FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Solo Bach: Extensions, Cello Size and Violin Fingerings

VIOLIN FINGERINGS IN THE BACH CELLO SUITES

Without using the Thumb Position (in the Neck Region), certain passages in the Suites are impossible to play because of the extensions required.

But thumb position was as yet almost certainly unknown to Bach and his cellists, and even if it had been known, it was only ever used as a way to play “up high”, never in the Neck Regions. This leads us to believe that the Suites were quite possibly composed for a smaller instrument on which violin fingerings could be used (see the following article). Some other “impossible” passages, for which even the use of the thumb does not provide a solution, tend to support this theory:

NORMAL 1-2 TONE EXTENSIONS IN THE BACH SUITES

Above, we have looked at the “impossible” extensions. Now let’s look at the frequency of the “normal” 1-2 tone extensions in the different Suites. For large-handed cellists this is completely irrelevant, but for small handed cellists it is quite interesting (see Extensions and Hand Size). Of course the frequency of extensions in any piece can vary widely according to our choice of fingerings. If we look the Courante of Suite IV for example, we can finger it in such a way as to avoid as much as possible the use of extensions (leaving us with only 16 unavoidable ones) or we can do the absolute opposite and finger it with a maximum of extensions (which gives us approximately 100 of them), thus converting it into a study for the use of extensions. To look at these different fingering styles, open the following links:

Courante Suite IV:    fingered with maximum number of extensions           fingered with minimum extensions

For the following table, the number of extensions in each movement has been counted using fairly standard fingerings. The Courante of Suite IV, with “standard” fingerings has 56 extensions – approximately half way between the two extremes of fingering that we that we have just looked at.

The “Galanterie” movements refer to the pairs of Minuets (Suites I and II), Bourées (Suites II and IV) and Gavottes (Suites V and VI) found always between the Sarabandes and the Gigues.

FREQUENCY OF “UNAVOIDABLE” 1-2 TONE EXTENSIONS IN THE BACH CELLO SUITES

Prelude Allemande Courante Sarabande Galanterie1 Galanterie2
Gigue TOTAL

Suite I

6

8

17

5

5

15

7

63

Suite II

50

31

22

7

13

6

29

158

Suite III

36

18

44

7

5

9

13

142

Suite IV

137

71

56

17

46

18

101

446

Suite V A=A

19 + 128

19

10

12

26

9

19

242

Suite V A=G

13 + 100

17

11

12

30

7

20

210

Suite VI in G

93

15

21

5

6

0

23

163

 

We can see from this table how, suddenly in the Fourth Suite, with the key of Eb major, the number of necessary extensions explodes. There are (many) more extensions in this Suite than in the three preceding Suites combined! This Suite is hard physical work, especially for a small left hand.

DOUBLE EXTENSIONS IN THE BACH SUITES

But it is not just the use of simple single extensions (with one tone between the first and second fingers) that explodes in the Fourth Suite, but also the need for double extensions (a perfect fourth between first and fourth fingers). In Suites I and II we have no need for any double-extensions. In the C-major movements Suite III there are only two moments where most cellists will use a double extension (these can however also be avoided by using the thumb).

In the C minor of the second Bourée of Suite III, and in the Eb major key of Suite IV however, if we want to avoid using “romantic” fingerings (climbing up to the Eb on the D-string), then we will need to do frequent double extensions , all due to the presence of Ab, as in the following examples:

Of course we can avoid these double-extensions by fingering these passages up and down the D string rather than crossing over to the A string, but it is highly unlikely that Bach’s cellists would have done this. Bach only ever took the cellist’s left hand out of the Neck Region (above fourth position) once, for a brief moment in the Sixth Suite. All his other “high” cello writing is for the Viola da Gamba or the Violoncello Piccolo.

The Fourth Suite, more often than any other, shows either that the cello was smaller than now, or that Bach didn’t quite understand the limitations of reach of the cellists left hand. According to Bach’s writing, it would appear that cellists of his day could comfortably reach a perfect 4th, as shown in the above examples and also in the following example from Bourrée II of the Fourth Suite.  Most modern cellists play this passage in thumb position on the D and G strings, but we can be absolutely sure that no cellist of Bach’s time would have done this as Bach’s cellists didn’t use the thumb ever. See History of the Thumb Position

CONCLUSION

Could it be that Bach overestimated the extension possibilities – both simple and double – of the cellists left hand in this Suite? Could it be even that Bach decided to use the scordatura in his Fifth Suite in order to avoid repeating the same ugly sounds and out-of-tune playing that this key signature with three flats caused (and continues to cause) his cellists in the Fourth Suite? Or is the explanation for all these difficult (or impossible) extensions the fact that Bach wrote these Suites for a smaller instrument that could be played with violin fingerings (see the following article)?

We can avoid some – many even – extensions by looking for special fingerings (see Fingerings to Avoid Extensions) but many are unavoidable. Often our bowings need to be decided in accordance with our fingerings (and vice versa). There is no point playing a legato slur with the bow in a passage in which the left hand cannot play legato (because it has to do an awkward shift or stretch). The bow’s slur will only make the passage sound ugly because it doesn’t allow us to discreetly place the uncomfortable movement in that millisecond of time (and silence) that a bow change gives us. See Choosing Bowings