Dancing with J.S. Bach and a Cello

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

Introduction

“Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God.” That is how Wilfrid Mellers, in his book, Bach and the Dance of God, describes the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello by J.S. Bach.1 This pithy yet provocative preamble comprises several of the important threads one may consider when studying and performing this repertoire. Firstly, while these instrumental works, composed around 1720 during Bach’s uniquely secularized tenure at Cöthen, contrast against the composer’s awesome output of sacred vocal music, they remain connected to the idea that Bach was fundamentally a religious composer.2 Secondly, Bach wrote these suites for an unaccompanied, single-voice instrument, whose historical role was one relegated to supporting bass. Not only was Bach the first non-cellist composer to give the cello its first big break as a lead actor and soloist; his ‘monophonic’ compositions are masterfully contrapuntal. Thus Bach’s imposed compositional constraints – writing implied harmony for a solo voice – and his idiomatic technical demands and empowerment of the instrument prompt us still to marvel over a single man’s creation, and view this music as sustaining, canonical, and transcendent.

But there is more: there is dance. Central to the study and performance of the Bach cello suites is the import of Baroque social dances, from which the suites derive their form. German composers during the Baroque era were great synthesizers of style: virtuosity from Italy, and from France, dance. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello were modeled after the suites of Froberger, who had compiled and stylized staple court dances disseminated across the German principalities from the ballrooms and courts of Louis XIV: the Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, and Gigue. With these dances, as well as an optional Prelude, Froberger forged the framework for the German Baroque instrumental suite. Yet, Froberger’s suite movements, and consequently Bach’s, were written as concert works – not as music for dance. While the French court musicians accompanying dancers would have picked musical selections quasi-randomly from an assortment – not bearing any particular tonal relationship to one another, nor a particular order, Froberger provided musical coherence to the suite by putting all of the dance movements in the same key and in a consistent order. With Froberger, and furthered by Bach (who, in addition to including Preludes, also inserted galant movements into his suites), these dances became vehicles for musical exploration; stylized, ornamented, and contemplative.

How then do the vestiges of Baroque social dance inflect and inform our listening, interpretation, and performance of what are actually stylized concert pieces? What might these original French dances tell us about the music? How might they provide a critical dimension to an embodied understanding of musical gesture, and are they pedagogically useful to performance of the suites? As cellists, do we dance when we play?

Objective

By exploring Baroque conceptions of gesture, dance, and idiomatic writing, one may imagine how musical and physical gestures may have converged for Bach when composing his six suites for unaccompanied violoncello, and how this may inform future performance.

  • 1. See Mellers, Wilfrid, Bach and the Dance of God, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1980, 15.
  • 2. Richard Taruskin reminds us in his Oxford History of Music opus that, while a disproportionate amount of Bach scholarship and present day performance has privileged Bach’s instrumental writing, our consequent image of a secular composer must always be tempered by the awesome mass of Bach’s sacred output. This reconciliation of the sacred and secular in Bach is Mellers’ main project, as he finds ways to frame the Suites as connected to Bach’s spiritual works.