Bach: Cello Suite Nº 4 BWV 1010

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 main interpretative and technical problems, all of which can be categorised as a choice between a fundamentally “Baroque” or “Romantic” interpretation:

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 the 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. However, in the two later manuscript sources (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 two-note slurs (one per bar) 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. In the “Romantic Version” these bow leaps have been facilitated and shortened in two ways:

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

While the “baroque” version stays in the lower positions and uses approximately 120 extensions, the fingerings for the “romantic” version use shifting more than extending and consequently this version has only approximately 30 extensions.

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

Manuscript Comparison      Duo Version with “Walking Bass”


Allemande: Edited Version         Allemande: Clean Version

Allemande: Manuscript Comparison          Allemande: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”


  Courante: Edited Version         Courante: Clean Version

Courante: Manuscript Comparison        Courante: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”


These movements are published together for layout reasons.

In the four manuscript copies of the Sarabande, none of the dotted figures are ever slurred. Sometimes, this feels like a shame as some of these figures seem to want to be played more melodically (lyrically). The cellofun Edited Version almost always uses Bach’s non-legato articulations with no slurs on the dotted figures but occasionally changes some of these dotted-slurs (hooked bowings) into “real” slurs (bars 16, 19, 20 and 24):

     Sarabande: Manuscript Comparison         Sarabande: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”

Bourées: Manuscript Comparison      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 could take every opportunity to use fingerings to avoid extensions ……. or we could just practice it a lot and consider it as an excellent study in playing in extended position!

Gigue: Edited Version        Gigue: Clean Version

Gigue: Manuscript Comparison    Gigue: Duo Version with “Walking Bass”