Suite No. 5 in C minor

Commentary by Christopher Costanza

Of Note: Suite No. 5 in C minor is Bach’s cello version of the lute suite in G minor.

In this suite we’re told to retune the cello (called scordatura), specifically, to bring the pitch of our A string (the highest string on the instrument) down one whole step, to a G, giving us these open strings: G-D-G-C. This tuning causes the cello to vibrate and resonate quite differently from the way it does with the normal A-D-G-C setup; one can pretty easily detect the dark pureness this arrangement provides. In general, the scordatura tuning presents significant challenges to the performer – all notes played on the A string must be fingered one step higher than normal. In the score Bach handles this by notating each and every pitch played on the A string– now the “upper” G string - one step higher than the actual pitch, so that, when fingered on the retuned string, we hear the proper pitches. But this can be mighty confusing and disorienting to the performers’ trained ears!

This Prelude is actually a prelude and fugue; the opening prelude is grand and slow, beginning with a deep and rich octave C (which features the low open C string of the cello) and takes us, French overture style (a prolific use of dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms), on a harmonically rich and tonally resonant journey to a half cadence, leading directly into the fugue. We experience a strong sense of improvisatory writing here – sweeping scale figures lead to rich chords, and dotted rhythms take us through an always interesting array of harmonies.

The fugue – the only one in the cello suites (as opposed to three fugues in Bach’s unaccompanied works for violin, one in each sonata) - is remarkable in that, even though it’s written in multiple voices, it contains very few chords; harmony and multiple voicing is, for the most part, implied, but noticeable just the same due to Bach’s remarkable gift for creating expectation and a certain sense of inevitability in voicing. In other words, he sets up the progression of the music so that our brains capture the sense of the harmony and multiple voicing, even though throughout most of this fugue Bach has written only one musical line at any given time.

This is a very stately movement, serious in mood and characterized by the prolific use of the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm, consistent with the French overture style of the Prelude. The movement is clearly conceived in four voices, as evidenced by the frequent appearance of 4-note chords. As we so often hear in these suites, the bass line progression is particularly prominent and meaningful, and acts as a unifying element throughout the movement. Of greatest importance, I feel, is the deep, dark, resonant, and primarily somber tone of this allemande, a sort of walk down a path of the unknown.

This is the only courante of the 6 in 3/2 meter; the other 5 are in 3/4. This movement is compact, intense, and very direct; there’s something sort of “no nonsense” about the attitude one perceives throughout its course. Phrase endings are clean and almost abrupt; one gets the feeling of efficiency, compact energy, and intensity, much like a high-strung and determined individual. At the same time, we sense a strong dance rhythm throughout, and the movement is intricately structured in its multi-voiced layout.

Many consider this sarabande, a very unusual, sparse, and pure movement, the very heart and soul of the six suites. It is truly mysterious on a number of levels; it’s the only sarabande – in fact, one of only 4 movements in the entire cycle of six suites – with absolutely no appearance of chords. We can imagine a multi-voice structure, but all harmony is created through implication, never with an obvious spelling of a chord progression. The only typically sarabande features of the movement are the meter – triple – and tempo – slow to moderately slow. But despite the triple meter, we don’t hear the expected emphasis on the 2nd beat of three; most measures of this sarabande have a sense of arrival on the 3rd beat (the general rhythmic flow in the movement is 4 eighth notes followed by a quarter note). Overall, we have a very stark, minimal, severe, intensely beautiful, and in some ways quite simple movement that in the end is devastating, sometimes even painful to experience. And yet it’s perfect in its emotional effect and balance within the suite.

The two gavottes are lively, direct, and richly harmonized – the first has a three-voice structure and feels conversational in its use of those voices; the second is characterized by a very flowing, driving triplet rhythm and is incredibly directional and sweeping throughout. We feel the usual gavotte rhythmic structure: 4/4 meter felt in 2, with the start of the movement on the 2nd half of the measure. Despite the somber feel of c minor, this movement is upbeat and highly charged, without losing the internal sense of c minor seriousness.

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While in compound meter (3/8 in this case) and full of snappy dotted rhythms, this gigue is not about drive and lively, energetic dancing. As with other movements in this suite, the significance of the key of C minor cannot be underestimated, and the effect of the mood and tone of that key affects this gigue by pushing it in the direction of resignation and acceptance of fate, not joyous celebration. A gigue for sure, but one presented in the context of a serious, complex life of struggle and hardship.