Cello Suites (Bach)

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Cello Suites
BWV 1007 to 1012
by J. S. Bach
Frontespizio Cello Suite.png
Title page of Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript: Suites á Violoncello Solo senza Basso
Composed between 1717 (1717) and 1723 (1723)
Instrumental Cello solo
"Cello Suites" redirects here. For Benjamin Britten's three suites, see Cello suites (Britten).

The six Cello Suites, BWV 1007 to 1012, are suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. They are some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello. Bach most likely composed them during the period 1717–23, when he served as a Kapellmeister in Köthen. The title of the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript was Suites á Violoncello Solo senza Basso (Suites for cello solo without bass).

These suites for unaccompanied cello are remarkable in that they achieve the effect of implied three- to four-voice contrapuntal and polyphonic music in a single musical line.[1] As usual in a Baroque musical suite, each movement is based around a baroque dance type;[2] the cello suites are structured in six movements each: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets or two bourrées or two gavottes, and a final gigue.[3] The Bach cello suites are considered to be among the most profound of all classical music works.[4][5] Wilfrid Mellers described them in 1980 as "Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God."[6][2]

Due to the works' technical demands, étude-like nature, and difficulty in interpretation because of the non-annotated nature of the surviving copies, the cello suites were little known and rarely publicly performed until they were revived and recorded by Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. They have since been performed and recorded by many renowned cellists, have also been transcribed for numerous other instruments, and are considered some of Bach's greatest musical achievements.[5]


The first page from the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach of Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

An exact chronology of the suites (regarding both the order in which the suites were composed and whether they were composed before or after the solo violin sonatas) cannot be completely established. However, scholars generally believe that—based on a comparative analysis of the styles of the sets of works—the cello suites arose first, effectively dating the suites pre-1720, the year on the title page of Bach's autograph of the violin sonatas.

The suites were not widely known before the 1900s, and for a long time it was generally thought that the pieces were intended to be studies. However, after discovering Grützmacher's edition in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Spain, at age 13, Catalan cellist Pablo Casals began studying them. Although he later performed the works publicly, it was not until 1936, when he was 60 years old, that he agreed to record the pieces, beginning with Suites Nos. 1 and 2, at Abbey Road Studios in London. By 1939, Casals became the first to record all six suites. Their popularity soared soon after, and Casals' original recording is still widely available and respected today.[7]

The suites have since been performed and recorded by many renowned cellists including Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, and Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo Ma won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance for his album Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites.


Unlike Bach's solo violin sonatas, no autographed manuscript survives, thus ruling out the use of an urtext performing edition. However, analysis of secondary sources, including a hand-written copy by Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, has produced presumably authentic editions, although critically deficient in the placement of slurs and other articulation, and devoid of such basic performance markings as bowings and dynamics. As a result, the texts present performers with numerous problems of interpretation.[8]

German cellist Michael Bach has stated that the manuscript of the suites by Anna Magdalena Bach is accurate. The unexpected positioning of the slurs corresponds closely to the harmonic development, and the details of his analysis confirm this.[9]

Violoncello da spalla

Recent research has suggested that the suites were not necessarily written for the familiar cello played between the legs (da gamba), but an instrument played rather like a violin, on the shoulder (da spalla). Variations in the terminology used to refer to musical instruments during this period have led to modern confusion, and the discussion continues regarding the instrument "that Bach intended", or even if a particular instrument was indeed intended. Sigiswald Kuijken and Ryo Terakado have both recorded the complete suites on this "new" instrument, known today as a violoncello or viola da spalla;[10] reproductions of the instrument have been made by luthier Dmitry Badiarov.[11]


Bach transcribed at least one of the suites, Suite No. 5 in C Minor, for lute. An autograph manuscript of this version exists as BWV 995.[12]

Using the Bach edition prepared by cellist Johann Friedrich Dotzauer and published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1826, Robert Schumann wrote arrangements with piano accompaniment for all six Bach cello suites.[13] Schumann's publisher accepted his arrangements of the Bach violin sonatas in 1854, but rejected his Bach cello-suite arrangements.[14] His only cello-suite arrangement surviving is the one for Suite No. 3, discovered in 1981 by musicologist Joachim Draheim in a 1863 transcription by cellist Julius Goltermann.[14][13] It is believed that Schumann's widow Clara Schumann, along with violinist Joseph Joachim, destroyed his Bach cello-arrangement manuscripts sometime after 1860, when Joachim declared them substandard.[14][13] Writing in 2011, Fanfare reviewer James A. Altena agreed with that critique, calling the surviving Bach-Schumann cello/piano arrangement "a musical duckbilled platypus, an extreme oddity of sustained interest only to 19th-century musicologists".[13]

In 1923, Leopold Godowsky composed piano transcriptions of Suites Nos. 2, 3, and 5, in full counterpoint for solo piano, subtitling them "very freely transcribed and adapted for piano".[15]

The cello suites have been transcribed for numerous instruments, including the violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, mandolin, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, flute, electric bass, horn, saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, ukulele, and charango, and for orchestra as well.


The suites are in six movements each, and have the following structure and order of movements.

  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Galanteries: Two Minuets in each of Suites 1 and 2; Two Bourrées in each of Suites 3 and 4; Two Gavottes in each of Suites 5 and 6
  6. Gigue

Scholars believe that Bach intended the works to be considered as a systematically conceived cycle, rather than an arbitrary series of pieces. Compared to Bach's other suite collections, the cello suites are the most consistent in order of their movements. In addition, to achieve a symmetrical design and go beyond the traditional layout, Bach inserted intermezzo or galanterie movements in the form of pairs between the Sarabande and the Gigue.

Only five movements in the entire set of suites are completely non-chordal, meaning that they consist only of a single melodic line. These are the second Minuet of the 1st Suite, the second Minuet of the 2nd suite, the second Bourrée of the 3rd suite, the Gigue of the 4th suite, and the Sarabande of the 5th Suite. The 2nd Gavotte of the 5th Suite has but one prim-chord (the same note played on two strings at the same time), but only in the original scordatura version of the suite; in the standard tuning version it is completely free of chords.

Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007[edit]

The Prelude, mainly consisting of arpeggiated chords, is probably the best known movement from the entire set of suites and is regularly heard on television and in films.

Cello Suite No. 1 (BWV 1007)

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Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008[edit]

The Prelude consists of two parts, the first of which has a strong recurring theme that is immediately introduced in the beginning. The second part is a scale-based cadenza movement that leads to the final, powerful chords. The subsequent Allemande contains short cadenzas that stray away from this otherwise very strict dance form. The first Minuet contains demanding chord shiftings and string crossings.

Cello Suite No. 2 (BWV 1008)

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Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009[edit]

The Prelude of this suite consists of an A–B–A–C form, with A being a scale-based movement that eventually dissolves into an energetic arpeggio part; and B, a section of demanding chords. It then returns to the scale theme, and ends with a powerful and surprising chord movement.

The Allemande is the only movement in the suites that has an up-beat consisting of three semiquavers instead of just one, which is the standard form.

The second Bourrée, though in C minor, has a 2-flat (or G minor) key-signature. This notation, common in pre-Classical music, is sometimes known as a partial key-signature. The first and second Bourrée of the third suite is sometimes used as solo material for other bass instruments such as the tuba, euphonium, trombone and bassoon.

Cello Suite No. 3 (BWV 1009)

All performed by John Michel

Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010[edit]

Suite No. 4 is one of the most technically demanding of the suites, as E-flat is an uncomfortable key on the cello and requires many extended left hand positions. The Prelude primarily consists of a difficult flowing quaver movement that leaves room for a cadenza before returning to its original theme. The very peaceful Sarabande is quite obscure about the stressed second beat, which is the basic characteristic of the 3/4 dance, since, in this particular Sarabande, almost every first beat contains a chord, whereas the second beat most often doesn't.

Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011[edit]

Suite No. 5 was originally written in scordatura with the A-string tuned down to G, but nowadays a version for standard tuning is included in almost every edition of the suites along with the original version. Some chords must be simplified when playing with standard tuning, but some melodic lines become easier as well.

The Prelude is written in an A–B form, and is a French overture. It begins with a slow, emotional movement that explores the deep range of the cello. After that comes a fast and very demanding single-line fugue that leads to the powerful end.

This suite is most famous for its intimate Sarabande, which is the second of only four movements in all six suites that doesn't contain any chords. Rostropovich describes it as the essence of Bach's genius; Tortelier views it as an extension of silence. Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. The fifth suite is also exceptional as its Courante and Gigue are in the French style, rather than the Italian form of the other five suites.

An autograph manuscript of Bach's lute version of this suite exists as BWV 995.[12]

Performed on a viola by Elias Goldstein

Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012[edit]

Open strings of the viola pomposo.

It is widely believed that the sixth suite was composed specifically for a five-stringed violoncello piccolo, a smaller cello, roughly the size of a 7/8 normal cello that has a fifth upper string tuned to E, a perfect fifth above the otherwise top string. However, some say there is no substantial evidence to support this claim: whilst three of the sources inform the player that it is written for an instrument à cinq cordes, only Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript indicates the tunings of the strings, and the other sources do not mention any intended instrument at all.

Other possible instruments for the suite include a cello da spalla, a version of the violoncello piccolo played on the shoulder like a viola, as well as a viola with a fifth string tuned to E, called a viola pomposa. As the range required in this piece is very large, the suite was probably intended for a larger instrument, although it is conceivable that Bach—who was fond of the viola—may have performed the work himself on an arm-held violoncello piccolo. However, it is equally likely that beyond hinting the number of strings, Bach did not intend any specific instrument at all as the construction of instruments in the early 18th century was highly variable.

Cellists playing this suite on a modern four-string cello encounter difficulties as they are forced to use very high positions to reach many of the notes. Performers specialising in early music and using authentic instruments generally use the 5-string cello for this suite, including Anner Bylsma, Pieter Wispelwey, Jaap ter Linden and Josephine van Lier. The approach of Watson Forbes, in his transcription of this suite for viola, was to transpose the entire suite to G major, avoiding "a tone colour which is not very suitable for this type of music" and making most of the original chords playable on a four-stringed instrument.[16]

This suite is written in much more free form than the others, containing more cadenza-like movements and virtuosic passages. It is also the only one of the suites that is partly notated in the tenor and treble clefs, which are not needed for the others since they never go above the note G4 (G above middle C).

Mstislav Rostropovich called the 6th suite "a symphony for solo cello" and characterised its D major tonality as evoking joy and triumph.

Refuted speculations about Anna Magdalena Bach[edit]

Professor Martin Jarvis of Charles Darwin University School of Music, in Darwin, Australia, speculated in 2006 that Anna Magdalena may have been the composer of several musical pieces attributed to her husband.[17] Jarvis proposes that Anna Magdalena wrote the six Cello Suites, and was involved with the composition of the aria from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Musicologists, critics, and performers, however, pointing to the thinness of evidence of this proposition, and the extant evidence that supports Johann Sebastian Bach's authorship, remain skeptical of the claim.[17][18]

The claims have been roundly dismissed by German musicologist and Bach expert Christoph Wolff, who in 2014 said,

I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis. When I served as director of the Leipzig Bach Archive from 2001 to 2013, I and my colleagues there extensively refuted the basic premises of the thesis, on grounds of documents, manuscript sources, and musical grounds. There is not a shred of evidence, but Jarvis doesn’t give up despite the fact that several years ago, at a Bach conference in Oxford, a room full of serious Bach scholars gave him an embarrassing showdown.[19]

Writing in the The Guardian in 2014, cellist Steven Isserlis said, "I’m afraid that his theory is pure rubbish," and continued, "How can anybody take this shoddy material seriously?"[20]


  1. ^ Wittstruck, Anna. "Dancing with J.S. Bach and a Cello – Bach and the Cello". Stanford University. Stanford.edu. 2012.
  2. ^ a b Wittstruck, Anna. "Dancing with J.S. Bach and a Cello – Introduction". Stanford University. Stanford.edu. 2012.
  3. ^ de Acha, Rafael. "Review: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Six suites for unaccompanied cello, Carmine Miranda (cello), CENTAUR CRC3263/4". MusicWeb International. 2012.
  4. ^ Dalkin, Gary S. "J.S. Bach: Cello Suites. Heinrich Schiff. EMI Double Fforte CZS 5741792". MusicWeb International. Retrieved November 23, 2015.
  5. ^ a b Proms 2015. Prom 68: Bach – Six Cello Suites. BBC. 5 September 2015.
  6. ^ Mellers, Wilfred. Bach and the Dance of God. Faber and Faber, 1980. p. 15.
  7. ^ Sanderson, Blair. "J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello – Pablo Casals". AllMusic. Retrieved 25 August 2014. ... Casals still seems to be the standard against which other performances are measured, and these recordings are indispensable to any serious collector. 
  8. ^ Bromberger, Eric. Program Notes: The University of Chicago Presents | Performance Hall | Logan Center. October 15, 2013, 7:30 PM. Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello. October 2013. p. 2.
  9. ^ Finckh, Eckhard. "Kritischer Blick auf Cello-Suiten" (in German). Nürtinger Zeitung (de). 8 May 2013. (subscription required)
  10. ^ Kuijken, Sigiswald. "Sigiswald Kuijken over de 'violoncello da spalla'" (in Dutch). PreludeKlassiekeMuziek.nl. Retrieved 27 July 2010.
  11. ^ Badiarov, Dmitry. "J.S. Bach – Violoncello da Spalla Suites". The Violin Blog of Dmitry Badiarov – violin-maker. 29 August 2010.
  12. ^ a b BWV995 at JSBach.org. Retrieved November 23, 2015.
  13. ^ a b c d Altena, James A. Review of 'Schumann: Chamber Music Vol 2 - Cello And Piano / Ensemble Villa Musica'. Fanfare. 2011. Reprinted at ArkivMusic.
  14. ^ a b c "SCHUMANN BACH SUITE ACCOMPANIMENTS, Summarized by Tim Finholt (Summarized from a preface by Joachim Draheim, Karlsruhe, Spring 1985.)". In: Tutti Celli (International Cello Society Newsletter). September/October 1996.
  15. ^ Siblin, Eric. The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. Grove/Atlantic, 2011. p. 215.
  16. ^ Bach, J.S. (composer) and Watson Forbes (transcriber and editor). Six Suites for Viola (Originally for Cello). J. & W. Chester Ltd., 1951. Preface.
  17. ^ a b Dutter, Barbie and Roya Nikkhah. "Bach works were written by his second wife, claims academic". The Telegraph. 23 April 2006.
  18. ^ Ross, Alex. "The Search for Mrs. Bach". The New Yorker. October 31, 2010.
  19. ^ Cavanaugh, Tim. "Bogus Bach Theory Gets Media Singing". National Review. October 29, 2014.
  20. ^ Isserlis, Stephen. "Suite scandal: why Bach's wife cannot take credit for his cello masterwork". The Guardian. 29 October 2014.

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