performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras, or below by Pieter Wispelwey
(cover image by Patrick Hendry)
And now for something a little lighter.
I’d originally intended to cover all six of these suites across three consecutive weekends, but later thought better of it, and as it turns out, it’s taken more like three years to get to the sixth and final of Bach’s celebrated suites for the cello.
For such now-esteemed works, it may be difficult to think that these six pieces languished in obscurity until the beginning of the 20th century, but they did, and the sixth culminates the cycle not only in complexity and uniqueness, but also in questions regarding for what instrument it was actually written.
The fourth, in E flat, is considered one of the most technically demanding of the set. The fifth was originally written in scordatura, with the A-string tuned down to G, but editions with standard tuning have been prepared since. Most puzzling of the set is this sixth and final work, which may strike even casual listeners as being set really quite high in the cello’s range. That’s because, depending on who you ask, this work may not have been written for our standard cello to begin with.
Wikipedia makes points for and against various stringed instruments, such as the five-stringed violincello piccolo, cello da spalla, or viola pomposa, but Wiki states that “it is equally likely that beyond hinting the number of strings, Bach did not intend any specific instrument at all as the construction of instruments in the early 18th century was highly variable.” The section also points out that performers focused on early music or authentic instruments will perform this piece on a five-stringed cello, as I have seen before, since there are passages high enough to be written in the tenor or treble clefs.
That aside, the work is still in the same layout as the others (the fifth movement giving us, as with the fifth suite, two gavottes rather than minuets or bourrées.
- Galanteries: two gavottes
While resembling the other five in layout, it is significantly longer, and also “written in much more free form than the others, containing more cadenza-like movements and virtuosic passages.”
The prelude of no. 1 in G is that bright, sunny, famous thing that people have heard all over the place but may not know the name of, but I’d put the opening of this prelude right up there alongside it for being as bright and welcoming and warm as the first, but it quickly becomes more personal, or emotional, or something. It seems on the one hand so simple and so bare and clean, but also achieves a scintillating sense of excitement and grandness in the soliloquy-like cadenza passages that drown us in 16th note runs. It is the longest prelude of the six suites, and as we will see, this sets a trend for the grandness of the entire piece.
Really, for good, informed writing on this piece, check out Christopher Costanza’s notes on it here. The thing that I think I will/would end up talking about the most is how this suite differs from its younger siblings. The Allemande is, as Costanza says, “is the single longest movement in any of the suites.” It is expressive and free in its expression. Costanza says it has a spirit of improvisation. It is here that I think we begin to notice (if not earlier) the cello suites approaching the amazing, almost sacred, heights of musical greatness achieved by the solo violin works of Bach.
Costanza says that the courante is “like an expanded version of the 1st suite courante,” and is much brighter than the more pensive Allemande, and much shorter; it is in fact longer than only the two gavottes.
The Sarabande is in 3/2 rather than 3/4, and is written very richly, with lots of chords. Costanza says:
It’s almost as if, in this movement and in the suite as whole, Bach felt liberated by adding that extra string and chose to write more involved, grander music than he had in the other five suites.
The sarabande, as slow-moving as it always is, is still a dance, but I find that I’m always more moved emotionally than physically: no foot tapping or or conducting gestures with the hand, nothing. It’s meditative, incredibly personal and touching as a result.
The gavottes follow. Costanza says that it’s “probably the most well known single movement of the suites, with the possible exception of the 1st Bourrée of the 3rd suite or the Prelude of the 1st.” I knew the first prelude long before I knew any of the others, but this should be familiar to you, and if not, should at least be obvious why it would be a popular excerpt. It’s lively and melodic, but with the same depth. The second gavotte is real, true dance music, almost folksy, with a pedal tone and a certain invigorating spirit that is breathtaking in this context.
How do you put a cap on six of the greatest things ever written for solo cello, pieces which would lie virtually undiscovered for a couple of centuries before they’d aged enough to be recognized for their supreme genius? Well, that’s the gigue. It’s just immense virtuosity. I don’t play the cello obviously, so can’t comment on that, but it even sounds that way, with a broad range, chords, rhythms, double stops. It’s exciting and virtuosic in a Baroque sense, not a Saint-Saëns cello concerto or something by the likes of Liszt, etc.
And that finishes our discussion of these six pieces, over a period of a few years. I’ll say that one of the most engaging, almost meditative, relaxing, deeply insightful experiences is to listen to these suites (performed by Steven Isserlis) and follow along in the score. Every gesture, every accent, every beat and interval, every pause… it’s what perfection sounds like, all Bach’s writing, I mean, but Isserlis’ performances are exquisite. This is secular music, of course, but it is also almost sacred, I think. If you really want to get to know some baroque pieces that will give you an insight into what Bach is all about, but that are also invigorating and fun and expressive, or dark and somber, the gamut, really, then get yourself the sheet music and get to know these incredible suites.
That’s all for now, but we’ll see a bit more Bach next week, so stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.