold Godowsky realised suites 2, 3 and 5 in full counterpoint for solo piano.
Unlike Bach’s solo violin sonatas, no autographed manuscript survives, thus ruling out the use of an urtext performing edition. However, analysis of secondary sources—including a hand-written copy by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena—has produced presumably authentic editions, although critically deficient in the placement of slurs and other articulation. As a result, many interpretations of the suites exist, with no sole accepted version.
Recent research has suggested that the suites were not written for the familiar cello played between the legs (da gamba), but an instrument played rather like a violin, on the shoulder (da spalla). Variations in the terminology used to refer to musical instruments during this period have led to modern confusion, and the discussion continues regarding the instrument “that Bach intended”, or even if a particular instrument was indeed intended. Sigiswald Kuijken and Ryo Terakado have both recorded the complete suites on this “new” instrument, known today as a violoncello or viola da spalla; reproductions of the instrument have been made by luthier Dmitry Badiarov.
Recent speculation by Professor Martin Jarvis of Charles Darwin University School of Music, in Darwin, Australia, holds that Anna Magdalena may have been the composer of several musical pieces attributed to her husband. Jarvis proposes that Anna Magdalena wrote the six Cello Suites, and was involved with the composition of the aria from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Musicologists and performers, however, pointing to the thinness of evidence of this proposition, remain skeptical of the claim.
The suites are in six movements each, and have the following structure and order of movements.
Galanteries – (Minuets for Suites 1 and 2, Bourrées for 3 and 4, Gavottes for 5 and 6)
Scholars believe that Bach intended the works to be considered as a systematically conceived cycle, rather than an arbitrary series of pieces: Compared to Bach’s other suite collections, the cello suites are the most consistent in order of their movements. In addition, to achieve a symmetrical design and go beyond the traditional layout, Bach inserted intermezzo or galanterie movements in the form of pairs between the Sarabande and the Gigue.
It should also be noticed that only five movements in the entire set of suites are completely non-chordal: that means they consist only of a single melodic line. These are the second Minuet of the 1st Suite, the second Minuet of the 2nd suite, the second Bourrée of the 3rd suite, the Gigue of the 4th suite, and the Sarabande of the 5th Suite. It should be noted that the 2nd Gavotte of the 5th Suite has but one prim-chord (the same note played on two strings at the same time), but only in the original scordatura version of the suite—in the standard tuning version it is completely free from chords.
The Suites have been performed and recorded by many renowned cellists such as Pablo Casals, János Starker, Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma and Mischa Maisky. Ma won the 1985 Best Instrumental Soloist Grammy Award for his best selling album “Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites”.
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
The Prelude, mainly consisting of arpeggiated chords, is probably the best known movement from the entire set of suites and is regularly heard on television and in films. Most students begin with this suite as it is assumed to be easier to play than the others in terms of the technique required.
Cello Suite No. 1 (BWV 1007)
1 – Prelude
2 – Allemande
3 – Courante
4 – Sarabande
5 – Minuets
6 – Gigue
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
The Prelude consists of two parts, the first of which has a strong recurring theme that is immediately introduced in the beginning. The second part is a scale-based cadenza movement that leads to the final, powerful chords. The subsequent Allemande contains short cadenzas that stray away from this otherwise very strict dance form. The first Minuet contains demanding chord shiftings and string crossings.
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009
The Prelude of this suite consists of an A-B-A-C form, with A being a scale-based movement that eventually dissolves into an energetic arpeggio part; and B, where the cellist is introduced to thumb position, which is needed to reach the demanding chords. It then returns to the scale theme, and ends with a powerful and surprising chord movement.
The Allemande is the only movement in the suites that has an up-beat consisting of three semiquavers instead of just one, which is the standard form.
The second Bourrée, though in C minor, has a 2-flat (or G minor) key-signature. This notation, common in pre-Classical music, is sometimes known as a partial key-signature. The first and second Bourrée of the 3rd suite is sometimes used as solo material for other bass instruments such as tuba, euphonium, and trombone and bassoon.
Cello Suite No. 3 (BWV 1009)
1 – Prelude
2 – Allemande
3 – Courante
4 – Sarabande
5 – Bourees
6 – Gigue
All performed by John Michel
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Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010
Suite No. 4 is one of the most technically demanding of the suites since E-flat is an uncomfortable key to intonate on the cello and requires many extended left hand positions. The Prelude primarily consists of a difficult flowing quaver movement that leaves room for a cadenza before returning to its original theme. The very peaceful Sarabande is quite obscure about the stressed second beat, which is the basic characteristic of the 3/4 dance, since, in this particular Sarabande, almost every first beat contains a chord, whereas the second beat most often doesn’t.
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Suite No. 5 was originally written in scordatura with the A-string tuned down to G, but nowadays a version for standard tuning is included in almost every edition of the suites along with the original version. Some chords must be simplified when playing with standard tuning, but some melodic lines become easier as well.
The Prelude is written in an A-B form, and is a French overture. It begins with a slow, emotional movement that explores the deep range of the cello. After that comes a fast and very demanding single-line fugue that leads to the powerful end.
This suite is most famous for its intimate Sarabande, which is the second of only four movements in all six suites that doesn’t contain any chords. Rostropovich describes it as the essence of Bach’s genius; Tortelier, as an extension of silence. Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. The fifth suite is also exceptional as its Courante and Gigue are in the French style, rather than the Italian form of the other five suites.
An autograph manuscript of Bach’s lute version of this suite exists as BWV 995.
Cello Suite No. 5 (BWV 1011) – Prelude
Performed on a viola by Elias Goldstein
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Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012
It is widely believed that the sixth suite was composed specifically for a five-stringed violoncello piccolo, a smaller cello, roughly the size of a 7/8 normal cello that has a fifth upper string tuned to E, a perfect fifth above the otherwise top string. However, some say there is no substantial evidence to support this claim: whilst three of the sources inform the player that it is written for an instrument “a cinq cordes”, only Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript indicates the tunings of the strings and the other sources do not mention any intended instrument at all.
Other possible instruments for the suite include a version of the violoncello piccolo played on the arm like a viola, as well as a viola with a fifth string tuned to E, called a viola pomposa. As the range required in this piece is very large, the suite was probably intended for a larger instrument, although it is conceivable that Bach—who was fond of the viola—may have performed the work himself on an arm-held violoncello piccolo. However, it is equally likely that beyond hinting the number of strings, Bach did not intend any specific instrument at all as the construction of instruments in the early 18th century was highly variable.
Cellists wishing to play the piece on a modern four-string cello encounter difficulties as they are forced to use very high positions to reach many of the notes, though modern cellists regularly perform the suite on the 4-string instrument. Performers specialising in early music and using authentic instruments generally use the 5-string cello for this suite, including Anner Bylsma, Pieter Wispelwey, Jaap ter Linden and Josephine van Lier. The approach of Watson Forbes, in his transcription of this suite for viola, was to transpose the entire suite to G major, avoiding “a tone colour which is not very suitable for this type of music” and making most of the orginal chords playable on a four-stringed instrument.
This suite is written in much more free form than the others, containing more cadenza-like movements and virtuosic passages. It is also the only one of the suites that is partly notated in the Tenor C clef, which is not needed for the others since they never go above the note G4 (G above middle C).
Mstislav Rostropovich called this suite “a symphony for solo cello” and characterised its D major tonality as evoking joy and triumph.