The achievements of Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) as a solo performer on the double bass tower above those of any other player before or since. In fact it’s hard to think of any other field of human endeavour where one person has gone so far beyond everybody else.
For nearly fifty years he astonished and delighted audiences on four continents at a time when most people never left their immediate locality.
My new biography The Paganini of the Double Bass: Bottesini in Britain tells the complete life story of this remarkable man. He visited Britain over twenty times and performed in around 800 concerts including thirteen lengthy national tours. His many appearances in London throughout the Victorian era took place in a changing musical scene, as rival opera companies went to war, and concert promoters experimented with different ways of presenting music to the public.
Bottesini, almost uniquely, was an outstanding success both at the most serious philharmonic concerts and at the rowdiest popular events. He was particularly associated with the Proms. He appeared over 200 times between 1851 and 1887, and even shared conducting duties with Johann Strauss II for the 1867 season, but he did not quite live long enough to see the era of Henry Wood.
Although my book covers Bottesini’s career in Britain in most detail, it describes his entire life:
how his company in Havana raised the standards of opera in America in the late 1840s
how he had major conducting positions in Mexico, Paris, Barcelona, Cairo and Buenos Aires
the story behind how he came to conduct the world premiere of Aida
how the operas he composed met with success but never became established in the repertoire
his pioneering role in introducing symphonies and chamber music to Italy
how his constant gambling and inability to manage his finances forced him to keep going back on the road with his double bass
his up-and-down relationships with Verdi, Rossini and the powerful publishing house of Ricordi
his two wives, hardly mentioned in any previous study
The inclusion of around 20 letters to his closest friend, most of them not in any previous study of Bottesini, allows us to see the great double bass player’s life from his own perspective — his domestic quarrels, his financial pressures and his professional rivalries.
Available from Amazon
Based on almost 10000 references in contemporary periodicals, mainly in the UK, but also Italy, Germany, France, USA, Cuba, etc
Many inaccurate dates and places from previous studies have been corrected
All UK appearances listed
Three major interviews with Bottesini from UK newspapers
Over 70 contemporary reviews
Many adverts and documents from the era
The first ever chronological listing of his music for double bass sheds light on the development of his techniques
Detailed index of all people, places and works mentioned
As powerful a sensation on the audience as ever we remember to have witnessed in any theatre by any performer
Every night at the Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms season, a bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood, the legendary founder of this national institution, gazes down benevolently on his creation. On the final night each year, a chosen few of the Promenaders lay a wreath around the great man’s neck to commemorate his gift to the musical life of the nation. It’s a very un-British personality cult and it’s hard to think of anything else in our cultural life that quite matches it.
Sir Henry was undoubtedly an important figure in British music. He was the sole conductor of the Proms from 1895 until he took an assistant shortly before his death in 1944. At that point the season’s official title was renamed the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts by the BBC, who had been financing and broadcasting the concerts since the 1920s and took over their direction from that time on. During his time in charge, Wood is credited with taking the Proms from being a barely-rehearsed season of popular concerts to a highly-regarded series in which many important works from home and abroad were presented for the first time, always at the highest standards, thanks to the additional rehearsal time made possible by the BBC’s support.
According to the accepted version, the first lessor of the Queen’s Hall, Robert Newman, had the idea for a series of concerts, at affordable prices for a mass audience, with a proportion of the audience able to promenade in a designated space without seats. Newman hired Henry Wood as the conductor for these “promenade concerts”, and summarised his idea to Wood:
“I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music”.
But a review from their first Prom in 1895 makes it clear that at the time the pair were not considered to be founding anything. They were merely continuing a well-established series of concerts that had run for many years.
‘We are again to have the promenade concerts, but this season they are being held at the Queen’s Hall, Langham-place, under the conductorship of Mr. Henry J. Wood. If the initial programme on Saturday is to be taken as a specimen the series promises to be as popular as in past years.’ (Westminster Gazette, 1895)
In fact it turns out that it wasn’t even the first season of the Proms that Newman had presented. There had been no season in 1894, but in 1893 he had, as a partner of the impresario Farley Sinkins, co-promoted the final season of Promenade Concerts that took place at Covent Garden in August and September of most years from 1840 onwards.
That 1893 season contained all the elements that Henry Wood is supposed to have introduced to the Proms. Along with the evenings of more popular repertoire, there were whole concerts devoted to serious classical works, including several Wagner nights. Among the ‘novelties’ there was the (unstaged) British première of Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson & Delilah, and guest artists included the great Belgian violinist Ysaye.
The conductor for the season was Frederick Cowen. He is a forgotten name today but at the time he was one of Britain’s most celebrated musicians. His third symphony, the Scandinavian, was the most widely performed British symphony before Elgar’s appeared. A few years before, he had replaced Sir Arthur Sullivan as the conductor of the Philharmonic Society of London, but had been removed from his post in 1892 because he apologised to the audience before a performance of Beethoven 6 for the insufficient rehearsal allocated to it.
Standards at the 1893 Proms were high and attendances were good. Tickets were affordable, although prices were doubled for the comeback of veteran operatic superstar tenor Sims Reeves (1821-1900) who thrilled the audience with songs like Come Into The Garden, Maud and (pre-empting another of Sir Henry Wood’s traditions) Tom Bowling. Reeves made yet another comeback at the Proms in 1895.
Sadly the season made a loss. In early 1894 Newman was pursued through the courts by the Capital & Counties Bank for his share of the liabilities to a bounced cheque for £440 written by his partner Farley Sinkins. Despite his name appearing on adverts for the concerts, Newman claimed in court that he had nothing to do with them, that it was not ‘in the scope of their business that they should run Promenade Concerts’ and that he never agreed to become liable in any way for their expenses. Under cross-examination he went so far as to assert that he ‘disapproved of the Promenade Concerts’.
The jury found in his favour, presumably believing what he had said. They must have been surprised the following year when he promoted a series of Promenade Concerts similar in every respect to the one he disapproved of, albeit using a smaller venue and a cheaper conductor.
They would have been even more surprised to learn that in future years this young conductor would come to be venerated and credited with initiating all the traditions of the Promenade Concerts, when in fact they had been developing throughout the previous half century.
A jig is a lively dance in compound time and it should be full of energy. Here’s a video from YouTube of a couple dancing a baroque Gigue.
For the Gigue in Bach’s Cello Suite in G (it actually looks more like Gique in all the sources), the great composer gives us a dazzling display of descending and ascending sequences – some repeating after half a bar, some after a whole bar. (It is very effective if you make clear which is which by only accenting the middle of the bar when it’s a half bar sequence.) After the first repeat sign we even get nested sequences where a descending half bar sequence gets repeated a tone higher two bars later!
I interpret the bowing in the manuscripts to mean that you should slur pairs of notes when they are adjacent (i.e. a 2nd apart). This usually means the second and third quavers of each half bar (bars 1, 5-6, 13, 15, 17-18, 21-23). In the rising sequences it’s always the first two quavers that are adjacent and in fact some of them (bars 9-10 & 25-26) are backward versions of some of the falling sequences. Slurring the first two quavers of each half bar brings this feature out and provides rhythmic contrast. The semiquavers are always slurred. In bars 2 & 7 all the sources agree that the quavers have staccato dots (a rare marking) so those bars need to be bowed out.
I would not recommend ever slurring three quavers together as indicated throughout the Gigue by Wenzinger in the 1950 Bärenreiter edition. It will lack energy and won’t sound like Bach if you smooth everything out like that. I suppose it’s fair to say that the slurs are a bit ambiguous in some of the manuscripts, but in others they are very clearly marked over only two notes. (The first printed edition interpreted the slurs very imaginatively as a tie over the third and fourth quavers throughout the first half of the dance. This gives it all a syncopated feel that is very funky but unlikely to be what Bach intended!)
Structurally the Gigue follows the same pattern as all the movements of this Suite from the Courante on. It has its own special cadence (see the Overview for details)
in D major at the halfway point,
in E minor midway through the second half
in G major almost at the end (bars 26-28).
There are various ways of bowing this cadence but using the same one in all three places will help the audience to recognise these punctuation points.
Before completing the descending arpeggio of the final cadence, Bach inserts an additional codetta, a sequence that repeats initially by the whole bar but eventually by the half bar. This doubling of the pulse as you approach the finishing line serves to propel the music forward towards its thrilling conclusion.
Technical tip for bass players – Using the 4th finger
Bar 32 is very difficult for the left hand. Like most players I can’t stretch major 6ths with 1-3, so using standard technique I always had to shift up for the E and then immediately back for the D which was not ideal. It never sounded clean when playing up to speed. But I discovered I can stretch it using a 4 on the E. Using the 4th finger is an unusual thing to do in thumb position but I find it works if you are playing across two strings. It helps further if I also play the harmonic D in bar 32 with a 4, as that allows me to get my hand into position earlier. I have subsequently used 4 for lots of the spread chords in the Second Cello Suite in D minor. (See page 50 of my book on thumb position for more about using the 4th finger in thumb position.)
I have also experimented with playing the semiquavers in bar 22 with 2-3-4 but it didn’t help as my articulation was not good enough with those fingers. Perhaps you can do better?
The menuet or minuet is a stately dance of French origin in triple time. Anybody who has ever played a classical symphony will have come across a minuet before, as almost all symphonies before Beethoven have one as the third movement. I would have liked to include here a video on YouTube of somebody dancing a minuet, but I couldn’t find one that was convincing. Some of them don’t even seem to be dancing in triple time. I did learn that it was considered quite a complicated dance, so your dancers would not thank you if you played it too fast.
The two Menuets in Bach’s G major Cello Suite are the perfect pieces for the double bass player who has learnt the fundamentals of thumb position. Using only the three basic hand shapes, it’s possible to play almost all of them without shifting away from thumb on the half string harmonic. (See my book on thumb position for everything you need to know from the basics right through to the most advanced techniques.)
In fact you can play the whole first half of the first Menuet using only diatonic hand shape and a couple of D harmonics. This is an excellent way to start approaching the piece, although eventually you will probably want to use a more sophisticated fingering. (See the Overview for some suggestions.)
As far as bowings are concerned, there is hardly a bar in Menuet I where all four manuscript sources agree, so there is no single correct bowing for this movement. I use four bows in most bars, splitting one of the three beats. That way there is a down bow on the first beat of each bar and the strong-weak-weak feel of the dance comes across. I particularly like separating the quaver from the pair of semiquavers whenever they occur, as is marked in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript.
The second Menuet is the only movement in the Suite that is not in G major. Bach switches to G minor, but uses an archaic form of the key signature with just a single B flat. Most of the time the E flats are written in as accidentals, but there is ambiguity in the sources over the low Es at the end of bar 3 and 7. Some have them clearly marked as flats but some don’t. That suggests they might be E naturals which gives a distinctly modal flavour. Anna Magdalena marks nothing before the bottom E in bar 3 and then a definite natural sign before the one in bar 7 but that just creates even more uncertainty!
There is less doubt about the bowing for this movement. The first three notes should be slurred and the same thing should happen whenever this falling and rising motif occurs (quavers 1-3 of bars 1, 3, 5 & 7, quavers 2-4 of bars 10 & 12 and quavers 3-5 of bars 13 & 14).
By the time the motif starts on the third quaver in bar 13, it is in the same place as in the opening of the Prelude, and in fact that is the start of a succession of quotes from other movements in the Suite. Bar 15-16 imitates the major key cadences that end both halves of the Sarabande. Bar 17 quotes from the E minor section in the middle of the first Menuet, but the diminished 7th chord resolves into bar 18 the same way as bar 11 resolves into bar 12 in the Prelude. This two bar phrase is repeated twice more in sequence before the movement ends with the cadence that is used in the Allemande, the Courante, Menuet I and the Gigue. Bach has constructed the entire 12 bar passage by quoting from all six other movements. It is genius.
It’s important to find a good speed in the first bar of this movement so that all the semiquavers later on don’t sound rushed. We are aiming for a feeling of serenity throughout the piece. Although the lower notes of the second spread chord are notated as minims, I don’t believe it is necessary to slur into the final quaver of the bar. This slur is not marked in any of the manuscripts and changing bow gives more space for the music to breathe.
One has to plan how to spread every three note chord in the piece. Is it best to play a single bass note followed by a double stop? Or two double stops that both include the middle note? Or maybe a double stop of the bottom two notes followed by the top note alone? You could even play the three notes one at a time. It’s something to think about because it won’t necessarily sound best to play them all the same way, especially on the double bass where you are having to contend with rapid changes of string length that require marked differences of speed and weight of the bow. However you spread the chords, it is good to enjoy the lower notes.
The three crotchet (quarter note) beats of a sarabande have the pattern weak-strong-nothing as can be seen in this video.
Bach adheres strictly to this scheme in the Sarabande in the G major suite. Apart from the three cadences the harmony never changes on the third beat of the bar. It’s possible to bow almost all the movement splitting the first beat so that you have down bows on beats one and two of each bar and up bows everywhere else. This tallies pretty closely with the manuscript sources. (In the first bar where the first beat is only one note, you just need to decide whether you want to start down-down, or to begin on an up bow.)
Even though the movement only lasts 16 bars, Bach still finds room for three cadences each lasting two bars in the same places as in all the movements of this Suite from the Courante on;
in the dominant at the end of the first half,
in the relative minor midway through the second half,
in the tonic at the end.
The harmony changes more often in the cadences and you need two bows to each crotchet (quarter note). You can decide how much you want to bring out the hemiola feel by contrasting the strength of the last beat of bars 7, 11 & 15 with the first beat of 8, 12 & 16.
The pattern of the cadences isn’t the only way Bach’s harmony in the Sarabande quotes from other movements. The first two bars follow the same I-IV-V-I harmony as the first four bars of the Prelude. Bach drives home the point by going round the sequence again, coming back to IV, V and I on the strong second beats of bars 3, 4 and 5. So in my interpretation, the first half of the movement has rest points midway through bars 2 and 5 while the second half splits more conventionally into two halves which are each four bars long.
People who are used to playing music written in later periods might think it’s necessary to join the trills on to the notes that follow. Trills in the classical era are always followed by a resolution but in this sort of music the trills are resting points, and the notes that come after are always upbeats into a new phrase. In fact, apart from the decoration in bar 3, I think it’s best never to slur the strong second beat into any other notes.
Technical tips – the Zig Zag
In this movement, you will often find you have a semiquaver down bow on the first beat of a bar with longer up bows on either side. You need to zigzag through the bow, with the semiquaver taking up a small amount of bow in the middle.
It’s not a complicated thing to do, but for some reason many players get into problems by trying to get back to one of the ends of the bow. If you do this, the semiquaver gets too much bow. Mastering this style of bowing is essential for playing dotted rhythms in baroque music because hooked bowings are no longer thought stylish. Practise it by playing a repeated sicilienne rhythm.
Courante literally means “running” or “flowing”, like the current of a river. A baroque courante is always in triple time, but can be in the French style – slower, more expressive and usually in 3/2 – or, as here, in the Italian style which is much quicker. This should be the fastest movement of the suite before the final Gigue.
Unfortunately the videos I have seen online of people dancing a courante are all either in the French style or in duple time.
Around half the bars of this movement end with a little scale of 3 or 4 semiquavers and it’s good to bow them in a way that offers a consistent interpretation. Anna Magdalena Bach offers two different bowings in the first line of her manuscript. In bar 1 she slurs all the six semiquavers together, but in bars 3 & 4 she changes bow on the beat (presumably taking another down bow on the first pair of semiquavers):
All editors since have chosen to use Anna Magdalena’s first bowing throughout the Courante, but I think it gives the music more pulse to use the second bowing, especially when the musical line changes direction as it does in bars 1 & 3. (The preference is less clear-cut when the six semiquavers all ascend, like in bar 4, or all descend, as in bar 8.)
So throughout the movement I make sure the little scales of four semiquavers on the third beat always come on an up bow. And I do the same when they come in the cadence figure that I described in the Overview. From the Courante on, all the movements have similar harmonic structures with cadences
In the dominant at the first double bar
In the relative minor halfway through the second half
In the tonic at the end
In fact, in the Courante the final cadence in the tonic comes twice with a six bar codetta separating the two appearances.
One particularly attention-grabbing harmonic detail during the E minor section is Bach’s use of Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened 2nd, F natural) in bars 25-26. The long D# (the longest note in the movement other than those that end the cadences) creates suspense that leaves the listener wondering what might happen next.
The other bowing that features throughout the movement is the 3 slurred, 1 separate pattern that first comes in bar 11. All the manuscripts have this. The slur of the last 3 notes of the bar to get back to the heel is only seen sporadically in the sources but I still think it might be a good idea.
In bars 31-32 Bach suddenly introduces music based on the Prelude. It’s nice to bring that out by bowing these bars in a way that matches whatever you did in that movement. (This might be compromised if you’re playing on the bass because of the string crossings. The best way I have found of playing these bars is to have your 3rd finger on the half string harmonic and play the top A with thumb on the D string harmonic.)
The main difficulty with the Courante is getting it up to speed. In the Overview I suggest some crabbing fingerings that will improve fluency by removing the shifts within semiquaver runs. But like with all fast music, the main thing is not to try and play it too fast too soon. If you practise at a speed where you can play it all accurately, you will reinforce the right pathways in your brain, develop myelin around those pathways while you sleep, and find that you can take the tempo up a notch the next time you practise.
Allemande literally means “German”. A baroque Allemande is a stately dance in duple time.
It’s quite hard to get the speed of this movement right. The preceding Prelude has four beats to the bar, but this Allemande is definitely in 2/2. There must never be heavy beats on the second and fourth crotchets of the bar. In all recordings I have ever heard of the suite, the Allemande is by far the longest movement (sometimes over twice the length of the others!), but watching the video of people dancing makes me wonder whether it could be played much faster to make the length more comparable to the other movements. It’s true that an allemande is a slow dance, but Bach has already limited the speed by subdividing each beat into eight; you don’t have to slow down the semiquavers themselves.
This movement modulates to more distant keys than the other dance movements in the suite which all follow a similar harmonic structure. I don’t mind admitting that I have always found this the most elusive movement in the suite to understand, but after nearly forty years I think it is finally starting to reveal its secrets.
After the first spread chord, Bach states a four note motif A-G-F#-G. It’s based on the falling and rising 2nd that comes at the start of the Prelude, but in this movement it nearly always has the additional note attached (as it has when it occurs near the start of the second half of the Prelude). To prove it was no accident, Bach hides the motif at the same pitch in bar 3, and again twice more in bar 5. (The end of bar 4 has it transposed up a 2nd).
Most of the second half of the Allemande is constructed from this motif. I count no less than eighteen appearances between bars 18 and 28. And because you can make it sound stylish by playing it separate, by slurring the first three notes, or by slurring the last three notes, it gives you a mind boggling number of choices. It doesn’t sound good if you slur all four notes together. (The 1950 Bärenreiter edition continually opts for slurring one bow to a beat but this bears no relation to any of the original sources. I feel it blurs the harmony and is not the sort of interpretation I am searching for.)
Most of the manuscripts slur A-G-F# in the opening statement of the motif, but I like Kellner’s version where the motif is played separate and then there is a slur over the rising scale that fills the rest of the bar. It helps the motif to stand out. Slurring G-F#-G in the midst of separate notes in bars 3 & 5 has the same effect in reverse. The cheeky slur across the beat in bar 3 is almost the only example where that happens in the sources. Syncopations are not usually a feature of allemandes.
I used to think that there wasn’t much thematic material shared between the Allemande and the other movements in the G major suite, but now I think that bar 8 and subsequent bars are based on the bariolage music in the Prelude. All of a sudden the falling thirds that come in the middle of bars 8 and 9, and a beat later in bars 10-12, become the foreground, rather than the filler they seemed to be previously.
And now I realise the falling thirds come twice in the Sarabande and again in bars 18 & 20 of Menuet I:
Another passage from the Allemande that crops up elsewhere is the end of bar 21 into bar 22 which reappears without alteration in bar 14 of the Sarabande. In fact, by the time you take into account that bar 15 is the first appearance of the cadence I described in the Overview, and bars 26-28 are rhythmically reminiscent of the Courante, it’s clear that the Allemande is just as tightly weaved into the rest of the suite as any of the other movements.
I don’t think I have any particular technical tips to offer to double bass players learning this movement, other than to say you should get to grips with all the other movements first. Once you have tackled the challenges in those pieces, the Allemande doesn’t present much that’s new technically for the left hand, but the demands on your bow control and your interpretative insights make it the hardest movement to play.
The Prelude begins with what is perhaps the most famous phrase in the cello repertoire. Everybody knows this opening. So why do I suggest that people should slur it differently?
Well, firstly it’s very common to hear it played with long slurs, 4 or 8 notes to a bow. People have been playing it like that ever since Casals first reintroduced these suites to the performing repertoire. These are the smooth performances that I referred to in the Overview, and of course they sound beautiful. Performances like these have made people fall in love with this piece so they can’t be wrong.
But I don’t believe it’s what Bach wrote or intended. None of the original sources have these long slurs. They have one shortslur.
As you can see, it’s not clear exactly where this short slur goes, but nowadays many cellists slur the first three notes as indicated in Wenzinger’s 1950 Bärenreiter edition. (If you slur two or four notes it means that every other phrase will come upside down.) And you can make a nice consistent interpretation of the first half of the movement where you slur the first three notes whenever they occur as a rising arpeggio. In this way, the rising arpeggio becomes the foreground and the rest of the bar becomes the background.
But I like a different solution. Look again at the first source above, Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript. The slur is on the other motif in the bar, the falling and rising 2nd. If you slur the third, fourth and fifth notes of the bar, this motif becomes the foreground. And once again you can make a consistent interpretation throughout the first half of the movement, but now it makes more sense in bar 11, and more importantly you are setting up this motif for the important rôle it plays in the rest of the suite.
I realise I don’t have much evidence for this point of view. After the first bar Anna Magdalena only starts the slur on the third note in one other bar (bar 11) and all the other sources start the slur from the first or second note. But when I started playing it this way, it suddenly sounded more natural than ever before. You can hear how it sounds in my video performance.
The second half of the Prelude is almost a separate piece with very few slurs apart from the falling scales. (Once again, you sometimes hear smooth performances where all the open strings are slurred in during the bariolage in bars 31-38, but that’s not in any of the sources.)
Technical tips for bass players – Contact point
In the opening, you need to get every note to sound with a good tone. The string length changes hugely between the open G string and the top notes. You have to find the right contact point for the bow on the string, playing the open string near the end of the fingerboard and then moving to the bridge for the top notes. The open string needs much less bow than the notes around it, so you have to zig-zag the bow through it. (See my post on the Sarabande for more on this technique.)
In the bariolage it’s a challenge playing all the recurring As and Ds on the bass because for us they are harmonics, not open strings. I like to keep the string crossings in, so I start in bar 31 by simultaneously playing a harmonic A and a stopped D with the thumb at the neck. (See page 45 of my book on thumb position.) A couple of bars later you have to switch to the other harmonic A, a bit like suddenly moving from swinging on one trapeze to catch another. It’s tricky but fun to do.
Alternatively, you could do what Stanley Clarke does in his wonderful performance on YouTube. He chooses to play an open D string instead of all the As and Ds. It has the same musical meaning and is much easier to execute.
I do something similar at the end of the Prelude to avoid leaping back and forth too much. In bar 38, when the notes get too far from the harmonic D I used to play it with my chin, but now I prefer to just let the open D string sound instead and I continue doing that until the end of the movement.
Like many musicians, I have found myself drawn to playing a lot of solo Bach during these last few weird months when musicians have been unable to play together because of the coronavirus pandemic. We are fortunate to possess these masterpieces that allow you to enjoy a wholly satisfying musical experience in isolation. For me, it’s been an opportunity to return yet again to a piece I’ve been working on since my youth.
In this series of posts I’m going to give my thoughts on playing Bach’s G major Cello Suite. Now as I’m a double bass player some may think it presumptuous for me to try to tell people how to play music written for another instrument, but in my defence I would say that I’ve been trying to play this piece for nearly forty years. At Trinity Laban Conservatoire, where I’m a professor of double bass, students are required to present some unaccompanied Bach for one of their end of year exams and I always make my students learn a Bach suite at the original pitch. It’s a wonderful way to enrich your soul while stretching your technique.
For cellists, Bach’s 1st Suite is technically fairly straightforward – you can play the majority of it in first position – but for double bass players it’s a serious challenge to play these pieces at the original pitch. I’ve had to develop new techniques to play them as cleanly as I want – crabbing, new hand shapes, using my 4th finger in thumb position, etc – and my book on thumb position is full of excerpts from Bach to illustrate these unusual ways of playing. Luckily we have an open G string and harmonics on D and A to play the role of the cello open strings. If you have a C string extension it can provide a harmonic at the pitch of the cello’s bottom string. These possibilities make life easier for the left hand, but using them causes sudden changes in string length for which you need skillful bow control.
As a result, I’ve had to engage with Bach’s music very thoroughly, and I would like to think it’s given me a few insights that might have escaped the notice of someone who can more or less sightread the first suite. I also think it helps that in my day job as an orchestral bass player I have played Bach’s other masterpieces many, many times. Playing the concertos, suites and in particular the great choral works gives you a strong instinct for Bach’s style. You know that vocalists must be getting the phrasing right, because the words show them how it needs to be done.
The performances of the solo suites you most frequently hear are by full time solo cellists. These interpretations invariably sound beautiful, but they don’t play Bach the way I am used to hearing it. I suppose it’s possible that some solo cellists never play any of his other works. Very often they slur lots of notes together, producing something that’s very smooth on the ear. It’s takes great mastery of your instrument to achieve this and it’s ideal for playing melodies by Rachmaninov, Brahms or Beethoven, but I think Bach needs articulation, especially in the dance movements. Long slurs are few and far between in the original sources – generally only occuring on scales – and, on the whole, slurs only link two or three passing notes where the harmony doesn’t change. (Again, the more you play of his other music, the better you will understand how he harmonises.)
Sources and editions
There is no surviving manuscript in Bach’s own hand, so whichever edition you play of Bach’s Cello Suites, you are viewing the music through the lens of an editor. It is no easy task to discern Bach’s original intentions and I have spent a lifetime trying to approach closer to the great man, step by step.
When I was at school I used to play Samuel Sterling’s arrangements for double bass where the suites are transposed into other keys. After I heard a recording of the great French bass player François Rabbath playing a movement at cello pitch I started transposing back into the original key. I soon realised that it was pointless playing a transposition of a transposition, so I went out and bought a cello edition, edited by my favourite cellist at the time, Paul Tortelier. Later on, a fellow student told me that Bärenreiter was best for Bach, so I acquired their 1950 edition edited by August Wenzinger which is still available. It’s quite frustrating that many people think this is an Urtext edition with the same level of scholarship as Bärenreiter’s excellent Neue Mozart Ausgabe and other Urtexts, because in fact it is very old-fashioned and not at all close to Bach’s intentions. I realised that when I saw an edition by International that printed Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript opposite each movement.
However, Bärenreiter excelled themselves in 2000 when they produced a deluxe critical edition that contained no fewer than four separate manuscript sources, a facsimile of the first printed edition, and a performing part that shows all the discrepancies between these five sources. This is the part I now play from. (There is also going to be a brand new edition that puts all five sources for each movement on one page. This might be more convenient than hunting between the separate sources in the edition I own, but as it only fits two lines of music on each page it is more suitable for scholarly study than for performing from.)
Fortunately, all these early sources are now available for free on IMSLP so anybody can consult them without buying expensive editions. The five sources occasionally disagree on notes, but the bowings differ greatly from source to source and are carelessly indicated in places. In fact they vary so much that Bärenreiter wisely chose not to put any slurs in the performing part of their critical edition, leaving the individual performer to make their own decisions based on the manuscript sources. Choosing which source you believe can be very difficult, and if you accept that every source has errors in places, it may mean that there are places where they are all wrong!
General notes about the suite
Like all Bach’s cello suites, the G major suite consists of a Prelude, followed by five dance movements. It’s worth investigating these dances as the names given to the movements are the only clues we have to suggest how the music should be played. (Any tempo marks you see have been added by editors, and there are no dynamic marks in the manuscripts of the first five cello suites.) Understanding the style of the dance should give you an idea of the tempo and maybe suggest a basic bowing that would be suitable for each movement. We don’t really want any ‘upside down’ bowings where strong beats are consistently falling on up bows.
The genius of the music is that the single musician provides the melody, the harmony and the rhythm on their own. The aim is to play with light and shade to contrast the material that belongs in the foreground from the music that belongs in the background. Which notes are the real melody and which notes are there to keep the rhythm ticking along?
There are various motifs which occur throughout the suite which give the whole work a sense of unity. The very first bar has two of them. It starts with a spread G major chord followed by a falling and rising 2nd. (I might as well come clean at this point and say that I’m going to argue for a way of slurring this bar that almost nobody else does.)
This spread chord opens four of the six movements:
The falling and rising 2nd is a feature of the Allemande, the Courante, the second Menuet and in other places, often occurring starting on the third note of the bar.
Another important motif with a falling scale, a rising 3rd and a falling 7th can be found at many cadence points in the suite:
The Sarabande has a variant of it which ends with the 3rd resolving upward before dropping an octave. This variant can also be found in the second Menuet.
To round things off nicely, the Gigue adds the falling and rising 2nd motif into the cadence:
It fascinates me that this three note motif begins and ends the suite. It comes right at the start of the Prelude and then makes its appearance later and later in each subsequent movement. Did Bach consciously plan this? Who knows how a great composer conceives his works of genius!
There are many other short bursts of melody which recur between movements. For example, the last twelve bars of Menuet II are entirely constructed from quotes from the other six movements. Noticing where motifs are repeated between movements can influence how you interpret a particular phrase, so that you have a consistent approach across the suite. You might also find that playing a phrase in a different context gives you a solution to a technical problem that you hadn’t thought of previously. So learning the suite becomes an iterative process, where improving one movement can lead to changes in another movement. It’s a lifetime of discovery.
Technical tips for bass players – Crabbing & Minor hand shape
When I first played this suite, I played most of it with my thumb on the half string harmonic G, shifting up for the occasional top note. The more I have worked on it, the more passages I have found where it helps to crab the thumb up from harmonic D on the D string to A on the G string. This helps to remove unwanted portamenti when shifting. It enables you to obtain a clean performance that suits the music better.
In the following posts I’ll look at the individual movements of the suite. The posts are in Bach’s order, but if you’re a double bass player learning these pieces for the first time, I would recommend beginning with the Menuets and then moving onto the Sarabande and the Gigue. Only then should you try tackling the first three longer movements.