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!

JM

SDG

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