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 childhood.
In this post 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. An open C string extension provides 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 the best edition for Bach, so I acquired their 1950 edition edited by August Wenzinger, but in fact that is very old-fashioned and not very close to Bach’s intentions, as became clear 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 (although I believe there is a brand new edition that puts all five sources for each movement on one page, which might be more convenient than hunting between the separate sources in the edition I own.)
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 the 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. Noticing where they happen 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:
When I first played this suite, I played most of it with 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.
So now let’s consider the individual movements of the suite.
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 before, 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 short slur.
As you can see, it’s not clear exactly where this short slur goes, but nowadays many cellists slur the first three notes. (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:
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.
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. 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. 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.