Dancing with J.S. Bach and a Cello – Baroque Dance in the Cello Suites

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

Baroque Dance in the Cello Suites

There is a rich tradition of finding ways to connect Baroque dance forms and patterns concretely to the Bach cello suites. The most comprehensive study to date is Little and Jenne’s Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach, in which the authors give technical step and pattern-based descriptions of seventeenth and eighteenth century court dances as well as a detailed overview concerning the dissemination of French dance and culture throughout Germany during Bach’s lifetime. Little and Jenne synthesize the history of Baroque dance steps and rhythmic patterns with comprehensive analysis of Bach’s dance-form movements, including the cello suites. Their use of the Greek terms arsis (lifting) and thesis (setting) in conjunction with specific musical events provides an embodied reading of each piece. Likewise, their general observance that the plié (bending of the knees) serves as a preparatory gesture while most downbeats are felt – not as heavy and grounded – but as lifts (the moment when the dancer either raises his/her ankles from the ground with an élevé or leaps up into the air) inflects our sense of the meter’s shifting weight.1

This dance based analysis, then, has far reaching implications for the ways in which modern performers may approach the music, particularly with regards to metric feel. Indeed the majority of the literature on Baroque dance is designed as a manual for performance. From the work of Little and Jenne, but also Betty Bang Mather’s Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque: A Handbook for Performance, and Rifat Quershi’s D.M.A. thesis, “The Influence of Baroque Dance in the Performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Six Suites a Violoncello Senza Basso” (which takes up the work of Little and Jenne and applies it more directly to the cello suites), we see that Baroque dance may inform an array of performance decisions, such as articulation, tempo, phrasing, and even bowings. No manuscript of these suites survives in Bach’s hand, and the slurs, articulations, and even notes and harmonies are wildly inconsistent between the surviving copies. The copy penned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, has historically been the authorial copy, but its mistakes are elucidated by the inconsistencies between it and the few other surviving copies, presumably penned by his students. What is more, there does exist an original manuscript of Bach’s lute transcription of the C minor cello suite, and the many differences between it and Magdalena’s copy for cello question her accuracy as a copyist.2 Which slurs to abide is a contentious interpretative issue, and the dance patterns, by enforcing which beats should be emphasized within each measure or couple of measures, provide an additional tool to inform performers.

That said, this body of literature also suggests that the relationship between music, musical affect, and dance origins will vary considerable depending on dance type and each individual movement. The examples given by Little and Jenne confirm what Eric McKee argues in his essay, “Influences of the Early Eighteenth-Century Social Minuet on the Minuets From J. S. Bach’s French Suites, BWV 812-17”: the most stylized dance movements in Bach take their form from the oldest and most outdated social dances.3 The more new-fangled the dance, the more Bach adheres to the dance’s particular step patterns and rhythms, while the movements based on older, démodé dances are more stylized, contemplative, and removed from their terpsichorean origins. For Little and Jenne, it is not even worth discussing the Allemande movements in relation to dance, because “[…] by Bach’s time [the Allemande] no longer reflected a particular dance form,” and also the authors did not find any remaining choreographic manuals from that time period.4 Conversely, the most contemporary dance used by Bach in the cello suites is the galant minuet (found in BWV 1007 and 1008), in which one may discern a regular alteration of arsic and thetic measures and corresponding harmonic rhythm (see Minuet I from the ‘Cello Suite in D minor, BWV 1008). The rhythmic structure of the danced minuet has the most bearing on the way one feels the phrasing of the minuet in a Baroque suite. From his choreographic research, McKee finds that all danced minuets, based on the step pattern and the pattern created across the ballroom, create a two-bar hypermetre, and that additionally Bach, after 1720, switched to a Classical phrase structure which developed from this hypermetre. The two-bar hypermetre is consistent in the two sets of minuets found in the cello suites, and the knowledge of that dance-inspired, rhythm and phrasing would inform how we hear, perform, and feel the music.

As the least stylized dance, the minuet is the most extreme example of dance rhythm impinging upon musical interpretation. For the older, more stylized dances, we must look at them on a case-by-case basis. Consider, for example, the sarabande. The sarabande has had a long history: New World and Spanish origins, imported to Italy as a fast, sexual dance, and then “tamed” by the French to become a slower, triple-meter, and elegant highbrow embodiment of courtly ritual – its lasting manifestation. Critical to its identity are three things: slow, basic harmonic rhythm, regular eight-bar phrases, and often an emphasis on the second beat of either the first or second measure. This final feature, while varies considerably in its compositional realization, gives the sarabande its signature feel. This unmistakable, slow motion iambic quality is essential to the stylized sarabande’s rhythmic and gestural identity, and derives from dance.

However, there are no specific step patterns for the sarabande, and its many manifestations (and tempi!) span a significant spectrum. All six of the Bach cello suites have their own unique sarabande, which constitutes the emotional core of each suite. They vary drastically in tempo and affect, due in part to their respective key signatures. The G major suite (BWV 1007) immediately establishes the sarabande pattern, emphasizing beat two of every other measure. The D minor suite’s darker key (BWV 1008) pulls its sarabande into a particularly somber realm, and a cursory survey of recordings and Youtube clips confirms that cellists tend to choose a slower tempo in order to produce a darker tone. The sarabande pattern, however remains salient. On the other hand, the sarabande from the Suite in C minor (BWV 1011) has no discernable syncopated emphasis on beat two, and thus no iambic lilt. Instead, the movement is comprised entirely of descending, lost eighth notes. (It is one of the few movements in all the Bach ‘cello suites exempt from chords). The elusive quality of its shaping is compounded by Bach’s instruction that the suite be played with scordatura, lowering the high A-string to a G-natural. It is the most abstracted of Bach’s sarabandes for solo violoncello. One senses from this barren soundscape the wanderings of a composer testing the expressive potential of a single voice, all harmony entirely implied. A sublimation of vestigial dance movement long forgotten, this sarabande becomes, for Bach, a vehicle for musical exploration. Little and Jenne write, “In Bach’s hands the sarabande is essentially a virtuoso piece for a soloist, who has the freedom to use subtle performance techniques not available to larger groups.”5

In sum, familiarity with Baroque dance may change and inform what a performer feels when navigating the physical act of playing the cello suites. In this sense, the temporal distance between music and performer collapses; the music’s past, consisting of Baroque dance, affection and stylization, unites with the gestures of its realized, performed present. To what degree depends on Bach’s musical realization of that particular dance form.

  • 1. See Little, 21. The upbeat plié and rising downbeat is also confirmed by Kellom Tomlinson’s 1735 treatise, The Art of Dancing. See McKee, Eric, “Influences of the Early Eighteenth-Century Social Minuet on the Minuets From J. S. Bach’s French Suites, BWV 812-17,” in Music Analysis, 18, 1999, 235–260.
  • 2. See Efrati, Richard R, Treatise on the Execution and Interpretation of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and the Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, trans. by Efrati, Richard with Harry Lyth, Zürich: Atlantis Musikbuch-Verlag, 1979. Efrati is a proponent of using the lute transcription manuscript (which survives –kept in Royal Library in Bruxelles) as a means of reconciling the mistakes in the 5th Cello Suite from the Anna Magdalena copy (his grievances with the copy go beyond bowing inconsistencies to omitted chords and missing/wrong notes).
  • 3. See McKee, Eric.
  • 4. See Little, 34.
  • 5. See Little, 102.