FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Playing Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Music on the Cello

The idea of playing Bach’s Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas on the cello is not a crazy modern eccentricity. In Bach’s time, a transcription for cello (transposed down a fifth) was published, but it disappeared from view quite quickly and was not reprinted. While Bach’s Cello Suites also disappeared from view, they were revived almost 200 years later (by Pablo Casals) and have remained a popular and highly esteemed staple of the cello repertoire ever since. The permanent disappearance of the cello transcription of the Violin Partitas and Solo Sonatas was no doubt due principally to two serious problems that will become immediately apparent to us when we start to play through the “Literal Transcriptions” (which are exactly what Bach wrote, simply transposed down by an octave plus a fifth):

  • the difficulty (if not impossibility) of many of the abundant chords and doublestops
  • the excessively low register of some of the most polyphonic slow movements.

Let’s now look at these one by one.

DOUBLESTOPS AND CHORDS: FINGERINGS AND INSTRUMENT SIZE: THE CELLISTS HANDICAP

Bach played the violin and this music was definitely written for violin fingerings. Unfortunately violin fingerings just don’t work on the cello – the cello is simply too big. For the monophonic (single voice, melodic) movements, we are usually able to work around this problem, finding reasonable, playable fingerings (although we will need to do much more shifting and stretching than violinists). However for many of the abundant chords and doublestops of the densely-polyphonic movements (such as the Chaconne, the three Fugues, the Siciliana from Sonata I, Andante from Sonata II, Adagio from Sonata III, Minuets from Partita III etc) we really need a few extra fingers, a shorter string-length, and maybe another string also! This is like an adult trying to wear children’s size clothing: it doesn’t work, and something is going to break! Many passages, chords or doublestops are not just awkward or difficult: they are impossible. If we don’t want to suffer (or make our listeners suffer), these moments will therefore need some really serious adjustments (adaptations, revoicing) to make them playable.

REGISTER PROBLEMS: THE ELEPHANT IN A TUTU

While some cellists do manage to play this music in the same key as the violin (see here), it is extremely difficult, requiring exotic contortions and virtuosity in Thumb Position (unless of course we have a 5-string cello). For a normal 4-string cello, instrumental logic would have us transpose all of this music down a fifth (as well as an octave) not only because it is much easier to play but also in order to be able to use our open strings as Bach intended. This music is written in such a way as to make extraordinary use of very sophisticated open string effects, and when played in the original key most of those effects involving the top open string become impossible. The transposition of Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite down a fifth  follows exactly the same logic.

When we transpose this music down a fifth, we have absolutely no high-register problems. This is because Bach did not just avoid taking the cello up into the higher registers in his Six Suites: he used exactly the equivalent upper register limit for the violin in his Solo Partitas and Sonatas. Neither instrument goes up above the half-string harmonic on the highest string (or on any string for that matter) with the exception of a very few brief moments. These moments occur only in the Prelude of the Sixth Suite for cello, and for the violin, only in the Chaconne and then in the Fugue and Allegro movements of the C Major Sonata (Nº III). In all four cases, Bach takes the player briefly up to a maximum of “Sixth Position”, a minor third above the mid-string harmonic on the top string.

So, transposed down a fifth, we don’t have any “high-register problems”, but we do have considerable low-register problems. The problem with this transposition down a fifth is that it often takes the music too low. The violin sounds much more melodic in its lower register than the cello, which means that many of the singing melodic passages of these Sonatas and Partitas that lie in the lower violin register don’t sound good when transposed onto the cello’s lower two strings. We can easily feel like an elephant in a tutu (ballet costume) when playing passages in our “hippopotamus” (or “grunting”) register on the lower two strings of the cello. This problem is especially pronounced when there are doublestops on the two lower strings. The Siciliana of the First Sonata and the Andante (third movement) of the Second Sonata are perhaps the best examples of this problem. This is a very good reason for playing these movements in their original key (one fifth higher than on a normal cello), either on a 5-string cello or in a cello-duo version (see below).

DIFFERENT WAYS TO OVERCOME THESE DIFFICULTIES

There are several ways by which we can try to overcome these two problems of impossible fingerings and hippopotamus register. If we can do this successfully, our reward will be the addition of a large amount of truly extraordinary “new” music to the cello repertoire. And this is not just wonderful music to play and enjoy: playing the Violin Partitas and Sonatas on the cello will also help us to understand better the Cello Suites. With their addition to the cello repertoire, we could have nine dance suites and three solo sonatas (instead of just six dance suites). Let’s look now in greater detail at some of the possibilities that are available to us to solve these adaptation problems of register and fingerings, thus making this beautiful music beautiful also when played on the cello:

1: TRANSPOSE DOWN A FIFTH (PLUS AN OCTAVE) OR PLAY THEM ON A FIVE-STRING CELLO

As with the Sixth Cello Suite, transposing Bach’s violin music down a fifth brings it down into the identical register as all the other five solo cello suites. Unlike for the transposition down of the Sixth Cello Suite however, no notes are out of range (too low), so no recomposing for notes below the cello register is required. If we play this music in the original key (but an octave lower) then we won’t ever need the bottom string, on either the five or four-string cello. On a five-string instrument, we can play this music in its original key without any high-register technical problems. This is an ideal solution to the problem of the excessively low register of many passages. On a 5-string cello the music is possibly easier to read and play if we pretend that our top string is an A string. That way we play from the normal 4-string parts (that are written out a fifth lower) but the music will sound one fifth higher.

2: REVOICE CHORDS/DOUBLESTOPS AND REMOVE UNESSENTIAL HARMONY NOTES

As mentioned above, a certain amount of “re-composing” and/or “de-composing” is required, for those (many) chords and double stops that are either impossible or just very difficult for the ordinary cellist. Chords that lie in one position on the violin, can require shifts, double extensions or extra fingers and strings on the cello. Many of these chords are even uncomfortable even on the violin, and become totally unplayable on the cello. For this reason, we need to “edit” (revoice) some of the chords and double stops, sometimes removing the occasional harmonic “filling” and sometimes changing the occasional note. Sometimes, in the Edited Performance Versions of the sheet music available on this website, some of the cello G string notes in some 4 string chords have been taken away, so we just have the bass and two treble voices. Also, many chords have been spread (arpeggiated), which allows for changes of position during the chord as well as lightening the texture.

These alterations to Bach’s original writing (taking out or shortening some of the harmony notes) do not seem constitute a great problem for the music, as these harmonies are implied/heard even when not explicitly played. In any piece of music, but especially in solo string music, the temptation for composers is to add more and more chords and double stops to enrich the harmonic texture. This is fine for keyboard and plucked instruments, but on the cello – much more than on the violin –  doublestops can make one good musician sound like two bad ones. Therefore, we players can – and must – use our musical judgement to decide where and when this harmonic filling is worth it and where not. Removing the occasional note – almost always from four note chords – not only can make the difference between playable and unplayable, but also has the effect (like spreading the chords) of lightening the texture. In these transcriptions I have followed the principle of “simple, light, transparent and easy is better than complex, dense, thick and difficult”.

The above two options are absolutely necessary if we want to play this music alone (one cellist) on a normal 4-string cello without entering into the Guinness Book of Records (or a hospital). But there are some other options available in which we modify the player/instrument, instead of modifying the music. These are actually very simple modifications, requiring neither surgery nor genetic manipulation (to grow an extra finger or increase our hand size).

3: PLAY THEM AS CELLO DUOS

One way to completely eliminate all of the problems caused by the doublestops and chords is to play this music as cello duos. We have a choice as to whether to make the two parts more or less equal in difficulty or whether to have simply a “melody” voice (high and soloistic) and the “harmony” voice (low and accompanying). We also can now choose whether to maintain the original keys or not, because by playing them as duos we make them so much easier that playing them one fifth higher is no longer a problem (most of the time). Listen to an absolutely beautiful version of the Chaconne, in the original key, arranged as a cello duo here.

4: THE BEST OPTION: PLAY THEM AS DUOS ON FIVE-STRING CELLOS

When we play them in the original key, the pitch range goes up to a highest note of “F” almost two octaves above the open A-string. Although most of the time, the higher register passages (Intermediate and Thumb Regions) are manageable, there are some passages that remain really quite virtuosic. Playing the cello-duo versions on 5-string cellos eliminates this problem definitively, and would be the ultimate, unbeatably comfortable and satisfying way to play Bach’s Solo Violin music on the cello.

CONCLUSION: MIX AND MATCH (TAKE YOUR PICK)

Because of the existence of these various solutions, most of the more polyphonic movements are presented on this site in three different types of arrangement. This allows us to “mix and match” the register and doublestop problems, choosing the combination that most suits the moment and giving us a choice between three levels of difficulty. The Duo Version transposed down a fifth is the easiest as it stays down in the Neck Region register and has few doublestop difficulties, but it has the disadvantage of suffering from an excessively low register. The Duo Version in the original key has an ideal register and few doublestop difficulties but takes the top-line cellist regularly up into Thumb Position. The version for one solo (unaccompanied) combines the problems of both (low) register and doublestops and is usually the most challenging (and musically unsatisfying) version.

FURTHER MATERIAL

AND A KEY CURIOSITY ……

We may wonder why Bach wrote the G minor sonata with D minor key signature (thus always having to notate the Eb). This seems strange but was apparently standard Baroque practice. He did exactly the same in Minuet II of the First Cello Suite (the key signature is D minor but the real key is G minor).