FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Bach Cello Suites: Comparison of Sources (Manuscripts)

Bach’s own original manuscripts of his Cello Suites have been lost. The most “authentic” original source material that we have are therefore the following four surviving historical manuscript copies, published together in a wonderful facsimile (scanned) version by Barenreiter.

  • copy by Anna Magdalena Bach (Bach’s wife), dated approximately 1727-1731
  • copy by Johann Peter Kellner, 1726
  • anonymous copy, second half of the 18th century
  • anonymous copy, late 18th century

These four copies are however quite confusing as source material because they have numerous and important differences in bowings, and some differences in notes and rhythms. Most of the differences in notes and rhythms are simple copyist errors, and knowing (guessing) which is the “correct” version is not especially difficult, especially when we have four manuscript sources to compare. But the differences in bowings (slurs) are quite another matter. They 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) of these bowings is the “correct” or originally intended one (see Unaccompanied Bach: Bowings and Articulations).

Comparing the four original manuscripts is an awkward (and very time-consuming) task when we need to find each bar individually in each manuscript. This is why we have made available here a 4-stave score for each movement of each suite, in which the four different versions are aligned one on top of the other. This allows us to easily and immediately compare the differences in the slurs, notes, rhythms and (the very occasional) dynamics, as found in the 4 sources .

Unfortunately, this comparative score does not use scanned versions of the original manuscripts. That would be ideal, but would pose great layout problems. Instead, the slurs, articulations and note differences have simply been added to a “standard, neutral” version of each movement. Where the slurs are ambiguous (usually because of unclear beginnings or ends) we have tried as much as possible to reproduce graphically these same ambiguities. This is not easy, and the purchase of the Barenreiter edition which includes facsimiles of these four manuscripts (as well as an extremely worthy critical analysis) is highly recommended.

Suite I:     Prelude      Allemande       Courante         Sarabande       Minuets      Gigue

Suite II:   Prelude       Allemande        Courante        Sarabande       Minuets     Gigue

Suite III:  Prelude      Allemande        Courante        Sarabande         Bourrés     Gigue

Suite IV:  Prelude      Allemande        Courante        Sarabande         Bourees      Gigue

Suite V:   Presented here “at pitch” (without scordatura) for easier reading.

         Prelude and Fugue       Allemande       Courante and Sarabande      Gavottes and Gigue

Suite VI:  Presented here transposed down a perfect fifth lower than the original (therefore in G major rather than in the original D major). Click here for an explanation as to why this has been done.

  Prelude      Allemande        Courante         Sarabande       Gavottes      Gigue