The Bach Suites

I think it was Christmas, around 1994 (give or take a year.) One of the presents under the tree was a large, slim book. I opened it and saw a copy of the Cello Suites by J. S. Bach. I was very excited! I had heard Yo Yo Ma’s recordings of the suites sometime before and I had fallen in love, and to have a copy of this music to play was a dream come true. Later in the day, I took my cello out and began a deep, long friendship that continues to this day.

The Cello Suites by J. S. Bach are a singular achievement in the history of western music. No other composer has ever come close to achieving what Bach did in these pieces; he said so much with so very little. He created six suites of such beauty and majesty, such range of emotions, and gave them to a solitary cello. He could have orchestrated them, fleshed them out, adding harmonies and counterpoint in order to give his ideas more impact. But he humbled his music by giving it to a single instrument, and by doing so, he exalted it. He exalted his ideas by showing that all that is necessary to represent the whole spectrum of the human experience is a single cello. No fancy tricks are necessary. Just four strings strapped to a box, and a human being with beauty in her soul.

But why the cello? Not to say anything disparaging about my favorite instrument, but in the early 18th century it was hardly the superstar that it would later become not that long after Bach’s death. And yet the cello seemed to have been a favorite instrument of Bach’s. He featured it (along with its now defunct five-stringed cousin, the violoncello piccolo) in many of his large scale works, such as the passions of Matthew and John, the Brandenburg Concerti, and many of the cantatas he wrote earlier in his career. He never thought of the instrument as purely a bass voice. His treatment of the instrument is essentially soloistic. He gave it interesting lines, never relegating it to simply holding the foundational notes. So it is not surprising that he wrote suites for unaccompanied cello. What is surprising is how unbelievable effective they are.

One of the miraculous aspect of the suites is the fact that the harmonies we hear when the suites are played are largely implied, meaning that notes that are not played are actually “heard,” which fills out the harmonies in such a way so that no other instrument is necessary. Bach depends on our musical memory to make his harmonic argument, and as a result of his writing the harmonies are clear in our mind, even though they are not actively present. For example, listen to the Prelude of the G major suite. The bottom bass notes continue to be present in our memory as the other notes are played, even though they are not being sustained. Bach understood that his listeners would be able to hold these harmonies in our minds if he suggested them through his writing, and he is successful at it throughout the suites (for pieces that are less successful at this, listen to the Cello Suites by Max Reger. They are wonderful music in their own right, but not nearly as successful at communicating implied harmony.) It is because of this “implied harmony” that the cello suites are able to harmonically communicate anything at all (a quick aside: I wonder what this means in regards to current thinking in the subject of philosophy of mind? If our minds can “fill in” harmonic material that is not actively present, isn’t this the musical version of the “after-image” visual effect? Memory is certainly a strange thing indeed!)

Compositional technique aside, The Cello Suites are also amazing in their emotional complexity. In the course of six suites, Bach manages to touch upon an infinite amount of human emotions, giving every listener at every age and level of life experience something to ponder and reflect upon. How many joyous moments have I had listening to the heavenly outbursts in the D major suite? How much more bleak and lonely can music get than in the Sarabande of the C minor suite? How much more architectural grandeur can be displayed musically than in the Prelude of the C major suite? In the Cello Suites, Bach gives us an entire world, a panoramic view of humanity and nature that has never been surpassed.

It should be obvious to all of you by now how much I love this music! It has been a friend in tough times and in happier moments, always lifting me up whenever I am down and keeping me up when I am high. I am thankful to Bach for this music, and to God who made him.

So why all the fuss about the Cello Suites? I have decided to devote some serious time and study to the suites, which will hopefully result in a book about what is required of us technically and musically to play them. The Cello Suites are great music, but they are also a great way to study the problems of playing the cello, the technical and musical. The book will be a “manifesto” of sorts, using the suites to illustrate what I think is important in cello playing and musicianship in general. I will blog occasionally on my progress when I feel that I have anything valuable to share.

Thank you for reading!




As I was preparing for my recording of the complete works for cello and piano by Joachim Raff, I kept finding myself asking some fundamental questions about how this music should be played. In his Duo for Cello and Piano, a wonderful piece which beautifully exploits the technical and expressive range of both instruments, there are markings in the cello part that indicate vibrato usage. This posed an interesting problem for me, largely because I had already been using copious amounts of vibrato in the passage that precedes the vibrato marking in the score. I had also never seen vibrato indications in 19th century music before, so I had no other examples of solutions to draw from. What was I to do, vibrate even more? The markings seem to be suggesting that I should be severely restricting my vibrato before the indication in the score so that the section with the indication for vibrato could become accentuated in the way the composer intended. However, no one today plays with a restricted vibrato in romantic era music. Heavy use of vibrato is considered to be one of the most important aspects of the romantic cello sound. What Raff was asking me to do was to play with sparing vibrato in a romantic era piece. As you can hear in the recording, I kept the standard practice of frequent vibrato usage, as it was the only way I could make the piece sound convincing in the recording sessions.

But I remained unsettled, and after the sessions I started to do some digging. What I found was that the instrument has undergone a profound change since the 19th century, not just in the way it is played, but also in the equipment itself.

Most cellists today are aware that cellists in the baroque period all played with the instrument held between their legs, and that the material used for the strings was a combination of plain sheep or cow gut and gut with silver or nickel winding over it. What many players do not realize is that playing on gut strings with no endpin was fairly common all the way until the 1920’s. In fact, many of the most famous cellists in the romantic era played without an endpin. David Popper, Alfredo Piatti, Friedrich Grützmacher, Friedrich Dotzauer, Bernhard Romberg, and Robert Hausmann (Brahms’s favorite cellist) all played on gut strings with no endpin. The first cellist to use an endpin was probably Adrien Servais, who apparently invented it because his stomach had grown so large that he couldn’t hold the cello between his legs anymore. Following in Servais’ footsteps, some cellists adopted its use, such as Karl Davidov, Carl Schroeder, Hugo Becker, and Julius Klengel. From the last quarter of the 19th century until the first quarter of the 20th, whether or not you used an endpin while playing the cello had much to do with personal taste and whether or not your teacher used one. For example, Pablo Casals used an endpin for his entire career, more than likely because his teacher used one. However, students of Robert Hausmann mostly played without an endpin, with the famous English cellist Percy Such being one of the last in the 20th century to play in the old manner.

At some point between 1930 and the second world war the endpin became universally used. Why? Some of the greatest cellists of the day, such as Hugo Becker, claimed that with the cello secured on the floor the body of the instrument can vibrate more freely, thus amplifying the tone. This “fact” appears in many other treatises written around 1900. I am not sure that this is true. There are many variables that go into the size of a cello sound, and whether or not the ribs of the instrument are dampened or “freed” by the presence of an endpin seems to make only a marginal difference. It also must be mentioned that according to contemporaneous critical reports the sound of Robert Hausmann was the biggest of all the late 19th/early 20th century cellists, and he played sans endpin. But I digress!

After the endpin became ubiquitous, major changes in strings were around the corner. By the 1920’s, steel had already become quite common in the violin set up, as gut manufacturing suffered in quality during the Great War. Also, solo violinists were traveling much more to tropical and subtropical locales, such as the southern United States and southeast Asia, where the excessive heat and humidity were breaking their already fragile gut E strings. It was not long after that cellists started to experiment with steel on the top two strings. There were several notable holdouts, the most famous being Pau Casals, who revered gut as the only true cello sound (a view with which I am sympathetic!) When Rostropovich, with his all-steel high tension set up, hit the scene in the 1960s, many solo cellists became convinced that using steel on all four strings is the only way to create a big, competitive sound. Thus by the 1990’s almost no one was using gut, a rather sad condition that continues to this day.

So why is this important? Is there that big of a difference between playing with an endpin and not? Or between gut strings and steel? I was curious to see what the actual differences were, largely because I had become frustrated with my own playing during and after making the Raff CD. I was no where close to making the kinds of sounds I dream of, the kind of sounds made by Casals and Feuermann, but I also was curious of what problems late 19th century players had to deal with as well. I decided that if I am ever going to understand how these great players approached sound, I needed to approximate their set up, which was gut on all four strings, unwound on the top two. This involved getting an old tailpiece made in the 1940’s (I think, it may have been a little later) that had no built-in fine tuners, getting new notches cut in the bridge and the nut to accommodate the thicker strings, and of course purchasing the strings themselves. I also experimented with hours of practice with no endpin, to see what effect that might have on the sound and approach. One of the things I found was that playing with an endpin allows for much more freedom in the vibrato. The vibrato can be quite wide and ever-present, but without an endpin the cello is less stable, so a very wide vibrato tends to shake the instrument. However, the contact between the bow and the string is much improved, which leads the player to use the bow much more for expression in place of a wide vibrato palate. The result is much longer phrases, but a less beautiful sound. I did not notice a large difference in sound volume, in fact if there was any difference at all, playing with no endpin seemed to make the sound slightly larger, perhaps due to the increased bow contact. The strings made a much bigger difference. Gut will not speak if played aggressively, as opposed to steel which can withstand a violent approach (a sound can be made at least, whereas on gut no sound at all comes if you press even a tiny bit.) This forced my hands to move in a much more lyrical manner, and finally gave me the more cantabile sound I was looking for. The sound at first was quite small compared to steel, but after many hours of practice I figured out how to get a full sound from them. They also carry surprisingly well in large spaces, even though they don’t sound very loud under the ear.

This has led me to believe that, contrary to popular opinion, the changes in string performance style that have occurred since the beginning of the 20th century (a shift from lyrical and sonically expressive playing to a more angular, less sonically but more visually expressive approach) have not been products of changing tastes, but products of changing equipment. The equipment dictates more than anything else how we respond to and play an instrument, because changing styles can only occur if the instrument allows them to occur.

Getting back to Raff and the question of vibrato, I now understand why he would feel the need to mark in his music where he would like it to be present; he had no expectation that players would be vibrating much at all. Mind you this is in the heart of the romantic era. Not that all players of the day did not vibrate much; some, such as Karl Davidov and Adrien Servais, vibrated quite a bit (interestingly, both players were early exponents of the endpin.)

Then as performers, how do we approach the music that was written for the cello in this period? How can we use this information to better understand the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Raff? Is it even possible, with the cello set up as it is today (steel strings and a long and sometimes bent endpin,) to approach the music of the romantic era in a way that comes any at all close to what the composer intended? This is a philosophical question, and one that every musician who calls themselves an interpreter should confront. Is it your goal to try to play in a way that captures the true spirit of the music you are interpreting? Then knowledge can only help you. Even if you decide to disregard that knowledge and play as you feel on stage, you will still be better off for having that knowledge in you. It was a lesson I had to learn, and I am thankful to Raff for opening my eyes to it.