Dancing with J.S. Bach and a Cello – Bach and the Cello

by Anna Wittstruck, Ph.D. candidate in musicology, Stanford University

Bach and the Cello

Performers may also want to consider, not only dance influences, but also Bach’s idiomatic writing for the cello and the compositional feat of implied voicing for a single instrument, imposed on dance structures. We do not know how Bach composed this music, nor if he had any performance or performer in mind.1 However, like Baroque dance, the idiomatic and expressive possibilities of the instrument are something that may have concerned Bach and his compositional process. According to Christoph Wolff in his book, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, Bach may well have learned to play cello, and his idiomatic writing for the six suites suggests at the very least a good deal of familiarity with the instrument.2 The majority of Bach scholarship touching upon the cello suites stresses the idiomatic nature of the compositions. Wolff writes, “Bach, the quintessential instrumentalist, raises and redefines the technical standards of performing by fully exploiting the idiomatic qualities of the violin and cello.”3 Mellers discusses how well musical affect matches with Bach’s writing for the particular instrument; for example, the resonant, descending scale of the C major Suite’s unfolding Prelude is an extroverted gesture largely because it makes use of open strings and the overtones on C and G.4 Of course, the counter argument would be to ask how such idiomatic music is able to be transcribed for other instruments. The cello suites in particular are claimed by an assortment of other instruments, from viola to trombone and clarinet, in addition to the orchestral arrangements.5 Still, consider the string crossings towards the end of the G major Suite Prelude – a passage that is only possible because each ascending note alternates with the open A string – and its culminating effect. Bach may not have been a cellist, but it is easy to imagine that the physical gesture of moving the bow back and forth between the two strings, anticipation heightened by harmonic instability and sheer repetition of the arm and wrist (what Mellers calls inevitability born from “corporeal motor rhythm”), is something he embodied when conceiving of that gradual and spectacular climax.6

Scholars likewise note the technical skill demanded by these pieces and their pedagogical usefulness for cellists. Martin Geck, in his biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, points out that the Bach ‘cello suites appear to serve as the ‘Gradus ad Parnassus’ of cello playing: the early suites are easier and become gradually more difficult.7The final two suites – the C minor and D major (BWV 1011 and 1012) go beyond the normativity of the earlier ones by incorporating scordatura and the use of a five-string instrument (presumably a violoncello piccolo), respectively. Wolff argues that the technical demands of the ‘cello suites and violin partitas exceed even those of the keyboard suites from the same time period.8 He writes, “Bach’s unaccompanied violin and cello compositions also epitomize virtuosity, and, on account of their singularity, to a degree even greater than his keyboard works of comparable technical demands.”9

Wolff marvels over the technical demands on the performer, but also at the compositional ambition of the suites. These suites are exemplars of implied contrapuntal voicing with three to four voice counterpoint distilled to a single line, sometimes supplemented by chords. Wolff writes, “Both collections of unaccompanied violin and cello pieces create the maximum effect with a minimum of instrumental ‘tools’.”10 He later writes, “Both sets of solo pieces demonstrate Bach’s command of performing techniques but also his ability to bring into play, without even an accompanying bass part, dense counterpoint and refined harmony with distinctive and well-articulated rhythmic designs, especially in the dance movements.”11

The compositional feat of implied voicing on a solo instrument is crucial to our understanding and execution of the cello suites. It makes the music technically more difficult to play; the presence of multiple lines means that a performer must frequently employ chords and double stops, but also be able to privilege one note over another as the voices weave in and out. It also affects how a performer relates to the music in real time; one has to listen and play through each movement repeatedly to realize the contrapuntal material and phrasing, and so developing the music in time and space is a layered process. Not only is the cellist a technician, moving the bow back and forth, and a dancer, feeling the embodied tension and release of a vestigial, dance-based pulse; he/she also acts like a choir director. The solo line, when attending to multiple voices, is a schizophrenic one.

  • 1. According to David Ledbetter, there was an excellent cellist named Christian Bernhard Linike who joined Prince Leopold’s Capelle at Cothen in 1716, and it is presumed that the suites were probably written for him, if written for anyone. See Ledbetter, David, Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, 35.
  • 2. See Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000, 42.
  • 3. See Wolff, 231.
  • 4. See Mellers, 34.
  • 5. Efrati argues that transcription is evidence that the works are not idiomatic, and that they may not have been written for ‘cello, but something that resembles a viola. It should be noted that Efrati is an active violist. See Efrati, Richard.
  • 6. See Mellers, 27.
  • 7. See Geck, Martin, Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2000, 603.
  • 8. See Wolff, 231-232.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Ibid.