Suite No. 6 in D major

Commentary by Christopher Costanza

Of Note: Suite No. 6 in D major is written for a five-string instrument, perhaps a cello piccolo, tuned E-A-D-G-C.

This D Major prelude is the longest and grandest of the 6 (in fact, everything in this suite is larger in scale compared to the other five suites), rich, full, extended in range and length, just plain big! The meter is 12/8 (compound quadruple) and the motion is one of continuous eighth notes, although one feels four beats of triplets per bar. The fact that this suite was conceived for a cello-type instrument with 5 strings allows for a considerably wider pitch range than in any of the other suites – in order to play the suite on a four-string cello, at times we need to climb quite high on our A string, traveling into “thumb position land” quite frequently.

The movement opens with a notational and melodic feature of interest: Bach constructs the opening melodic material, essentially a spread out D Major arpeggio in eighth notes, by juxtaposing like pitches on adjacent strings, in essence using tone color variation to create parts of the melodic lines. Specifically, the first three notes of the movement, all D’s in the same octave, create a melodic and coloristic statement simply by going back and forth between the G and D strings – a fingered D on the G String, contrasted with the open D. We end up with a sort of pedal tone element, created by the resonance of the open D String; yet that open D string fulfills a melodic role as well. We hear this approach at various places in the movement, one at a time using all 5 open strings (it would be 5 if one were to have the open E string; without it, cellists must finger that E, often using the thumb).

This prelude is very driving and flowing throughout; the sense of motion established at the start continues throughout the movement. Take note of the dramatic climb up the cello to a high G (three octaves above the open G string!), about halfway through the movement: throughout this ascent, Bach presents, repeats, and emphasizes a pedal “A” pitch (this is what we call a dominant pedal tone, representing the dominant of D Major). After reaching this extremely high note, the music descends sequentially, leading to two passages of fleeting sixteenth notes, impressive in their speed and direction. The only instance of chordal writing in the movement is very close to the end, before the final arpeggiated drive to the conclusion. The movement ends in grand fashion, setting a strong, resonant, and confident tone for the piece as a whole.

This 20-measure allemande, in 4/4 time and characterized by frequent passages of 32nd notes occasionally punctuated by 2 and 3 voice chords, is the single longest movement in any of the suites, lasting about 7-1/2 to 8 minutes. It is friendly, inviting, warm, and quite rhapsodic; a sense of improvisation prevails throughout, giving the movement a personal, heartfelt sense. And it’s a particularly slow-paced movement; Bach’s notational choices and intervallic leaps essentially require a very patient, restful approach to tempo.

This movement is one of the true emotional centerpieces of the suites – the music is remarkably beautiful, honest, and practically romantic in character. This is vocal writing through and through, as though the cellist is “singing” an aria while providing harmony as well. Bach uses a rich harmonic language and innovative voicing, in conjunction with an extremely wide range of pitches (from a low open “C” to a high “D” an octave and a fourth above the open “A”), to explore a high level of emotional expression.

In many respects, this courante feels like an expanded version of the 1st suite courante; the alternation of eighth and sixteenth note figures is similar to that in the 1st suite, and in certain ways the resonant qualities of D Major resemble those of G major, in consideration of the way in which the cello’s open strings vibrate and transmit sound. This D Major courante feels melodically and harmonically stretched out (72 measures long, compared to the 1st suite courante’s 42), more fully developed and tonally expanded (in a large part due to that aforementioned opening of the cello range with the added E string structure), but throughout it retains characteristic courante features: triple meter; a lively, energetic dance feel; and zippy eighth-sixteenth note rhythms. Clearly conceived in multiple voices, we hear only one voice at a time, with implied harmonies and conversational voices presented throughout.

In 3/2 rather than the more common 3/4 meter, this sarabande is fully chordal and harmonically rich. Three and four voice chords predominate; played on a 4-string cello (as most of us do, as opposed to using a 5-string instrument with E-A-D-G-C tuning), this movement in particular presents significant challenges, since so many of the chords, quite straightforward on a 5-string instrument, require creative fingerings and interesting voice divisions with only the four strings available. The most significant challenge is to clearly show the direction and connection of the various voices while presenting the beautiful harmonies in all their richness and glory. From the listener’s perspective, the most inviting and effective feature of the movement is this flow of gorgeously harmonized melodic material, a feature more extensively used here than in any other movement of the suites and more characteristic of some of the writing in Bach’s unaccompanied violin works. It’s almost as if, in this movement and in the suite as whole, Bach felt liberated by adding that extra string and chose to write more involved, grander music than he had in the other five suites. And at the same time we can’t help but to draw comparisons with his religious music – there’s something almost otherworldly in the beauty of this sarabande. Was he inspired and influenced by his life in the church and his prolific output of religious music?

This movement is probably the most well known single movement of the suites, with the possible exception of the 1st Bourrée of the 3rd suite or the Prelude of the 1st. It is lively, beautifully harmonized, and characterized by very memorable melodic content. Consistent with other gavottes, the movement is in duple meter (4/4, but felt in 2), and starts with a big 2nd-half-of-the-measure upbeat.

Both gavottes are in D Major; the 1st is very chordal, characterized by the rhythmic juxtaposition of quarter and eighth notes, working together to paint a sweeping melodic line. The 2nd gavotte is musically much simpler; the second half of this gavotte prominently features an open D-string pedal tone. This is true dancing music, through and through – the liveliness and uplifting energy of these gavottes clearly invite the listener to physically move to the music.

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At last, the 36th and final movement of the six suites! This is a lively gigue in 6/8; it encourages a very bold and direct approach, through its wide melodic range (from a low C-sharp to a high D more than 3 octaves higher), driving 8th and 16th note rhythms, and use of double stops. It’s a virtuosic display on the highest order: chords, arpeggios, flying leaps, and sequential eighth and sixteenth note rhythms abound, adding up to an impressive mix. All in all, this is a brilliant and exciting way to cap off the D Major suite and the set of 6 as a whole.