In 1890, when the cellist Pablo Casals was on the verge of his fourteenth birthday, he visited a music shop in Barcelona. There, amongst the stacks of sheet music, he saw the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. The rest, as they say, is history.
From our position in the early 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine the cello suites considered anything less than masterpieces, and yet in the not so distant past, they were treated (for the most part) simply as exercises. They were pieces learned to bolster technique, or improve the agility and strength of the fingers. But Casals envisioned something else when he began to delve into the scores, and that was music worthy of the stage. By the early days of the new century, he was performing the suites in recitals, and over the course of a few years, starting in 1936, he made the first audio recordings of the suites. It would do for them what Glenn Gould would do for Bach’s Goldberg Variations twenty years later.
At the time, the cello repertoire didn’t offer much from the Baroque period—the 150 years between 1600-1750—and for good reason. During that period, the violoncello was generally relegated to the baseline as part of the continuo (along with the harpsichord, which provided a sense of percussive rhythm). There are only a couple of works from that era specifically for the solo violoncello (or viola da gamba), among them the Seven Ricercars for solo cello by Domenico Gabrielli (c.1651-1690), and the suites by Bach. Thus the suites were not only valuable for their beauty, but for their rarity.
Why were the cello suites written, and for whom? No one knows for certain. In fact, the original manuscripts in Bach’s hand have been lost to time. It is only thanks to his second wife, Anna Magdalena, and her effort to copy the suites around 1728 that we have any record of them at all. We can, however, make some guesses as to their origin and purpose. It is generally accepted that the suites were written between the years 1717-1723 when Bach was employed as Kapellmeister for the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen (presently in Northeast Germany), a principality located about nineteen miles away from Halle, the hometown of Bach’s contemporary, George Frideric Handel. Leopold had a great love of culture and music, and he was apparently an amateur musician as well. According to Philipp Spitta, one of Bach’s 19th century biographers, the prince “...played not only the violin, but the viol-di-gamba and the clavier; and he was also a very good bass singer. Bach, himself, said of him later that he had not merely loved music, but had understood it.” The prince was also a Calvinist, and as Calvinists do not use instruments in their religious services, Bach found himself in the position of writing only music for court entertainment—both public and private—for the first and only time in his career. It follows that several of Bach’s great secular works come from that period in Cöthen, such as The Well-Tempered Clavier; the Clavier-Büchlein (“Little Clavier Book”) for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach; another similar titled collection for Anna Magdalena; and the Brandenburg Concertos.
One of Bach’s duties as Kapellmeister would have been to provide chamber music, or music to be enjoyed privately in intimate settings. This is likely the origin of the cello suites. Not only did the prince apparently play the viola da gamba (or, the viol that you hold between the legs), the court musicians also included violoncellist Carl Bernhard Lienicke and Bach’s great friend Christian Ferdinand Abel (their respective sons, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel would later launch the first subscription concert series in London together). Any, or all, of these individuals (or others we don’t have a record of) could have performed the suites.
Structurally, Bach organized the dances comprising all six suites in a precise order following an opening prelude: allemande, courante, sarabande, other, and gigue (easily remembered as PACSOG). The “other” dance varied depending on the suite: where one and two have minuets, three and four have bourrées, and five and six have gavottes. It appears that beginning around the 16th century certain dances became frequently paired or grouped together, and often included a recherché (also ricercar, all variants meaning “to search for” or “seek out”) or an “unmeasured” prelude, both of which would have been improvised. By Bach’s time, the grouping of the inner three dances (allemande, courante, and sarabande) had become traditional across the continent and into England. One of the first written mentions of a suite proper in that so-called “classical” order was in 1676. It should be noted, however, that not all suites adhered to this traditional layout (and the preludes were no longer strictly improvised). Handel’s Water Music of 1717 is one example contemporary to the cello suites. Bach’s later Orchestral Suites also follow a different structure.
The final two suites, numbers five and six, contain technical specificities worth mentioning in some detail. These days, the specifics are generally observed by performers on a case-by-case basis, though opting to adhere to them can make the physical production of the music less cumbersome—and can sonically alter it, as well. In the fifth suite, the manuscript version calls for re-tuning the strings of the cello, a technique called scordatura. With this method, the A string is tuned down a full step to G, changing the original tuning from A-D-G-C to G-D-G-C and lending a different sound-world to the instrument due to the change to open string sonorities. Another thing to note about the fifth suite in particular is that its sarabande is the only sarabande without multiple voices (double/triple stops). Bach’s beloved first wife, Maria Barbara died suddenly while Bach and selected court musicians were away with Prince Leopold at the spa in Carlsbad, Bohemia (presently Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). Bach only discovered this heartbreaking news when he returned and she was already buried. It is pure conjecture to wonder if Bach wrote this sarabande in response, but regardless it represents a profound, reverent sorrow that stands out amongst the other movements of any of the suites.
Bach wrote the sixth suite for the 5-string cello piccolo, of which only a handful of these Baroque instruments remain. Giving the audience the rare opportunity to hear this suite as Bach intended, Mr. Haimovitz will perform on a cello piccolo for this concert. The main difference between a violoncello and the cello piccolo is that the latter is equipped with a high E string (giving the strings the layout E-A-D-G-C) that allowed Bach to expand the range of sound tremendously. On a practical level, performing this suite on its original instrument decreases the need for thumb positions and extensive shifting that modern cellists need to execute, and makes the triple and quadruple voicing that peppers this sarabande in particular much more comfortable to perform.
For these performances, Mr. Haimovitz has commissioned new overtures to be performed before each suite from composers Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, Mohammed Fairouz, and Luna Pearl Woolf. (Woolf’s piece, which introduces the sixth suite will also be performed on the cello piccolo.) Many suites of the Baroque period open with an overture, and the pairing of these commissions lends a nice tip of the hat to that tradition. It also affirms the value of Bach’s works as an ongoing source of inspiration for our day, and for future generations who will, like cellist Pablo Casals, make new discoveries in something old.
In addition to the cello piccolo, Mr. Haimovitz will be performing on his 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello, set up modern, and will alternate between modern bows (made by Francois Malo) and baroque bows (made by David Hawthorne).
Program note by Kathryn J. Allwine Bacasmot