Suite No. 1 in G major

Commentary by Christopher Costanza

The Prelude of the 1st Suite for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach is possibly the most immediately recognizable solo work for the instrument. The movement starts with an arpeggiated figure that takes full advantage of the natural resonance of the instrument: an open G, an open D, and a B one full step above the open A string. That resonating G and D really define the essence of the piece: ringing, soothing, pure, natural. And the B on the A string, the third of the broken G Major chord, is in a very clear-sounding place on the cello, giving it a melodic quality and creating an uplifting, positive feel. Add to this the rocking, undulating quality of the 16th note writing, and we have flowing, motion-filled music that combines forward direction with a very settled, peaceful feeling of tonal color.

Next, that opening 2-beat, rocking arpeggio figure is repeated, then altered in measure 2 with the raising of the 2nd and 3rd pitches to create a sense of melodic opening (and, harmonically, giving us a sub-dominant chord), changed again in measure 3 by raising only the 2nd note (creating a V-7 chord, superimposed over a pedal G, giving us these intervals: a major 7th and a tritone), and resolved in measure 4 with a return to our tonic. And we’ve only covered the 1st four measures, an introduction of sorts to the remarkable journey that follows.

Measure 5 breaks the pattern set in the 1st 4 bars – the figures take on a more melodic and directional quality. These improvised-sounding bars alternate with the arpeggiated patterns established at the beginning, taking us on an interesting and creative harmonic ride. The ongoing motion continues for a total of 21-1/2 measures, until, after a dip down to the lowest notes on the instrument – a low C-sharp in measure 20, and then the incredibly rich, deep open low C in the next measure – all motion stops on a D above middle C. Bach puts a fermata on this monumental arrival, to give it a sense of great importance.

What follows is truly amazing, but first a bit of background. In each movement of every suite, Bach presents harmonically rich and complex music. His challenge, since the cello is essentially a melodic instrument (compared to the obvious harmonic functions of a keyboard instrument, on which one can easily play 6, 8, or 10 note chords), is to ingeniously and cleverly integrate multiple voices and clear harmonic structure without the benefit of straightforward, keyboard-type chordal playing. His method is to imply harmonic structure, by hinting at the possible development of additional voices, repeating certain pitches so as to establish their sound in the listener’s ear, and occasionally writing 2-, 3- or 4- note chords, especially at significant cadence points. In the case of this prelude, one can easily conclude that it is a 3-voice work – a quick glace at the score gives a pretty clear sense of this, confirmed by the 3-note chord that ends the movement.

Now, if we take that high D arrival, imagine a D two octaves lower and played as a pedal tone throughout the rest of the movement (until the ultimate chord), we can feel harmonic richness, delightful dissonance, and wildly driving energy, an effect not unlike that which we might encounter in a Bach keyboard prelude. He’s essentially taken the cello and, with the help of some creative listening, turned it into an organ of sorts – a brilliant accomplishment, for sure, and an approach that will return in subsequent preludes.

Throughout this inviting movement – and in subsequent movements (as well as in the other five suites as well!) - we experience a wide variety of moods and emotions as we encounter dissonances and resolutions, melodic shapes, unexpected harmonic progressions, and ingenious implied 3-voice writing. Bach’s use of the various registers of the cello to enhance depth of emotion is perfect in every way, from the lowest depths of the C string to the clear, ringing tones of the A string.

The Allemande, a German dance form featuring sweeping phrases of irregular lengths and a beautifully rich harmonic structure, follows the Prelude. Bach starts this movement with a sort of variation on the opening of the Prelude: the first note is a B upbeat to the beginning of the 1st bar, leading directly into a G Major chord containing the exact pitches and the same voicing used in the prelude. Here, though, no arpeggios: the opening chord is just that, a solid 3-note chord (which, practically speaking, is broken into 2 parts by the performer), followed by melodic material dominated by flowing, primarily scale-wise melodic motion. From time to time we reach clear cadence points, resting spots characterized by harmonic resolution and interruption of the ongoing sixteenth note motion. The first of these is in the 4th measure, where, after 2 beats of cascading, descending melodic motion (it’s our opening G Major triad again, with the melodic B on top!), we cadence on a very settling and satisfying tonic G on the 3rd beat. Two bars later, we have a similar setup, but this time, Bach gives us a descending arpeggio in e minor, coming to rest on a deep, rich low E. E minor is not unexpected, since it’s the relative minor key of G Major; what’s particularly beautiful and effective here is his sense of time (a rather quick shift from tonic to relative minor), his ideal use of the richness and depth of the cello’s lower register to make his harmonic point, and his quick shift out of e minor after these events, as if he’s showing us possibilities without committing. This sense of wandering continues, eventually leading to the expected modulation to the dominant key, D Major, at the conclusion of the 1st half of the movement.

The second half continues with similar twists and turns of harmonic and melodic motion, starting in D Major, passing briefly through G Major and taking us solidly to A minor before a beautifully paced and final return to G Major. Particularly moving is the passage from measure 25 to the end; in this section, Bach uses dissonance and resolution to maximal effect, especially the minor 7th drops in measures 27 and 28 and the slightly delayed resolution in measure 29.

In the Courante we hear a noticeable departure from the gentle, resonant, pulsating motion we’ve experienced thus far in the suite. Characteristic of courantes, the movement begins with an eighth note upbeat, an energetic, well-articulated G which is then repeated on the 1st measure downbeat, confirming our tonal center. The movement continues in a very high-energy, articulate fashion, in triple meter, very spirited and lively. Again, in a large measure due to the resonant nature of the key on G Major on a cello, the use of open strings (or notes that produce sympathetic ringing on open strings) produces a very open and healthy purity to the sound.

Throughout the movement, Bach contrasts lively, bouncy eighth note motion with slurred groups of 16th notes. This constant juxtaposition of short notes and connected ones creates textural interest, helps solidify and confirm the strong omnipresent rhythmic structure, and, if the performer is truly embracing the spirit of the music, gives the movement the rhythmic dance quality to which Bach clearly refers.

Of note are the two solid dotted quarter cadence points that Bach provides as momentary stopping points, one in each half of the binary structure. In the first half this cadence point is in G Major; in the 2nd, it’s in e minor, the relative minor of G Major. Bach’s sense of form and structure is perfectly balanced; these two moments of “rest” fall in ideal places amidst the excitement and energy that permeate the movement.

This Sarabande is a very gentle, friendly, even simple and innocent one. The movement is short and harmonically direct, characterized by a feature commonly found in sarabandes: an emphasis, or lean, on the 2nd beat of the three beats in a measure, achieved by lengthening the value of the 2nd beat note, enriching the 2nd beat harmonically, and placing a multi-stop (basically, a chord instead of a single pitch) on that 2nd beat.

Speaking of chords, it’s quite common in our cello suite sarabandes to encounter a significant amount of chordal writing, sometimes double stops (2 notes at once), occasionally quadruple stops (our maximum, since we only have 4 strings to work with), but most commonly triple stops, as we hear in the 1st two beats of the first measure. The opening chord, G-D-B presents, all at once, the first 3 notes of both the Prelude and Allemande, effectively linking the movements together and unifying harmonic and melodic elements. The very gentle, inviting nature of this movement contributes to the overall feeling consistent throughout the suite, that of warmth, resonance, and an altogether calm and friendly atmosphere. This is positive and satisfying music, simple but not simplistic, relaxing but not passive.

Menuet 1 begins with (you guessed it!) the same three notes, G-D-B, as the Prelude, Allemande, and Sarabande, and in the same octave, providing yet another level of unity through the movements. In this case, the 3 notes are presented as a broken chord, as in the Prelude, but rhythmically twice as slow, in the rhythm eighth-eighth-quarter, followed by an eighth and 2 sixteenths to finish measure one, a rather flowing and directional rhythmic presentation. Menuets are perhaps the most widely recognized of the dance forms Bach uses in the suites, and the menuet was a very familiar dance to folks of the day. The menuet as a compositional form remained popular into the Classical era and beyond; dozens of Haydn and Mozart symphonies and string quartets contain menuet movements, structured not unlike this 1st menuet, in triple meter and with a very clear dance lilt. (Haydn in particular started to experiment with rhythmic variety in his menuet offerings, often to great effect, and Beethoven is widely credited with transforming the classical menuet form into the scherzo.)

Back to Bach, this first menuet is quite gentle, not punchy or particularly bouncy, and heartfelt in character. In direct contrast is Menuet 2, in g minor (or almost – the key signature of g minor should contain a flattened B and a flattened E, but this menuet’s key signature contains only the B-flat, with E’s flattened on a case by case basis; did Bach actually write this 2nd menuet in the Dorian mode?), is sad and somewhat dark. He begins this menuet on a B-flat, leaving no doubt that we’ve taken a break from G Major. The contrast between the minuets couldn’t be more pronounced, and when we hear the return to Menuet 1, our perspective on this now familiar music has changed.

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A lively dance, in 6/8 meter (gigues are generally in some sort of compound meter, meaning that each beat we feel is divided into 3 parts; in this case, the 6/8 feels like a duple meter, with each beat containing 3 divisions), with the Irish “Jig” at its emotional and dance core, this gigue is predictably energetic, driving, and full of good spirit. Eighth note rhythms predominate, with sixteenths thrown in to great effect. This is a particularly compact movement, but it provides a perfect balance to a piece that is otherwise notable for its beauty, resonance, warmth, and purity.