FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Bach: Unaccompanied Violin Sonata Nº 1 (for cello)

The original source for these transcriptions is Bach’s autograph manuscript. In the “Literal Transcription” this manuscript has simply been copied and transposed down a fifth (plus an octave). All the bowings in the “Literal Transcriptions” are Bach’s. In the “Edited Concert Versions” however, Bach’s bowings have very often been changed.

MOVT 1: ADAGIO

Bach notated this movement with tiny note values (see Bach: Rhythmic Curiosities). There are more than 150 semidemiquavers (32nd notes, with 3 beams), almost 100 hemidemisemiquavers (64th notes, with 4 beams), and there are even 4 “semihemidemisemiquavers” (128th notes, with 5 beams). The rhythms of this Adagio are complex to start with, but notating them with such small rhythmic values makes reading them truly challenging. What’s more, Bach was not very helpful with his beaming, in the sense that he didn’t subdivide long beamed groups into their “sub-beats”. All this just adds unnecessary reading difficulties, which can be avoided by playing from a part written out in “doubletime” (in which all the notes have twice their original rhythmic value).

Sheet-music parts using both Bach’s original rhythmic notation and our “new-and-improved” doubletime notation are available here. In the parts with “original notation”, Bach’s original beaming has been made more readable by using beaming subdivisions, which make it easier to see each quaver (8th note) beat. When playing from the doubletime notation, we need to make an extra effort to always remember that the musical lines are very long, and that each of Bach’s bars is twice the length of those in this “easy-to-read” notation.

Literal Transcription: Bach’s Rhythmic Notation     Literal Transcription: Doubletime

Clean Performance Edition: Doubletime      Edited Peformance Edition: Doubletime

MOVT II: FUGUE

This movement, like all of Bach’s unaccompanied violin fugues, is a real handful – literally – of notes. To attempt to play all of the chords of the original version (Literal Transcription) is a little like trying to climb Everest with only one leg: heroic, noble, but almost certainly doomed to end in tears. We need to adapt this mountain to our instrument, which means, to start with, some serious rewriting (revoicing) of all the impossible chords and doublestops. This process of adaptation (see here for a more detailed explanation) leads us ultimately to produce three different Performance Versions of increasing degrees of difficulty. The easiest version is the “low” duo version (transposed down a fifth). Next in difficulty is the “high” duo version (in the original violin key). The most challenging is the solo (unaccompanied) version (transposed down a fifth).

In the Edited Versions, the ending (last two bars) has been renotated rhythmically in order to make the notation reflect more accurately how it is often played. This ending is like a mini ad-libitum cadenza which, if played strictly according to Bach’s notation is both inapproropiately fast and melodically difficult to understand.

   Low Duo Version: Score: Clean    Low Duo Version: Score: Edited     Low Duo Version: Vc I      Low Duo Version: Vc II

High Duo Version: Score: Clean   High Duo Version: Score: Edited   High Duo Version: Vc I    High Duo Version: Vc II

Solo: Clean Performance Version   Solo: Edited Performance Version    Solo: Literal Transcription

MOVT III: SICILIANA

This, like the preceding Fugue, is one of Bach’s most richly polyphonic movements: more than half of the notes are part of a doublestop or a chord, and more than half of the quaver beats have at least one doublestop on them. Even though this type of densely polyphonic writing is often problematic when transcribed for the cello, surprisingly only a very few modifications (adaptations) are necessary to adapt this movement for the unaccompanied cellist. The principal problem with adapting this movement to the cello is that it lies in such a low register. While this low register is not a problem for the violin, it certainly is for the cello because our C and G-strings are our “elephant” register. This register on the cello is great for playing bass lines, but much less appropriate for lyrical singing. If we transpose the music up a fifth, many of the chords and doublestops become difficult (if not impossible). So, as with many of Bach’s most polyphonic unaccompanied violin pieces (Andante from the 2nd Sonata, Adagio from the 3rd Sonata, Chaconne, Fugues etc), the most successful and satisfying way to play this movement on the cello is as a “high voice + low voice” cello duo, in the original key (up a fifth from the normal cello transcription register). A low-register Duo Version is also offered here in the “cello key” (transposed down a fifth).  This is definitely the easiest way to play this movement on the cello.

In both Duo Versions, some of Bach’s harmony notes have been “improved”, now that we (and Bach) are no longer limited by the fingering considerations of one solo player (see the 3rd beat of bar 12 for example). The three and four-part chords are divided up among the two players according to ease of fingering rather than respecting religiously the “high voice/low voice” division, or the voice leading. In some passages in the original that don’t have doublestops, harmony notes have been added to fill out the accompanying voice. These notes are indicated in parentheses. In the penultimate bar of the Edited Duo Versions, a melodic harmonisation in thirds has been added that is definitely not Bach. Hopefully Bach would approve of this liberty, made possible by the duo format. It is included because it gives this lovely movement a nice finishing flourish: it is as though the two players were taking a little final bow together.

The different versions are presented here in order of difficulty: low register duo, then higher register duo, and finally the solo version (low register)

Low Duo Version (down fifth): Edited            Low Duo Version (down fifth): Clean

Higher Duo Version (original key): Edited         Higher Duo Version (original key): Clean

Solo: Literal Transcription        Solo: Clean Performance Version       Solo: Edited Performance Version

MOVT IV: PRESTO

Finally, a movement without awkward chords! In fact there are no chords at all apart from the final note, and not even one doublestop. That is a great cellistic relief after the last two densely polyphonic movements. Now, finally we don’t need to remove or change a single note: we can play this movement exactly as Bach wrote it (apart from some possible changes to the vioinistic bowings).

Literal Transcription        Clean Performance Version      Edited Performance Version