Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello
There are few works of classical music that inspire the awe that cellists feel for the Bach Suites. They start to play them within a year or two of taking up the instrument and, if hands and minds hold out, they are still working on the same pieces 60 years later.
We know very little of the background to the Suites. They were written in about 1720 when Bach was Kapellmeister in Cöthen, where he wrote some of his greatest secular works: the Brandenburg Concertos, the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, and the Cello Suites. We don’t know for whom he wrote them; indeed, until Pablo Casals first performed one in 1901, they were thought of as exercises for students rather than masterpieces of baroque music. Nor do we have Bach’s original score. Four manuscripts exist from the 18th century. All contain mistakes and differ in detail from each other. What we can say is that Bach seems to have set himself the greatest challenge he could envisage: how to write counterpoint and harmony when composing for solo cello. He succeeds in writing both. For counterpoint he writes one line but hints at others. For harmony he occasionally gives the cellist chords to play but more often spreads the chords out as arpeggios.
Bach gave himself two further challenges: the cello was hardly considered to be a solo instrument at the time; and he chose to confine himself to the old-fashioned format of a suite of dances. Each Suite starts with a Prelude, always the most complex of the movements, then the dances start:
- Allemande, a German dance from the Renaissance
- Courante, a livelier French dance
- Sarabande, a Spanish dance with a halting rhythm
- A Gallante: a pair of minuets, or bourrées or gavottes
- Gigue, a bouncy British jig.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) Suite No.1 in G major BWV 1007
The Prelude starts as a series of arpeggios. Each is repeated for the length of a bar (illustrated).
In the second bar, while keeping the bottom note on G, he pushes the other two notes of the arpeggio up a tone. The same happens in bars 3 and 4. It’s as though he’s trying out the possibilities within the key of G, trying to find the perfect fit. In bar 5 he starts to change keys, still probing for perfection but never settling. Gradually the momentum builds with wilder and wilder moves until, like a plane breaking through the clouds into sunshine, he pauses on a high D. When he moves off again the action becomes more frenetic, scales now rather than arpeggios, until a final dramatic chord in the home key of G. There has been no tune to go home singing, just tight patterns of running semiquavers, that finally come back to where they started. Interpretations of this Prelude vary hugely. This is not surprising when, throughout the Suites, Bach gives no indication of speed or dynamics. The great recordings of this Prelude include a thoughtful, slow-paced account by Anner Bylsma, and the express train interpretation, at double Bylsma’s speed, of Rostropovich. The music is so strong it can take both these interpretations; they both sound totally convincing.
The Allemande is a running, restless piece in which the player is finally brought to rest by chords, spread out as arpeggios, in the home key of G. The Courante is another fast piece in which the player hardly seems to take a breath, so that when the Sarabande follows the change of pace is astonishing. It is slow, stately, modulating from key to key, weaving gently in and out, a few chords actually played as chords, many more just hinted at. Perfection.
It is in the Minuets that Bach allows himself some fun. The first is light and impish. The second slips into the minor key and immediately sounds more mournful, but the da capo takes us back to the first and we are cheerful again. The good humour continues with the Gigue. It’s a lopsided romp, ending the Suite with a wink and a chuckle.
J.S.Bach Cello Suite No 3 in C major, BWV 1009
The Prelude starts with an emphatic downward scale in C major, as though to say “remember this”, because the music is going to move a long way from C major before it comes home again. Then the magic begins; scales and arpeggios for 45 bars until Bach hits a G and then goes on hitting it for 16 bars. G is the dominant of the key of C major, so we feel we have arrived somewhere, even if it’s not home. But some tension remains as more scales and arpeggios follow, leading to a series of triumphant chords in different keys until finally we return to C major.
The Allemande is playful, even tuneful, while the Courante is rather more serious; the rhythm is relentless. In musical terms the Courante is seeking a return to C major; in human terms it represents the variable nature of life and the possibility of resolution. The Sarabande is another stately piece whose mood depends very much on the player. Play it loud and it’s quite grandiose. Play it soft and a little slower and it’s thoughtful and tender.
No-one who has seen the televised film of Paul Tortelier’s masterclass on the Bourrées can forget how he transformed the playing of a student by asking him to imagine the following scene. In Bourrée I Bach is at home with his large family, happy, a little self-satisfied. In Bourrée 2 he goes upstairs to check on his latest child and worries whether she will survive infancy. For the da capo he tiptoes downstairs but is soon caught up again in the joy of family life. Asked whether he really thought of Bach like that Tortelier said “No, of course not, but sometimes you need a way into the music that you can then discard once you can experience the music for itself”.
Finally, the Gigue rollicks along as jigs should.
Domenico Gabrielli (1651-1690) Ricercare Nos 7 & 5 (1689)
Not to be confused with the single-l, Venetian uncle and nephew Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli who lived a century earlier, the Bolognese Domenico Gabrielli was both a composer and a cello virtuoso. Born a generation before J.S.Bach, he was a pupil of Legrenzi in Florence but his instrumental works are similar in style to those of his contemporary, the better-known violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli. Gabrielli’s cello writing exploits the resonant qualities of the instrument and its virtuosic potential with rapid passage work and double-stopping. As well as writing instrumental music such as this set of Ricercare, in his early twenties Gabrielli turned to opera, producing a dozen before his death aged 30.
J.S.Bach Cello Suite No 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Here we are in new territory. It is the first of the Suites played today to be in a minor key. In addition it requires the cellist to tune his top string down from A to G. This was a well-known device in baroque times. It gives the instrument more sonority and allows the composer to write chords that would otherwise be unplayable.
The Prelude is at first thoughtful, even gloomy but after 26 bars it suddenly changes to three in a bar and to a mood that is much more lively. It’s fugal, though not actually a fugue. It’s as though two cellos are pushing and shoving at each other to claim the limelight. When one takes over it’s by repeating the opening theme of this section (illustrated) before going off on a riff of its own.
The Allemande is serious and unsettling; the Courante tries to cheer up but is held back by the minor key. And those who know what the Sarabande has in store for us round the corner find it hard not to see the previous two movements as preparation for one of the most sublime pieces in all music. It’s the simplest movement in all six Suites. Hauntingly beautiful, achingly sad; time seems to stop while it’s played and for a while after. Gavotte 1 is lively and rather dramatic. Gavotte 2 is totally unrelated; it’s a sinuous rush of triplets, so restless it’s a relief to get back to Gavotte 1 for the da capo. Finally the Gigue skips along but the minor key gives it a slightly darker feel. Play it slower and an underlying yearning emerges.
Programme notes by Andrew Polmear (Bach) and Chris Darwin (Gabrielli)