Bach: Cello Suite Nº 2 in D minor

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 the 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



In 43 of this Prelude’s 57 bars of lyrical meandering (excluding the six 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?

romantic or baroque phrasing prelude

Stephen Isserlis’s advice of “phrase it like you would sing it in the shower” could take us either way (try it!)


After 635 notes of almost uninterrupted semiquaver and quaver monophony (without doublestops or chords), the stark sustained chords of the last five bars come as a surprise and can be difficult to understand. Janos Starker proposed that these chords were 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 of this Prelude, and very much in keeping with the idea of this suite being written for the death of Bach’s first wife. And a good reason also to not vibrate them too warmly!


To reinforce the sombre, lyrical nature of this movement, the 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). Because this Prelude is so improvisatory in nature, it can be difficult to decide on bowings, fingerings and phrasings. In this movement, more than in many of the others of the six suites, we can understand well why Casals refused to make his own edition, saying that he played them differently each time.

Manuscript Comparison   Duo Version with “Walking Bass”     Clean Performance Version      Edited Performance Version


Manuscript Comparison   Duo Version with “Walking Bass”      Clean Performance Version      Edited Performance Version


  Manuscript Comparison     Duo Version with “Walking Bass”      Clean Performance Version      Edited Performance Version


  Manuscript Comparison    Duo Version with “Walking Bass”      Clean Performance Version     Edited Performance Version


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” ….

Manuscript Comparison     Duo Version with “Walking Bass”      Clean Performance Version     Edited Performance Version


Manuscript Comparison     Duo Version with “Walking Bass”      Clean Performance Version      Edited Performance Version