J.S. Bach’s Six Cello Suites have been studied, performed, and recorded by countless musicians (including classical guitarists). They have become a fixture of the classical music repertoire. The Cello Suites have even made their way into contemporary mainstream culture via television performances, movies, videos, and radio. Most people have at least heard the opening notes of the Prelude to the first Cello Suite. As a result, their place in musical history appears to be exceedingly secure.
However, although the Cello Suites were composed approximately three centuries ago, there is much that is not known about this iconic composition.
First of all, the original manuscript is lost. Because of this development, we are left with many questions concerning the composition of the Cello Suites. We don’t know the exact date that they were composed, or what tempo, dynamics, or even instrumentation Bach intended for each movement. In other words, the Cello Suites could have been originally written for another string instrument! (see this fascinating article: http://www.pauldwyer.net/blog/so-what-instrument-were-these-cello-suites-written-for).
The earliest surviving manuscript of the Cello Suites was penned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach between 1727 and 1731, and is the source for most of what we know about the Cello Suites today. Interestingly, this manuscript was not written for a cellist. Instead, it was intended for violinist Georg Heinrich Ludwig Schwanenberger. Three other early manuscripts survive: one by J. Peter Kellner from the early-mid 1700’s, another by two unknown authors from the mid 1700’s, and yet another by an unknown author from the late 1700’s (all of these manuscripts can be viewed here: https://www.jsbachcellosuites.com/score.html#9WJNcwhn).
Most of the Cello Suites were written around 1720, while Bach worked as Kapellmeister (Court Music Director) for Prince Leopold in Cöthen. During his time in Cöthen, Bach mainly wrote instrumental music for soloists or ensembles, and this output included six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the six Cello Suites, and a Partita for solo Flute. Although nowadays pieces of music written for solo instruments are relatively common, in Bach’s time, it was quite unusual for music to be written for a solo instrument. This convention especially applied to a lower-pitched instrument such as the cello, which had previously been viewed as an accompaniment instrument. While Bach was not the first composer to write music for a solo instrument, his contribution to the cello repertoire was highly unusual at the time, and ultimately transformed the public’s perception of the capabilities and limitations of the cello. One of the most remarkable aspects of Bach’s compositions for solo instruments is that they tend to sound as if they are played by more than one instrument. Despite the cello’s inability to play full chords, Bach makes clever use of double stops, arpeggios, and alternating musical registers to create the illusion of harmony. The listener mentally “fills in” the remaining harmony notes without realizing that they are missing. As a result, the Cello Suites sound full and deeply resonant, even though they are played by a single instrument.
Bach used the dance suite form for the Cello Suites, and each Suite consists of six movements. Every suite begins with a Prelude, which tends to be dramatic, improvisatory, and full of character. This is followed by the Allemande, an elegant dance movement that was popularly performed but not often danced to during Bach’s time. After the Allemande comes the Courante, an upbeat dance of which there are two main types: the French Courante or the Italian Corrente. Bach usually used the Italian version in the Cello suites. The fourth movement consists of a Sarabande, which was originally a passionate and sultry Iberian dance, but by Bach’s time mellowed to a slow, longing character that was influenced by its use in French courts. The fifth movement is either a Minuet, Gavotte, or Bourrée, all of which possess a memorable, melodic, and generally joyful aesthetic. Lastly, all of the suites conclude with a Gigue, an animated and up-tempo dance movement with a big personality.
Bach (or his Cello Suites) were never famous in his lifetime. Before Pablo Casals’ groundbreaking recording of the Cello Suites in 1938, the Cello Suites were viewed as musically dry pedagogical studies. In fact, if Casals had not stumbled upon this work at a music shop in Barcelona as a teenager, the Cello Suites might still be shrouded in the dimly lit hall of musical obscurity. In the decades following Casals’ recording, multitudes of incredible cellists, violinists, violists, classical guitarists, and other instrumentalists have performed, recorded, and spread the word about the inimitable beauty and staying power of Bach’s Cello Suites.
Some cool resources: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bach/music/cello-suites/, http://theconversation.com/decoding-the-music-masterpieces-bachs-six-solo-cello-suites-83797, https://www.amazon.com/Cello-Suites-Casals-Baroque-Masterpiece/dp/0802145248, https://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603,