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Prelude from Suite for Cello in D, BWV 1012

March 24, 2019: Edward Arron, cello

Bach most likely composed his Six Suites for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007–1012, while serving as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen between 1717 and 1723. Precise dating is difficult because they survive, not in Bach’s own hand, but in a copy made later in Leipzig by his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach. It is likely that the Suites were written either for Christian Ferdinand Abel or Christian Bernhard Linigke, both accomplished cellists and Cöthen residents. Estimation of their performing abilities is, in fact, considerably enhanced by the mere idea that Bach may have written these substantial works for one or the other of them.

Though appreciated in some circles, as Forkel’s 1802 Bach biography makes clear, the Suites fell into quasi-oblivion along with much of Bach’s music in the decades following his death. Bach’s celebrated biographer Philipp Spitta gave them their due for their “serene grandeur” in his monumental study (1873–80), but they remained little known by the general public until they were championed by Pablo Casals in the early twentieth century.

Bach’s forward-looking exploration of the cello’s potential unfolds within the traditional configuration of the Baroque suite, which consisted of old-style dances in binary form—allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue—with a newer-style optional dance movement, or Galanterie, interpolated before the final gigue. These interpolated dances in his cello suites consist of minuets, bourrées, or gavottes, and he prefaced each of the Suites with a Prélude. Throughout, Bach’s contrapuntal genius shows in his ability to project multiple voices and implied harmonies with what is often considered a single-line instrument.

The Sixth Suite is unusual in that it was written for a five-stringed instrument. Was it the violoncello piccolo? viola pomposa? cello da spalla? In any case, the fifth string would have sounded a fifth higher than A, the highest string on a four-stringed cello. Any performance problems in playing this work on today’s four-stringed instrument—different tone quality from playing higher on the A string than Bach would normally have written, certain awkward double stops, or rapid string crossings (bariolage) requiring an open E string—have long since been solved.

The extensive Prelude immediately proclaims the virtuosic nature of this Suite—the cello plays almost constant triplets except for a passage near the end when Bach employs doubled note values. Specified dynamic markings, used sparingly in Bach’s time, call for quick juxtapositions of loud and soft.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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