Bach: Cello Bowings and Articulations

The lack of written articulation instructions that is a feature of a large amount of Bach’s music, and the bowing inconsistencies and ambiguities in the four surviving manuscript copies of the Cello Suites (none of which are in Bach’s handwriting), make Bach’s cello suites absolutely the best music for making us think creatively about articulations and bowings. A considerable part of our interpretation in the Bach Suites is determined by our choices of bowings, especially by our decisions about which notes to slur together and which to articulate separately. Deciding on our bowings is a little like a painter deciding on his brush strokes: long smooth lines, little dots, or anything in between. Our choices will also contribute to the stylistic unity (or not) of a movement (examples).

Unlike his solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Bach’s autograph manuscript of the Cello Suites has been lost. Surprisingly – and no doubt controversially – we could perhaps consider ourselves lucky that this is so, and that there are so many ambiguities in – and discrepancies between – the bowings in the different surviving manuscript source copies, because this gives us a certain freedom to choose our own. We can perhaps feel justified in taking this freedom in choosing our own bowings, not only because Bach’s original bowings got “scrambled” in the copying but also because, whereas Bach played the violin, he did not play the cello. We, as cellists, with different equipment and 300 years of hindsight, may be able to find a better bowing to bring his music to life than what Bach or his copyists proposed.

Violinists, by contrast, are more or less obliged to observe Bach’s own bowing suggestions when playing his Partitas and Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin because he wrote his bowing indications so clearly. These bowings are very often, however, surprisingly quirky, difficult and unpredictable. This makes them also interesting, but the fact that everyone does the same ones limits greatly the creative, interpretative variety of their performances.

The four historical manuscript copies that constitute the most original source material for the Cello Suites, have numerous and important differences in bowings. These differences are so frequent and so important that we not only wonder how such an extraordinary variety could possibly have occurred, but also we have serious problems choosing which (if any) bowing is the “correct” or originally intended one. Comparing the four original manuscripts is a nightmarish (and very time-consuming) task when we need to find each bar individually in each manuscript. This is why we have made available a 4-stave score for each movement, in which the four different versions are aligned one on top of the other. This allows us to compare the 4 sources easily and immediately.

Bach: Six Cello Suites: Bowing Comparison Of The Four Manuscripts


Let’s look now at some of the concepts we might use when looking to find our own bowings for this music:


In Baroque music very often the “default” articulation is no articulation marking at all, and we can be faced with long sequences of notes of equal rhythmic value and no slurs to break up the monotony (see Bach and the Sewing Machine). By adding a few slurs here and there not only we can add new articulation interest to the monotony of unbroken separate bows but also we can make the passage sound more fluid, as at the start of the Courante of the Second Suite:

This idea is especially useful in the adaptation for cello of Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin in which extended passages of separate bows (that sound perfectly smooth on the violin) will often sound scratchy on the cello because the cello doesn’t speak as quickly or easily as the violin (see Transcribing Violin Music for Cello). The following excerpt illustrates one possible way to add cello slurs to a passage that is, in the violin version, played with unbroken separate bows


Rather than lyrical, vocal, melodic music played up and down one string, Bach’s music tends to be more “harmonic”, played across the strings and with many arpeggio intervals that could be considered as “broken double stops” (see Doublestops). When adding slurs to long unbroken passages of separate bows, we may prefer to place our new slurs over some of these broken double-stops rather than over notes on the same string. By doing this, we are not only adding new articulation interest to the monotony of unbroken separate bows but also making the unaccompanied music sound richer and fuller, increasing the resonance, the volume and the harmonic, chordal sensations by allowing the notes to “ring into each other” (overlap) more than if we were to play them with separate bows. Slurring broken double-stops also tends to reduce the amount of “scratch” that tends to be produced on a bow change, especially when that bow change is to a new string. Bowing in this way, it is a little as though we are accompanying ourselves simultaneously on a second cello!

broken dblestops bach bouree

To get the full “harmonic” effect of this type of bowing, we can hold the first note (of each red pair) for a little longer than its strict rhythmic value. This means that it overlaps with the following note and we are momentarily sounding a double stop. The exact notation for what we are doing here would be:


Sometimes, in order to make the unaccompanied music sound richer and fuller, increasing the resonance, the volume and the harmonic, chordal sensations, not only can we slur the broken double-stops but also we can “invent” them by fingering across the strings in passages that we might normally want to play “melodically” on one string. Pieter Wispelwey has an ingenious fingering along these lines for the Prelude of the Second Bach Suite:


Fingerings and bowings are intimately related. A change of bowing will often require – or permit – a different fingering and vice versa. Because our job is to tell the story as convincingly as possible, we can avoid slurring those notes that cannot be comfortably played legato, in order to avoid ugly glissandi or impossible legato leaps across several strings. examples