Suite No. 3 in C major

Commentary by Christopher Costanza

Bach begins his brilliant C Major suite with a simple descending scale, a strong statement of positive energy. From those very 1st opening notes we feel a sense of excitement and anticipation. One of the most distinctive and appealing features of the cello as an instrument is its rich deep bass qualities, epitomized by the purity and substance of the open low C string. The 3rd suite as a whole takes full advantage of this glorious resonance, beginning with the opening motive of the Prelude, a simple 2 octave descending scale with a closing broken triad culminating on an open C arrival. From here Bach takes us on a flowing, driving, directional, and sometimes breathless journey of continuous 16th note figures, passing through multiple key areas, utilizing pedal tones, and bringing us to a remarkable climax of chords, rests, and harmonic triumph.

That opening scale remains a strong and prevalent motivic feature throughout the movement. Bach takes basic scale-wise motion and uses it creatively and convincingly, giving us a sort of sixteenth note scale-figure sense of grounding. He manipulates those scale figures, fragmenting them and rearranging them, maintaining our interest at all times. We hear arpeggiated groupings interspersed amongst scale passages, clarifying harmony and providing rich resonance.

About halfway through the movement, a passage of sixteenth note arpeggiated figures - characterized by a deep and pure open G string pedal tone, rich harmonic motion, and satisfying dissonances and resolutions - establishes great musical excitement and defines a sort of structural heart of the movement; this section feels like a mid-point diversion on a long hike in the mountains. This material then gets back on track with a passage of alternating scale and arpeggio figures, through which exceptional intensity and harmonic energy gradually build through sequential writing. Then we experience a fabulous display of harmonically rich quadruple-stop quarter note chords alternating with 2-beat rests; here Bach uses unexpected silence – those dramatic rests between the chords – to create a brilliantly conceived climax. We finally arrive at a confident closing with double trills and a recap of that opening scale motive.

This allemande represents a departure from the allemande style set in the 1st two suites – it opens with 3 upbeat notes (not the usual single sixteenth note pickup), and it is characterized by a snappy 16th/32nd note rhythm that creates a bouncy, lively character (unlike the flowing, somewhat more patient progression of the aforementioned allemandes). Of particular note is this movement’s opening motivic material, which essentially follows the descending C major scale shape that defines the start of the prelude, albeit in a different rhythmic pattern. As we will see, the idea of the descending C major scale is a unifying element in the piece as a whole.

Listen for the ascending scale in thirds about halfway through the 1st half of the movement. The passage begins with a C Major third bouncing down to an open C. The 3rd note (which is also a major 3rd) is D-F#, leading us out of C major and heading toward the dominant, G Major. But… despite that appearance of an F-sharp, we still feel the pull of C Major through those 1st six notes, largely due to the low C’s, which act as a sort of bouncy pedal tone between each of the 3rds. Only on the 8th note of the passage does Bach change the low pedal to a G, clarifying the arrival of G Major. This passage in particular is quite innovative and exciting - the use of 3rds, a straight sixteenth note rhythmic pattern, and that offbeat open string C, then G, pedal tone all add up to an eye-opening moment.

As with the first 2 movements, here we have a melodically descending start, this time a C Major arpeggio (instead of a scale) covering 2 full octaves. This courante is characterized by continuous eighth note motion throughout, every so often interrupted by connective sixteenth note figures. A particularly interesting feature, and one that allows for a moment of slightly “scrubby” playing, are the two energetic and driving string crossing sections near ends of both halves – very spirited and uplifting! Overall, the movement has an almost “moto perpetuo” feel – a nearly constant sense of drive and a very bold directional flow.

This sarabande opens with rich, inviting, and very pure chords, perfectly showcasing the natural warmth and resonance of the cello. As we hear in so many sarabandes (including five of the six in these suites), the rhythmic structure is such that we frequently experience a clear emphasis on beat 2 of the measure (the meter is ¾, as expected). We feel this rhythmic pattern from the first measure: beat one is a 4-voiced C Major chord, its value a quarter note, and beat two is a dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm, pitches D-C, where the C moves to an A on the 16th note and ultimately resolves on beat 3 to an implied G Major (dominant) chord. The dotted rhythm, taken together with the rich dissonance on beat 2, creates a clear sense of weight and focus on that beat. This sense of 2nd beat emphasis occurs in at least 14 of the 24 measures that make up the movement (I say at least, since second beat emphasis is not always defined by clear rhythmic stress; at times, implied harmonies create stress on certain beats of certain measures).

Notable throughout the movement, but particularly in the 2nd half, is the clearly defined and directional bass line. The movement clearly is in four voices (as I mentioned, the first note is a four-voiced chord), and the bass line provides unity, harmonic grounding, and a sense of phrase length and shape.

The first Bourrée of the 3rd suite is immediately recognizable, has frequently been arranged to include accompaniment, and appears in all sorts of instrumental sheet music solo albums, not only those for the cello (think Suzuki Method). Contributing to its overwhelming popularity, this bourrée is a delightful piece, highly energetic, tuneful, and instantly appealing. At the start we hear a zippy 2-eighth-note upbeat figure, leading scale-wise to a quarter note G on the downbeat of the 1st full bar and setting the tone for a rhythmic pattern that unifies the movement: the continual quarter note-double eighth note alternation, interspersed with flowing measures of continuous eighth notes. The articulation is pointed and clearly etched; the musical lines are direct and forward in feeling. The bouncy, lively, and positive feel of the movement work together to give it an unmistakable dance vibe.

In contrast, the 2nd Bourrée, in c minor, is somewhat hushed, sad and troubled in character. Rhythmically, this bourrée is very similar to the 1st (eighth and quarter note juxtaposition, for example), but articulations are smoothed out, and the sections feel like beautifully continuous long phrases. This 2nd bourrée is a direct minor key complement to the 1st, balancing the movement perfectly.

%s1 / %s2

The C Major Suite gigue is particularly lively and energetic, full of positive spirit and excitement. Its meter is 3/8 (a compound meter with one pulse per bar), and is rhythmically characterized by alternating eighth and sixteenth note figures (often an eighth followed by four sixteenths). It is filled with conversational elements – melodic and rhythmic figures that bounce between the upper and lower cello registers. Of particular note and creating great excitement is the passage, occurring once in each half of the movement, of sixteenth notes in which a melodic line on one string alternates with repeated soundings of the adjacent open string. This passages builds in intensity, leading to an eight bar phrase (in minor) of double stops, 16th and 8th note figurations played together with open string pedal tones. One feels the high energy, English/Irish/Scottish common jig-like dance feel when listening to this particularly evocative sequence of phrases. This movement, with its super-charged energy and clear jig feel is guaranteed to bring a smile to the faces of both listeners and performers!