The original manuscript of J.S. Bach’s 6 Suites for Cello Solo has been lost to history. Our only apostles are Johann Peter Kellner, an acquaintance of Bach, and Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife. Hers is a faithful copy of the original, her handwriting uncanny in its likeness to the composer’s own.
Both of these surviving manuscripts could have suffered the same fate as the original, were it not for the thirteen-year old Pablo Casals, who stumbled upon a published edition of the cello suites at a second-hand music store in his native Barcelona in 1890. Whether by divine design or sheer luck, one of the great artists of our era found these masterpieces buried at the bottom of a bin, at a time when they had all but disappeared from the cello canon. A sense of prophecy must have guided the boy, as even then Casals knew he had found a holy testament, unveiling a text with the most profound implications. Still, he had the sense of responsibility and humility to study and prepare this music for nearly twenty years before daring to present and share it with the public.
I was nine years old when my parents brought home an LP set of Casals’s now mythical recording from 1936 to 1939 of the 6 suites. At the time, in 1980, I was studying with the Hungarian cellist, Gabor Rejto, who had himself been a student of Pablo Casals. Gabor taught me to believe that Bach’s Cello Suites were my bible, the core of my cello studies. Each and every day, two movements of Bach were part of my diet, forming the foundation and substance of my understanding of music and my instrument. From 1985-1987 I had the privilege to play the very cello – made by Matteo Goffriller – played by Casals.
After my own first decade with these suites, I found myself intimidated by them, overwhelmed and confused by the number of different approaches to their interpretation. I owned dozens of published editions. Which one should I rely on to base my bowings and fingerings? Where does one begin to look for the hints as to tempi, dynamics, ornamentation? Must one play with discipline or spontaneity, strictly in time or with a fluid sense of rubato? What are the six suites, technical exercises, as was thought for hundreds of years, or philosophical ruminations on human nature, food for the soul? Are the dance movements simply formal structures on which Bach could hang his art, or were they intended for dances at the pub or in an elegant salon? There are so many layers and pathways to this music, how could one performance possibly reveal them all? I was lost in the labyrinth of decisions and possibilities. My instincts were no longer enough.
In 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, I returned to The Cello Suites on the invitation of the Schwetzingen Festival in Germany. For the first time, I was asked to perform all six suites as a marathon cycle. Perhaps Casals’ 20-years rule applied, as I found myself finally ready to jump off this cliff. In preparation, I determined to lock up the dozens of recordings I had acquired over the years, and most of my published editions, leaving only the Bärenreiter edition of 1950, along with the Anna Magdalena and Kellner copies. I hoped to strip away all of the influences I had grown up with and approach these works from scratch.
Upon returning from Germany, feeling that I had finally found my personal voice, I embarked on my first recording of the suites, a 3-CD set released in late 2000 that launched the newborn Oxingale Records.
The recording process for me is a means of making something tangible and lasting within the ephemeral, abstract world of performance. But in a creative process, interpretations continue to evolve the minute a recording session ends, and nowhere is this more true than in Bach. Within a few years of my early Bach recording, I no longer recognized those interpretations. In my teaching and in my performances, more and more I turned to Anna Magdalena’s manuscript as particularly valuable, becoming increasingly convinced that hers is closest in spirit to the original. As I became more familiar with the notation, details emerged which inform interpretive priorities of bowing, articulation and tempi.
A brief history of the opening bars of Suite I’s Prélude is an example of how choices in bowing articulation can have a profound effect on the way a phrase speaks and breathes. When many of us experienced the first notes of Pablo Casals’ recording, we were mesmerized by the watery ripples of sound. Casals bowed each half-bar, eight sixteenth-notes to a bow.
A glance at the opening bars of Anna Magdalena’s manuscript clearly illustrates that the intention was to slur two or three notes leaving the rest to be individually articulated. What is not so clear is the placement of the slur, or rather the inconsistency of that placement. Many baroque specialists interpret it as a three-note figure, beginning the slur from the first bass note. The effect is a hypnotic drumbeat of the bass-pedal as the root of a triadic arpeggiation under a single bow. I too agree that there is a regularity to the underlying pulse in this opening. However, I believe Anna Magdalena’s placement of the slur in the first bar, beginning on the third sixteenth-note, was Bach’s deliberate intention.
To me, this solution, suggested in Anna Magdalena’s copy, establishes three independent voices – on an essentially one-voiced instrument – with three carefully-sculpted strokes of the bow. The upper voice, defined by the lower neighbor figure B-A-B in the first bar, is heard under one bow, bringing out an undulating melody. The bowing also offers the bass voice, here the pedal open G-string, its own distinct bow, and gives the player the opportunity to bring out the hidden middle voice (D-E-F#-G-F#) at will. In this way, from the outset, Bach lays out the parameters of a polyphonic texture for the solo cello.
The close investigation of Anna Magdalena’s manuscript, confirmed by the natural properties of the baroque bow, reveals that where separate notes are the norm and two and three notes to a single bow are common, many notes under one bow are rare, and used only for special effect. In the Allemande of Suite I, just prior to the first double bar, there is a thirteen-note slur beginning on the low E bass note. All those slurred notes give the impression of holding one’s breath. In the Prélude of Suite I, following the dramatic fermata, there is a sequence of long slurs, eight notes to a bow, within a cadenza-like moment. The effect is like a waterfall, a fountain cascading by step, seeking a way out of nature’s maze. For another anomaly, in the tripartite Prélude to Suite IV, look just past the disorienting leading-tone-of-the-leading-tone in the bass: Anna Magdalena slurs thirty-eight notes under a single bow! Suspended in a foreign harmony, a ghost-like hand leads us through the wilderness.
Little in the way of dynamics or tempo indications are revealed in the pages of Anna Magdalena’s manuscript. In all six suites, there are only four dynamic markings to be found, all in the opening bars of Suite VI. Of course, gradations of dynamic are implied throughout, giving shape to the rise and fall of lines, the intensification and resolution of implied harmonies. Contrasting dynamics create depth of field by establishing a hierarchy of independent voices, a sense of light and dark in what, on the surface, appears to be a sea of notes.
Nowhere in the Anna Magdalena manuscript is there a suggestion of how fast or slow the music is paced. Considerations of tempi can be influenced by many factors: the characteristics of the historical dance style, harmonic rhythm, proximity of one bass note to the next, density of counterpoint, the overall impulse and shape of the phrase. Anna Magdalena offers a clue in her use of cut time versus 4/4 in the time signature. The Allemandes of Suites I, IV, and V share a cut time signature, the bar divided into two moderate pulses, rather than a more constricted four. The Prélude of Suite IV is also in cut time, which helps connect and propel the relatively slow-moving harmonic progression, rather than drawing unnecessary attention to each individual eighth note. The difference in time signature of the two Bourrées of Suite IV confirms a change in character and tempo between the two movements, despite the shared key of E-flat Major; Bourrée I, in cut time, is frenetic in its energy, Bourrée II, in 4/4 is more restrained, perhaps even effortful. Most revealing, and missing in the older Bärenreiter edition, is the cut time of the French Overture-style Prélude of Suite V. This larger pulse helps create a bridge between the three fundamental pedal points of the movement (c-G-Eb),and allows for an elegant metric modulation with the ensuing Fugue (i.e. half note in the Prélude equals two dotted quarters in the Fugue).
Bach shows remarkable wisdom in celebrating the cello’s natural overtones. His choice of open-string key structures for the suites are no accident. Most are in the major and minor keys of G, D, or C. The exception is Suite IV in E-flat, which mutes some of those overtones, making it a greater challenge for the cellist.
Bach pushes the sonic boundaries further with Suite V, calling for an altogether foreign sound of scordatura tuning. A departure from the standard tuning of the instrument in fifths, Suite V calls for a fourth between the upper two strings followed by two fifths (G-D-G-C). The sound of the instrument darkens with the lowered A-string, enhancing the foreboding affect of the music. The double open G-strings lend increased sonic weight to the fundamentally important dominant of the key. A study of the notation in Anna Magdalena’s manuscript is irrefutable proof of Bach’s intent to use open strings far more than what is generally desirable in modern cello playing, as well as prioritizing string crossings over shifting in determining left-hand fingering solutions. The opening Prélude of Suite V sounds organic in first position, with not a single left-hand shift.
And finally, in Suite VI, Bach extends the virtuosic parameters of the cello, imagining an instrument with five strings, rather than the standard four. This innovation allows the cellist to reach into the higher registers with ease and navigate a rich palette of chords. The intended instrument of Suite VI is likely the cello piccolo, with the addition of an E-string above the A. Losing none of the cello’s resonant bass, it acquires a countertenor, or soprano voice, ethereal and haunting in its otherworldliness. I am grateful to my colleague Rebecca Humphrey, on whose original cello piccolo – an 18th century Georg Nicol. Köllmer – I had the pleasure to record Suite VI.
For the other five suites, my Matteo Goffriller cello made in Venice in 1710 – ten years prior to the composition of Bach’s Cello Suites – is set up with ox-gut strings from Italy. The tuning of the instrument is set to A=415, a half step lower than the current standard of A=440. The lower tuning and malleability of the gut strings allow for a longer natural resonance to each note. The bass notes, when drawn on a generous down-bow, can last for an entire bar or longer. Thus, even more than with modern strings, Bach’s mock-polyphony loses it’s “mock” and the illusion of sustained counterpoint is heightened.
One hundred years before Beethoven, before the design innovations of François Xavier Tourte and Dominique Peccatte, the concave shape of the modern cello bow did not exist, and the wood choice varied. The modern bow is designed to defy nature; the baroque bow embraces it. Articulations take on a consonant relationship to the vowel of the instrument’s resonance, and the interplay creates a grammar. With the nobile (strong) down-bow and the vilis (weak) up-bow, a sense of rhetoric emerges. For this recording, I commissioned the Cambridge, Mass. bowmaker David Hawthorne for a replica of a baroque bow, made not out of pernambuco but snake-wood.
A few years following my performance of the Bach suites in Schwetzingen, Germany, I received an invitation to perform the complete cycle at the renowned Bach Festival in Cöthen, Germany. It was in this small town, in 1720, that The Cello Suites were composed, when Bach was Capellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold. A productive time for Bach, who had the freedom to compose a wide range of chamber music and solo works for the court, Bach’s time in Cöthen was a rare period during which he was not directly associated with, or working for a church. I performed the six suites in the room where it is likely they were first performed, Prince Leopold’s Hall of Mirrors. In front of me sat a bust of the music-loving patron himself. Behind me, sharing the stage, stood the marble head of J.S. Bach. As I played I could not help but seek out the maestro’s visage in the mirror before me, and when I came to the Sarabande of Suite V, I could have sworn that it flickered to life. Was his expression one of approbation or alarm? I could not tell.
We must praise Anna Magdalena for her industry, perhaps her influence in ensuring the survival of these continually wondrous, challenging and transcendent works. No recording could possibly give voice to all the layers of meaning, all the wisdom to be found within them. With humility, and no small dose of courage, I continue on my journey with Bach and The Cello Suites, studying the gospel according to Anna Magdalena.