On this page can be found the sheet music for Bach’s Second Unaccompanied Cello Suite.
It has been suggested that this Suite was written when Bach found out that his first wife had died. This may or may not be true, but believing this idea can certainly help us with certain aspects of the interpretation of this darkly serious, introspective suite, one of only two of Bach’s six Cello Suites in a minor key.
Several factors combine to make this Second Suite considerably more challenging than the first one:
- the need for extensions increases, more than doubling from a total of (approximately) 60 in the First Suite to 160 in the Second
- the use of chords/double stops “explodes” from a total of 24 in the First Suite to 107 in the Second
- the use of a minor key makes the harmonic language richer and more complex
NOTES ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PRELUDE
PHRASING: YIN OR YANG?
In 43 of this Prelude’s 57 bars of lyrical meandering (not counting the five bars of static chords at the end), the musical line rises up to its highest point on the second or third beat of the bar. We have therefore a fundamental stylistic choice to make between the following two alternatives relating to the phrasing of these bars. Do we play them with “romantic, expressive” phrasing, allowing our dynamics to follow the melodic line, thus rising up during the bar? Or do we play them with “pre-romantic” phrasing, following more the harmonic rhythm and thus making the first beats of the bars the strongest beats?
Stephen Isserlis’s advice of “phrase it like you would sing it in the shower” could take us either way (try it!)
FINGERINGS: KEYBOARD OR VOCAL ?
In this movement, just like with the bowings, we have a major stylistic choice to make regarding our fingerings.
“Authentic Baroque” fingerings tend to use the lowest possible positions on the fingerboard, with the corresponding frequent use of both the open strings and string crossings (changes of string). These fingerings could be called “keyboard” fingerings in the sense that, by favouring string crossings over shifts, they avoid vocal glissandi. “Romantic” fingerings, on the other hand, will often follow a lyrical slurred melodic line up and down the same string, giving the passage a more lyrical, vocal quality.
The long, flowing, meandering, legato lines of this Prelude lend themselves very easily to a more vocal style of fingering, but if we use these types of fingerings are we playing in an old-fashioned, inauthentic, inappropriately romantic way ?
CONCLUSION: BAROQUE OR ROMANTIC ?
So, was Bach, in this movement at least, approximately 150 years ahead of his time, composing an essentially Romantic piece in the early 18th century ? He certainly makes it difficult for us to decide on bowings, fingerings and phrasings, not only because of the baroque/romantic question but also because this Prelude is so improvisatory in nature. In this movement, more than in many of the others of the six suites, we can easily understand why Casals refused to make his own edition of the Bach Suites, saying that he played them differently each time.
To reinforce the sombre, lyrical, emotional nature of this movement, the cellofun Edited Version uses a lot of “unauthentic” fingerings, often shifting up the D-string vocally rather than crossing over to the more strident A-string. Similarly, the proposed bowings of the Edited Version often reflect the choice of the “romantic” phrasing alternative, in which the dynamics follow the melodic line (see above).
THE FINAL CHORDS
After 635 notes of almost uninterrupted semiquaver and quaver monophony (without any doublestops or chords) in which the average bar contains 11 notes, the five stark sustained dotted half-note chords of the ending (one for each of the last five bars) come as a stunning surprise and can be difficult to understand. Janos Starker proposed that these chords might be intended simply as a harmonic framework on which we should improvise more of these same semiquavers and quavers. It is however very unusual for Bach not to write out exactly the notes and rhythms that he wants: at no other time does he do this, at least in any of his unaccompanied string music. An alternative idea to make sense of these chords, is that they could represent the funereal tolling of church bells, a fitting end to the dark, melancholy, searching, lamenting character of this Prelude, and very much in keeping with the idea of this suite being written in mourning for the death of Bach’s first wife. And a good reason also to not vibrate them too warmly!
And here, finally, after all the “talking” ……. is the actual music:
In the Performance Versions (Edited and Clean) two ties have been added (across bars 1 and 2, and also across bars 5 and 6) that are not present in any of the existing manuscripts. With Bach’s original chord in bar 2, these ties would have been impossible, but because Bach’s chord is impossible (I have yet to hear any cellist play this beat as anything other than a doublestop) then the tie suddenly becomes not only possible but also seemingly appropriate, creating an interesting, lively, dance syncopation effect. Hopefully Bach would not be too annoyed with this “improvement” ….