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Elizabeth King’s writes about the Bach Cello Suites

Notes on the Bach Suites
– By Elizabeth King

Despite their fame and popularity, the six suites on tonight’s program have a foggy origin. They were written sometime between 1717 and 1723 during Bach’s service to Prince Leopold in Cöthen. At this period of the Baroque, the cello would have been a highly unusual choice of instrumentation for solo pieces, its role most often relegated to accompanying. So whether these suites originated for another stringed instrument or as we hear them today is unclear. They could have been written for the 5 string viola pomposa, or the miniature violoncello da spalla (both played on the shoulder like a violin). More appropriate to the Baroque period, they probably were written without a single instrument in mind – just whatever instrument was convenient.

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During the 19th century, these pieces fell out of the repertoire, and were mostly relegated to the non-serious status of etudes or student pieces. In 1890, a thirteen-year-old Pablo Casals discovered an edition in a music shop in Barcelona. He became the first modern-era cellist of stature to popularize them as concert pieces, and audiences everywhere since have been glad of it.

The opening of Bach’s first cello suite reassures us that everything is okay. (What a terrific way to begin two hours!) In the classical tradition, composers mostly relied on a specific harmonic formula to create structure across a musical piece: a statement of the tonic key, a migration to the dominant key, and a return to the tonic key. As a result, a movement lasting many minutes feels satisfying and complete. In the Prelude of the G major Suite, Bach makes the full circle in the first eight phrases in approximately twenty seconds – a grand journey in miniature. All at once, we are given both the dramatic introduction and the happy ending. Where can it go from here?

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As the suites unfold from one to the next, some common themes emerge. Each follows the same pattern of movements of a Baroque dance suite (with slight variation in the fifth movement), which would have been familiar to audiences at the time: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, menuet/gavotte/bourree, and gigue. Listening to each as a complete piece, we can of course expect changes in energy from one movement to the next. Yet whether fast or slow, flashy or simple, the music is underpinned by a sense of continuous motion. Baroque scholars refer to “counterpoint” as the way various lines fit together. The cello suites are a perfect example – as the solo instrument moves across its range, the bottom lines often form one trajectory while the top lines form another. Think how you would feel if the cellist stopped midstream and wandered off…

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What is particularly interesting is the way that the continuous motion flows. Some lines in some moments sound as if they are moving towards a goal; some lines in some moments sound like meditative rest. And at times, both somehow manage to happen at once. Consider an unusual sports team approaching a game’s end, where some of the players are assigned to move across a field directly and some are assigned a scenic route, scoring points for the arrival as well as the journey. In each of the cello suites, Bach delivers us both.

Without interfering with the underlying energies, larger structural patterns emerge to help us make sense of the whole. Often small patterns repeat on subsequent notes to form phrases; phrases piece together to mark sections; sections help to assemble movements. Again, all at once, both micro and macro are allowed to emerge. All in, listeners have a lot to keep them busy.

To close the set, Bach uses the gigue of the sixth suite to celebrate everywhere he’s been – like finishing a marathon with a dance move. My recommendation is this: find a spirited recording of the pieces (by Yo-Yo Ma or Zuill Bailey or James Wilson, for example) and pop it in the car stereo about four minutes from home. See how you feel when you arrive.

What do you hear?
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