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Notes on the Six Solo Suites (BWV 1007-1012)

The Six Solo Suites for Violoncello were probably completed in 1720 when Bach served as Kapellmeister in Cöthen. Most likely, Bach was inspired by Christian Bernhard Linigke, an exceptional cellist in the Cöthen orchestra. Each of the Suites begins with a Prélude, followed by the conventional sequence of dances: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet (or Bourrée, or Gavotte), and Gigue. The Fifth and Sixth Suites were perhaps composed in a later period from the first four Suites. In the last two Suites, Bach opened up a new horizon by employing scordatura for the 5th Suite and a 5-stringed cello -the viola de pomposa or violoncello piccolo- for the 6th Suite.

The Prélude is improvisatory in nature, originating from the medieval lute players practice of tuning up with a fantasia-like improvisation. Bach's Préludes utilize arpeggiated chords (1st, 4th and 6th Suites), scale passages (3rd Suites), and at times, cadenza-like passages (1st and 4th Suites). The Prélude of the 5th Suite is particularly noteworthy not only for its length, scordatura tuning, but also its structure in two parts: an introductory section in cut time in French overture style followed by a lengthy quasi fugue section in 3/8 meter. The Prélude of the 2nd Suite is unique with its striking chromatic harmonic minor writing creating a pensive mood.

The Allemande is one of the most popular of the Baroque instrumental dances. Of German origin, it is a slow dance, usually in 4/4, with a lyrical, ornamental melodic line (4th Suite).

The Courante or "running" was popular in both France and Italy. The Italian corrente is a fast triple meter (3/4 or 3/8) dance, whereas the French Courante is considered more refined, a rhythmic and contrapuntal texture, usually in 3/4 or 3/2 meter (5th Suite). The courante provides contrast to the Allemande in its light, rapid and flowing passages.

The Sarabande originated as a sung dance from Latin America and Spain - a rather offensive lascivious one. It later evolved into a dignified dance in slow triple meter with an emphasis on the second beat of the measure. The Sarabande of the 4th Suite is intriguing with the 3rd beat tied over the bar line, creating a feeling of expansion. The Sarabande of the 5th Suite is particularly unique in its descending tritone line that creates an eerie sighing gesture, devoid of harmony. The Sarabande is then followed by either a pair of Menuets (1st and 2nd Suites), Bourrées (3rd and 4th Suites), or Gavottes (5th and 6th Suites).

The Menuet comes from the French word pas menu which means small step. It suggests the graceful nature of this dance.

The Bourrée comes from the French word bourrir, meaning to flap wings. It is a rapid dance, but still retains the flavor of its rustic origins.

The Gavotte is a bright dance that evolved into one of the most popular and sophisticated of the court dances. The exception to this mood is the Gavotte II of the 5th Suite unfurls a darkened, mysterious dance.

The final dance is the Gigue, which originated from popular dances and tunes called "jigs" in the British Isles. By the end of the 17th century, distinct French and Italian styles emerged. The French Gigue is written in a moderate or fast tempo in 6/4, 3/8, or 6/8 meter and is characterized by imitative textures, dotted rhythms, and wide intervals. The less common Italian Gigue is much quicker than the French one and usually marked presto in 12/8 meter, characterized by regular 4-bar phrases and a homophonic texture. Listening to the Gigue of the 1st Suite and the 6th Suite, one can hear the immense contrast between the two, from the youthful, bubbly energy in the 1st Suite, to the restrained elegance in the 5th Suite, to the last one, overflowing with energy in the repeated sixteenth-note figures... to me, it's a celebration of life.


The Dao of Bach Reflections on the Six Solo Suites
by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

According to the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu (6th c. B.C.),

The highest good is like water
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Dao
(From TaoThe-Ching)

This image of flowing water has been a constant guiding principle for more than thirty years in my study of these solo Suites: the music, like flowing water, does not force itself upon the player and audience, but rather unfolds in a most organic, life-affirming, and natural way; water, the principal symbol of the Dao, embodies the "way" to the essence of this extraordinary music. I was also struck by the words of Anna Magdalena Bach, Bach's second wife, quoted in La Petite Chronique d'A.M. Bach, where she states that the essence of her husband's music lies in "… all fresh, sparkling and gay, like some living water..."

We cellists owe a great deal to Bach, for the Six Solo Suites for Violoncello have become our musical canon, akin to Shakespeare's Hamlet for actors. In these monumental works, cellists are given the opportunity and the challenge to play polyphonic music that creates a sound world of melody, harmony, and counterpoint on just four strings. From the simple to the sublime, the six Suites traverse an enormous expressive landscape on just one instrument.

The Suites were composed during Bach's Cöthen period (1717-1723), an astonishingly productive time in Bach's life when he also composed Well-Tempered Klavier Book I, Six Brandenburg Concerti, Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied Violin, among others. Before and during Bach's time, the cello was a mere basso continuo instrument, but Bach elevated the cello to a solo status in the Suites. Even so, the Suites remained virtually unknown for many years due to a number of reasons: Bach's original manuscript has never been found; the Suites were viewed as "dry" and "academic," usually only performed as a selected movement in soirées. In addition to Anna Magdalena Bach's copy, there are three sources available, written in the hand of Bach's pupils and copyists. It was not until the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who breathed new life into the Suites that were brought to the concert stage. Casals once performed the 4th Suite in E-flat major for an audience of 8000 and remarked that it was the happiest day of his life. During the last 184 years after its first published edition (Louis Norblin, Paris, 1824), there have been more than 100 editions printed and over 50 recordings available today, each one claiming to have come closer to the authentic Bach.

After years of studying and performing the Suites and other works of Bach, I have come to believe that as with other composers' works, one must delve into the inner world of a composer in order to reveal and better understand his/her intentions. In Bach's case, articulation is as crucial to interpreting his music as it is in speech. His slurs and dots reflect the rhetorical value that was an essential part of the music aesthetic of this period. After playing the 5th Suite in normal tuning (C-G-D-A) for many years, I am relearning it in Bach's original scordatura tuning (C-G-D-G), which has been an enormous challenge for me. Going through this arduous process, I am amazed by Bach's knowledge of the instrument. Kodaly adapted the scordatura for his famous Solo Sonata for Cello. The Suites have influenced many other composers to write solo works for the cello including Max Reger, Hindemith, Britten, Ligeti, and Penderecki.

I have never been totally satisfied with my performances of the Suites; every time I perform them, there is always something new to discover. I first learned these notes from my own hand-copied score in pre-xerox era in Shanghai, copied from the only library score we had - a Russian edition! Even though I have played music from all periods through the years, I always find myself returning to these Suites. These Suites continue to challenge me to seek what is true and what is ideal. I remember what Auguste Rodin said, "Enter again into the truth, return to nature, go back to principles, link the present, to the past."

I hope the music will take us to a better world, where one finds true peace and harmony.


Hekun Wu, 2008