Bach: Unaccompanied Violin Sonata Nº 1 BWV 1001 (for cello)
The original source for these transcriptions is Bach’s autograph manuscript and in the “Literal Transcriptions” this manuscript has simply been copied and transposed down a fifth (plus an octave). All the bowings in the “Literal Transcriptions” are Bach’s but sometimes the starting or ending note of his slurs is ambiguous. In these cases, we have tried to favour the reproduction of the graphic ambiguity rather than making an editorial choice as to where the slur starts or finishes. In the “Edited Performance Versions” Bach’s bowings have very often been changed to adapt them to the slower-speaking cello (see Playing Bach’s Violin Music On The Cello and Transcribing Violin Music For Cello).
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.
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 versions are actually for cello duo, because by dividing up all those difficult chords and doublestopped notes between two players it now becomes hugely easier to play them all without the need for great virtuosity. Two duo versions are offered: an easier “low” duo version, transposed down a fifth from the original violin key, and a more challenging (for the top voice) “high” duo version in the original violin key. The most challenging of the cellofun adaptations 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 inappropriately fast and melodically difficult to understand.
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 playing this movement on 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, especially in doublestops. If we play this movement in the original violin key (a fifth higher than our “normal” cello version), many of the chords and doublestops become difficult or impossible. Therefore, as with many of Bach’s most polyphonic unaccompanied violin pieces (Andante from Sonata Nº 2, Adagio from Sonata Nº 3, Chaconne, Fugues etc), the most successful and satisfying way to play this movement on the cello is perhaps as a “high voice + low voice” cello duo, in the original key. A low-register Duo Version is also offered here in the “cello key” (transposed down a fifth) which is definitely the easiest way to play this movement on the cello.
In both of the 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 the ease of fingering rather than religiously respecting the “high voice/low voice” division, or the voice leading. In some passages which in the original don’t have doublestops, harmony notes have been added to the lower cello voice in the duo versions to fill out the accompaniment. 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 (or curtsey) together.
In the “Solo Performance Version” some of the lower notes in the doublestops are shortened to facilitate shifting and finger/bow string crossings. Notes that have an “X” notehead are actually silent finger placements to help us prepare awkward doublestops. Often, it can be helpful to place the two fingers of a doublestop in a “staggered” way rather than simultaneously.
The different versions are presented here in order of difficulty: low register duo, then higher register duo, and finally the solo version (low register)
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 Moto Perpetuo movement exactly as Bach wrote it although in the “Edited Version” a considerable number of small changes to Bach’s violinistic bowings have been suggested. Most of these changes concern the addition of small slurs over pairs of notes to reduce the monotonous “scrubbing” (sewing machine) effect which is much more of a problem on the slower-speaking cello than on the violin. I have serious doubts about many of these slurs: perhaps their addition takes away energy and excitement, especially if we want to play the movement “Presto” as Bach indicated ? So, please feel free to go back to Bach’s original articulations!
A truly magnificent interpretation by the wonderful cellist Gabriel Martins playing this entire Sonata (in his own version from the original violin part!) can be watched via the following YouTube link: