In all the versions offered here, the entire suite has been transposed one fifth lower. The reasons for this are found on the Bach Sixth Suite: Discussion page. The following sheet music editions/versions are available for download on this page:
- transposed down a fifth, for playing on a 4-string cello in a more comfortable register
- transposed down a fifth, but for playing at the original pitch on a 5-string cello. In this case, the transposition down a fifth is simply to make the reading and adaptation to the 5-string cello much simpler. When we play from these parts, we simply play as though our top string was an A string.
- a duo version in which a second cello (or any bass instrument) plays a “walking bass” harmonic accompaniment
- a score in which the 4 existing manuscript copies are compared
The 5-string versions have absolutely no note changes from Bach’s original, apart from the transposition down a fifth. For the 4-string versions, some notes have had to be changed because, after the transposition down a fifth, they fall beneath the cello’s range. A detailed explanation of all these alterations is found in the Sixth Suite Discussion page. Both the “Clean”and “Edited” 4-string versions incorporate these same identical note modifications.
The Sixth Suite is a joyous, festive work and its Prelude sets the tone perfectly. Stephen Isserlis compares the opening passage (and its many [happy] returns) to the celebratory pealing of church bells. This is the exact opposite to the desolate funereal tolls of the chords that finish the second suite’s prelude. The overlapping sounds of the pealing bells are reproduced perfectly by the unison string crossing overlaps, but we can – by changing the bowing (and fingering) to a more “romantic”, legato version – increase this overlap even more. Let’s look at a progression of possible fingering/bowing combinations for this phrase, from minimum to maximum “overlap”.
All of the source manuscripts show the same articulation (“Bach’s overlap”). This certainly would sound great in a church, because while the church resonance would give all the overlap, the rearticulation of the last note of each triplet figure would make the note change stand out and thus avoid everything being just a big blur. However, in a normal (less resonant) acoustic, the bowing/fingering combination shown as the final option (“maximum overlap”), which gives double the overlaps of Bach’s version (8 per bar instead of 4), is definitely a more resonant and spectacular option. This combination sounds even more like the pealing of bells than Bach’s suggestion, and is thus the option used in the edited version of this Prelude offered here.
We also have a major stylistic choice to make in this movement to do with our basic fingering principles: how much do we finger it “across” the strings and how much “up and down” the same strings? This choice of fingering style will be an important factor in our interpretation. Fingering up and down the strings gives definitely a more “Romantic”, lyrical, vocal, legato interpretation whereas fingering across the strings gives a more authentic, “Baroque” interpretation.
We can choose the degree to which we romanticise the fingerings:
And we can alternate the fingerings in the same repeated passage to give more variety:
Only 12 notes (of the total of 1350) are out-of-range in the transposed-down version of this Prelude. However, in order to preserve the melodic line, and to avoid long passages in the lowest registers, ultimately 145 notes have been changed by an octave. This may sound like a lot of changes but, in fact, 136 of these notes belong to just two continuous phrases: bars 41-42 and bars 54-63. See here for more explanation.
What a strange and wonderful Allemande this is! Stephen Isserlis considers it to be more like an “Air” (as in Bach’s “Air on the G String”) and it certainly does have a strong resemblance to that Air, especially when we put a walking bassline underneath our melody. This is such a gentle, lyrical, singing movement that it is hard not to want to finger it quite vocally, going up and down the same strings even though we know that in Bach’s day cellists would have stayed in the lower positions, going across the strings rather than shifting.
Bach notates this movement with such small note values, that it makes it much harder to read than necessary (see Bach: Rhythmic Factors). The use of these small note values was obviously intended to show that this is a very slow movement, with a very slow pulse, in spite of the fact that the succession of notes often moves quite fast. Even the manuscript copyists got confused with the intricate mathematical subdivisions required by the many 32nd and 64th notes (semidemi and hemidemisemiquavers). For this reason, the playing versions offered here are written out in “double-time” (all note values are twice as long as in the original notation). This makes it easier to read but we need now to make an extra effort to remember that the pulse is very slow, and that the phrases are very long.
The only difference between the 5 and 4-string versions is the transposition up an octave of two bass (harmony) notes: the very last note, and one in bar 37.
Only 10 notes are out-of-range in the 4-string version but this has required the transposition of two phrases up an octave in the 4-string version: bars 6-8, and bar 65 to the end (bar 72).
This is such an extraordinary gentle movement that we need to do everything possible to avoid “crunching” the chords. There are two main ways to achieve this: start them on upbows, and arpeggiate them. I have heard no better interpretation than that of Hopkinson Smith, on the lute. The only difference between the four and five-string versions concerns one bass note (of the chord in the final bar), that has needed to be transposed up an octave for the 4-string version.
The only difference between the 4 and 5-string versions are the additions/removals of an extra bass note at the bottom of four chords. In bar 8 of Gavotte II Bach seems to have made a notation mistake in the bottom note of the chord. Although this note has been copied faithfully by the four copyists, in the playing editions offered here we have “corrected” it and also revoiced the chord.
In this Gigue, 17 notes (from a total of 653) are out of range, in bars 16, 27, 45, 58/59, 60-63 and 67-68. Of these, all but bars 63 and 68 have been resolved using the innocuous techniques of octave transposition or suppression of the lowest note in the chord.