Sergei Istomin has performed solo and chamber music recitals in many European and North American Festivals (Aix-en-Provence, Beaune, Brugge, Nantes, Lockenhaus, Schleswig-Holstein, Sopron, Wallonie, San [...]
J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello
They spoke about it
Bach’s Six Suites a Violoncello Solo senza Basso were composed during his stay in Cöthen (1717-1723) and form part of the body of instrumental music written during these years, which includes the
Sonatas for flute with obbligato harpsichord, theSonatas for gamba with obbligato harpsichord the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Orchestral Overtures, the Inventions and Sinfonias.
That Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was chosen as Kapellmeister of the Cöthen court orchestra is somewhat of a mystery, for, until then, he was known essentially as a composer of cantatas and keyboard music, as well as a great improviser at the organ. Considering the circumstances, however, it is not surprising that his production turned almost entirely toward instrumental music while he was in Cöthen.
The Calvinist court there did not encourage musical manifestations of faith, but chamber music was much in demand. Upon ascending the Prussian throne in 1713, Friedrich Wilhelm I “The Soldier King,” who had no artistic interest save for the art of war, all but dismissed the court orchestra at Berlin. In nearby Cöthen, the young Prince Leopold took advantage of this to expand his own court orchestra—whose foundation had been laid by his father in 1691—until Bach’s arrival in 1717.
When Johann Sebastian Bach became the prince’s Kapellmeister he was at the helm of some fifteen instrumentalists, an orchestra which could rival those of more important courts as it counted among its first desks some of Germany’s best musicians. Cöthen’s Prince Leopold—who Forkel tells us possessed “excellent judgment in musical matters”—also played a role in determining Bach’s artistic choices. The prince had studied in Berlin and frequented its musical milieu. He had also traveled through the Netherlands, England, and Italy as a kind of musical dilettante. Known as a competent gamba player, he often participated in his orchestra’s activities. Although sources documenting the Cöthen period are rare, it seems that Bach’s tenure there, at least until his first wife’s death in July 1720, had been almost idyllic.
Indeed, the Kapellmeister’s friendship with the music-loving prince transcended the traditional relationship between a servant and his master, and Bach exhibited extraordinary originality in all the instrumental genres he tackled.
The musical ancestry of the Cello Suites is ambiguous. While it has often been noted that the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin share common traits with the earlier solo-violin works of Biber, Johann Paul von Westhoff and Johann Jakob Walther, no such clear relationships exist for the Cello Suites. There were some solo cello works written in the late-seventeenth century—Domenico Gabrielli’s Ricercari (ca. 1675), Domenico Galli’s Trattenimento (1691) and Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii’s Ricercate (1687)—but Bach seems to have looked instead towards the celebrated French gambistes as stylistic models for his Suites.
To the four traditional dances of the suite—Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue—Bach added a few “optional” dances. These include the “Menuet” (Suites I and II), the “Bourrée” (Suites III and IV) and the “Gavotte” (Suites V and VI). Both French and Italian influences are present. For example, most of the dances indicated as “courantes” are actually Italian corrente (typically notated in 3/4). The sole exception is the “courante” of the fifth Suite in (3/2), whose grave and majestic tones are truly French in style. Also in the fifth Suite we find a French gigue, whose rhythmic impulse has little in common with the Italian giga found in all the other suites. As for the allemande—”the image,” writes Mattheson, “of a contented and satisfied spirit who enjoys calm and order”—it displays a more learned style.
While it still owes much to the art of improvisation, the counterpoint is more intricate than in all the other dance movements. Unfortunately there is not a definitive score for the Suites. Not only did Bach leave no autograph, but the four existing manuscripts—one in the handwriting of Anna Magdalena, one in that of Johann Peter Kellner, and two anonymous manuscripts from the second half of the 18th century—rarely agree in matters of articulation. We also don’t know if the Suites were composed for a specific musician—thecourt orchestra’s cellist Christian Bernhard Lünecke, for example. Nor do we know if they were written as “companion pieces” to the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, if they were essentially didactic in intent as were the Inventions and Sinfonias, or if they were born, as the poignancy of their interior monologue suggests, out of a need for intimate expression. Consensus is more easily reached in acknowledging the artistic stature of this music. Here we quote the noted cellist Pablo Casals, for whom Bach “cannot write a note, as insignificant as it may seem, without this note being transcendental.”
© Alex Benjamin, 1997, rev. 2004