Sunday, March 25, 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach's 6 Cello Suites

Last updated August 31, 2018.

Cello Suites

Johann Sebastian Bach (composer)

Composed: 1717-1723

First performed: ?

Sales: - NA -

Peak: - NA -

Quotable: “Considered to be among the most profound of all classical musical works.” WK

Genre: classical > chamber music > cello solos

Suites/Average Length:

  • Suite for solo cello No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [17:40]
  • Suite for solo cello No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [20:00]
  • Suite for solo cello No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [22:00]
  • Suite for solo cello No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 [23:40]
  • Suite for solo cello No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [24:20]
  • Suite for solo cello No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [28:30]


Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello are “are some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello.” WK He most likely composed them while “in the employ of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen.” L1 “A chronological order is difficult to prove, though one guesses that these suites were composed in numerical order from the way that they gradually evolve and deepen, both technically and musically.” L1

“A Baroque suite is typically a collection of dance movements…Bach took these typical dance forms and abstracted them,” L1 creating “the first, and arguably still the finest, solo works for a relatively new instrument.” L1

“The suites were not widely known before the 1900s.” WK Catalan cellist Pablo Casals began studying them at age 13 after discovering the sheet music in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Spain. WK He “essentially rescued the suites from the tedium of the practice room and presented them to the world as fully-fledged works of invention and virtuosity.” BS He didn’t record them until 1936, when he was 60 years old. By 1939, he “became the first to record all six suites. Their popularity soared soon after, and Casals’ original recording is still widely available and respected today.” WK He “seems to be the standard against which other performances are measured.” BS His recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985.

“The first suite, in G major, gives the feel of innocent simplicity, and serves as a marvelous opening to these extraordinary works…[It] may have been inspired by viol writing in France and cello writing in Italy, but there was nothing like it before the first suite, and little like it after, except for the five suites that followed.” L1

In the second suite, “Bach seems to aspire to an almost Beethovenian mixture of tragedy and defiance, all within his usual framework of strict procedures.” L2 “This suite, perhaps above all the others, compels the listener’s attention through the contrast between the graceful and courtly language of the French dances that constitute the suite form and the dark, sinewy meat of Bach’s own compositional thinking…But Bach isn’t done with us yet; this movement prepares for the sunniness of the next suite in the set.” L2

The third suite “is probably the most popular of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, among cellists and listeners alike. How could one resist the work’s mix of nobility, exuberance, and relative contrapuntal simplicity?” L3 It is a “bouncy, virtuosic suite, perhaps the most idiomatic to the cello of all six suites.” L3

“The six Bach suites for solo cello may be arranged according to their modern, galant dance movements into three pairs (Nos. 1 and 2 use Minuets, Nos. 3 and 4 Bourrées, and Nos. 5 and 6 Gavottes). They also form two sequences of three in terms of key and mood (major-minor-major).” L4

“Bach’s fifth cello suite, in C minor, continues the experiments with texture, style, and counterpoint undertaken in the first four works in the set of six.” L5 However, “as unique and extraordinary as each of Bach’s other five cello suites are, the Suite No. 6 is perhaps the most ambitious, strangest, richest of all.” L6 “With each suite Bach continues his progression away from simple dance-like structural roots. Melodic leaps are introduced in the fourth suite, chords in the fifth suite, and a subtle mix of chords, leaps, and implied harmonies, which become as important as the melodies, in the sixth suite.” L6

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