Bach: Cello Suites
Bach’s six cello suites lend themselves to a division into two groups. The first group, to which belong the first three suites, can be considered the “simple, straightforward ones” while the second group, composed of the last three suites, can be considered as the “complicated ones” as each of these suites presents a particular, unique difficulty. Click on the links in order to look at the Suites one by one:
Each movement of all six Cello Suites is available on this website in the following four versions:
1: MANUSCRIPT COMPARISON
Unlike Bach’s solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, the autograph manuscript (in Bach’s handwriting) of the Cello Suites has been lost. The four surviving historical manuscripts that constitute the most original source material for the Cello Suites are copies by:
A: Anna Magdalena Bach, dated approximately 1727-1731
B: Johann Peter Kellner, 1726
C: anonymous copy from the second half of the 18th century
D: anonymous copy, late 18th century
These manuscripts have considerable differences in bowings, and some differences in notes and rhythms, which is why for each movement of the Bach Cello Suites published on this site, there is this “Manuscript Comparison” version (score) in which the 4 sources are easily compared (laid out on four staves). For a more detailed discussion of this topic see Bach Manuscript Source Comparisons.
2: DUO VERSION (WITH WALKING BASS ACCOMPANIMENT)
In these versions, another stave, with an accompaniment “walking bass line” has been added to the solo voice. This allows us not only the pleasure of playing the Suites as cello duos (or with any other bass-clef instrument), but is also a useful study aid, helping us to understand the implied harmonies of the solo line. We have tried to use in every case the most simple harmonic skeleton, but this skeleton needs also to “walk”, which complicates matters. Finding a great walking-bass line is not easy. There are so many possibilities for both the notes and the harmonic rhythms, that those offered here are undoubtedly very “improvable”. The Beatles’ bass-lines were the inspiration, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney would have done an infinitely better job!
They sound the best when played pizzicato – definitely not “arco sostenuto”. And they certainly feel the best when played standing up (with an ultra-long spike) because in that posture we can literally swing, rocking around the central spike axis like a jazz bassist. Where a note has been given in parenthesis, this means that it is a possible alternative to the non-parenthesised note rather than a doublestop (of which there are none in these accompaniments).
3: EDITED PERFORMANCE VERSION
The “Edited Versions” have suggestions for fingerings, bowings, articulations and (sometimes) dynamics. These are highly personalised versions, made basically for my own use, and are the result of a lack of satisfaction with other editions and with the interpretations of many other cellists. So often, the most wonderful cello soloists will follow up their brilliant concerto performance with an encore from the Bach Suites, played in the style of a beginner-cellist, with no expression, no vibrato, no dynamics, no phrasing, fingerings all in the first position etc. Probably this is how Bach was played in his time, but in those days cello technique was still using Stone-Age nappies (diapers) and I don’t believe that authenticity should mean “play like a beginner”. As with the many other available editions made by cellists, these “Edited Versions” are the culmination a lifetime of searching, struggling, imagining and experimenting with different bowings, fingerings, articulations, dynamics etc. They are the best interpretations I can find for the moment, and are published here just in case they might be of help to aspiring and amateur cellists, especially those with small hands.
4: CLEAN PERFORMANCE VERSION
These “Clean (Unedited) Versions” are identical to the “Edited Versions” but with all fingerings, bowings, articulations, dynamics etc removed. In other words, they are nothing but the notes. They do, however, have the same layout as the edited versions. It is hard to know what to do with the chords and the ornaments in these “Clean Versions”. In the “Edited Versions”, these have often been written out in such a way as to remove all ambiguity as to how to play them but this involves serious editorial decision-making: the way we break/spread our chords is as much an interpretative decision as our choices of slurs. Ideally, the Clean Versions would maintain the original notation but this idea has not been followed with 100% consistency.
WHY MAKE ANOTHER EDITION OF THE SUITES WHEN THERE ARE ALREADY SO MANY AVAILABLE?
Almost all of the pieces of music available on this website are previously unpublished transcriptions. So why publish another edition of the Bach Cello Suites, when so many other editions (154 apparently) are already available? The main interest of the cellofun versions lies certainly with the transposition of the Sixth Suite down a fifth, as well as with the Duo Versions and Manuscript Comparison of all six suites, because nothing like these has been previously published. The possible interest of the cellofun.eu “Edited Versions” of the other five suites lies principally in the following areas:
- the bowings are normally chosen very freely, prioritising the pleasure of the player and listeners and often ignoring all four of the standard historical sources
- the fingerings are also quite original and are always conceived for a small hand
- these bowings and fingerings are the fruit of a lifetime of thinking, experiments, mistakes, disasters, discoveries and revelations. If they can save other cellists some of the time that I have spent going down dead-ends, then their publication on this website was worth it …….