Bach: Cello Suite Nº 4 in Eb

The key of Eb major, with its three flats, is notoriously uncomfortable for the cello, not only because it requires extended position in the First Position on the three higher strings but also (and especially) because the open A string is normally not available for the crossing between A and D strings  (because the A is now Ab). This means that we will often need a double extension to cross smoothly between these two strings. Therefore, the particular problem of this Suite is the huge need for extensions (both simple and double). Playing it with “standard fingerings” actually requires more simple extensions (very approximately 450) than the three previous Suites combined (63+158+142 = 363). In fact, in this suite, more than in any of the others, we can find many musical examples that show clearly that Bach was writing for a cello that was played with violin fingerings (see Bach and Extensions). We can however lighten the extension load somewhat by using fingerings to avoid extensions.


This Prelude presents several principal interpretative and technical problems, all of which can be categorised as a choice between a fundamentally “Baroque” or “Romantic” interpretation:

  • if we play it more “romantically” and lyrically it will tend to be slower and more legato, with more shifting up and down the strings and less extensions (for a more comfortable singing vibrato)
  • if we play it more “baroque” it will tend to be faster, less legato (perhaps even spiccato), with fingerings across the strings (rather than shifting up and down), and with more extensions and less vibrato.

These are two very different concepts and both are valid. That’s why there are two “Edited Versions” of this Prelude offered here: the “Romantic” and the “Baroque”. Let’s look now in more detail at some of these differences between the two interpretations:

SPEED: How fast should this movement be played? The two manuscript sources contemporary with Bach have a “cut time” time signature (a “C” with a vertical line through it). This would indicate that the pulse is in 2 , or in other words, that this movement was intended to be played rapidly. In the two later manuscript sources however (from the Romantic Period), this time signature has been changed to a simple 4/4, indicating a slower speed.

ARTICULATIONS (SLURS): In the first 48 bars, the 4 existing manuscripts are (for once) unanimous. They are also uniformly monotonous: the first 380 notes are a steady stream of uninterrupted quavers (eighth notes) with not a slur to be seen. And every subsequent return of this arpeggiated figure (a further 22 bars) continues in exactly the same way. Therefore, in the “Romantic” version, in order not to sound like a minimalist sewing machine, some slurs have been added to these bars.

BOWINGS AND FINGERINGS: One of the defining characteristics of this Prelude is the large leap across three (or four) strings with which almost 60 bars of this Prelude start with. In the “Romantic Version” these leaps have been facilitated and shortened for the bow by two devices:

1:  shifting up the neighbouring string with the left hand to reduce the number of strings which have to be jumped over, and
2: bowing the ascending string crossing on an upbow (for improved ergonomy).

Comparison of 4 Sources      Duo Version with “Walking Bass”

Edited “Romantic” Version     Edited “Baroque” Version       Clean Version


These two movements are published together for reasons of layout, each taking up 1.5 pages.

Allemande: Comparison of 4 Sources         Allemande: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”

Courante: Comparison of 4 Sources        Courante: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”

Allemande and Courante: Edited Version          Allemande and Courante: Clean Version


These movements are also published together for layout reasons.

       Sarabande: Comparison of 4 Sources       Sarabande: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”

Bourées: Comparison of 4 Sources      Bourées: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”

Sarabande and Bourées: Edited Version       Sarabande and Bourées: Clean Version


This Gigue is like a “Tarantella-Moto Perpetuo”: of the 478 notes we play, all but 6 of them (the cadential resolutions) are triplet quavers (eighth-notes). This unceasing cascade of fast triplets presents two main challenges for the player: firstly to make it interesting and secondly to not run out of strength and energy. Let’s look now at how we can approach these two challenges:

  1. The four existing manuscript sources all present a very limited variety of articulations (bowings) with most (if not all) of the triplet groups slurred over the three notes, and absolutely no other suggested articulations. This can be boring, as it can easily create the monotonous  “sewing-machine effect“. To avoid this, we have, in the Edited Versions, used a much greater variety of bowings than suggested in the manuscript sources.
  2. The uninterrupted fast flow of notes is very tiring, especially for the left hand in the relentlessly extended key of Eb major. Playing this Gigue is a little like running an intense three-minute race (including repeats) with many awkward obstacles to jump over: very hard work in other words. To lighten the workload, thus avoiding overload, we will take every opportunity to use fingerings to avoid extensions.

Duo Version with “Walking Bass”     Comparison of 4 Sources     Edited Version    Clean Version