“It is thought that Bach wrote his six suites for unaccompanied cello between 1717 and 1723, while he was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and had two superb solo cellists, Bernard Christian Linigke and Christian Ferdinand Abel, at his disposal. However, the earliest copy of the suites dates from 1726, and no autographs survive. Thus 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” (Liu 1).
“A Baroque suite is typically a collection of dance movements, usually in binary form with each half repeated. Common elements of the suite were the Allemande (German dance), a moderately slow duple-meter dance; the Courante, a faster dance in triple meter; the Sarabande, a Spanish-derived dance in a slow triple meter with emphasis on the second beat; and a Gigue (Jig), which is rapid, jaunty, and energetic. Bach took these typical dance forms and abstracted them, and then added a free-form, almost improvisatory Prelude which sets the tone for each suite, and a galanterie, an additional dance interposed between Sarabande and Gigue. (In the first two suites, Bach uses a pair of Minuets.) With these dances, Bach experimented and created the first, and arguably still the finest, solo works for a relatively new instrument” (Liu 1).
Cello Suite No. 1:
“The first suite, in G major, gives the feel of innocent simplicity, and serves as a marvelous opening to these extraordinary works. The Prelude recalls the C major Prelude which opens Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each piece sets a remarkable atmosphere with no melodies, only strong rhythmic patterns, cunningly evolving harmonies, and evocative textures. Bach uses short, arpeggiated phrases to build larger-scale crescendos and decrescendos, and these phrases in turn aggregate into still larger structures, evoking an endlessly more complicated fractal pattern. This quality would become a characteristic of Bach’s cello writing, along with a distinctive rhythmic quality far removed from the character of the original dances. Bach’s suiite 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” (Liu 1).
Cello Suite No. 2:
“The Suite in D minor is one of two minor-key suites among the six for solo cello. With this suite, Bach seems to aspire to an almost Beethovenian mixture of tragedy and defiance, all within his usual framework of strict procedures. There are six movements: a Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, double Minuet, and Gigue” (Liu 2).
“The Prelude reminds this listener of a great Bach organ toccata (and some observers, indeed, have speculated on links between Bach’s organ improvisations and his string writing). Bach uses a simple arpeggio figure to build phrases of ever-increasing complexity, as in the parallel passage in the first suite. But here the minor-key arpeggio that sets the tone for the work is used to gradually build tension as it climbs through the cello’s range in a series of rising waves. The movement builds to a high-pitched, tense climax, followed by an improviser’s silence while the echoes die out. Finally we return to the low strings for a coda that sums up the movement in small, intimate terms” (Liu 2).
“Each of the movements that follow offers its own take on tragedy and defiance, but the moments that best characterize this suite include the unusual and dramatic double Minuet and the resigned Sarabande. Mstislav Rostropovich memorably described the latter movement as an essay in "white-hot solitude," and its stylized dirge and ringing open fifths recall the laments of the great masters of the French viol tradition. 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. At the end the Gigue wraps things up with angular rhythms and violent, unrelenting passions. But Bach isn’t done with us yet; this movement prepares for the sunniness of the next suite in the set” (Liu 2).
Cello Suite No. 3:
“The Suite in C major 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? Casals, who more than any other performer brought these suites to the forefront of the cello repertory, found in it a heroic quality. Yet this suite also has close ties to its brethren. The Prelude recalls the discursive improvisatory flavor of the second suite, but opens with a descending figure and a mood of bright sunshine instead of the study in tragedy and tension that the second suite undertakes from the beginning. The Prelude also makes brilliant use of a mighty pedal point; a single note is held in the bass register while a series of progressively richer and richer figures build tension, pushing harder and harder for resolution. A similar figure is used to heighten a sense of pathos in the Prelude to the St. John Passion. Here, however, the pedal point develops instead into an expression of great warmth and happiness” (Liu 3).
“After the Prelude come a lively Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande, a double Bourrée, and a Gigue. The Sarabande proceeds in a series of triple and quadruple stops that offer the cellist plenty of room for gutsy expressiveness and at the same time outline the implied polyphony that so fascinates those who hear these works. For this suite, as in the fourth suite, Bach uses a pair of Bourrées for the galant element. These reinforce the sense of buoyant optimism that pervades the work, though a sudden minor-key turn in the second Bourrée reminds us that no triumph is ever complete. But the final Gigue restores the lightness of this bouncy, virtuosic suite, perhaps the most idiomatic to the cello of all six suites” (Liu 3).
Cello Suite No. 4:
“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), and the Suite in E flat major opens the second group of three. This second group goes beyond the first group of three in its contrapuntal density and in its sense of untrammeled imagination. So we encounter in the opening movement the use of a repetitive arpeggio to build complex phrases, as in the first suite. But here the sense of improvisatory fantasy is stronger: the arpeggio descends in a gradual figure and varies negligibly as it explores a range of keys. Bach alternates this descending arpeggio pattern with three wave-like cadenzas that rise and fall in a faster rhythm and gradually begin to sound more and more like the arpeggio figures, until both emerge in a triumphant E flat major. The broken-up texture and the structural ambition remind one of Bach’s large, quasi-improvisatory organ pieces” (Liu 4).
“This extension and stretching of ideas from the earlier suites pervades the remainder of the fourth suite. The Allemande and Courante have simple lines, like those in the first suite, and the stately Sarabande seems like an optimistic take on its counterpart in the second suite. The Sarabande is noteworthy for its startlingly consistent maintenance of the texture of melody line with harmonic accompaniment — on a single cello! The main section of the double Bourrée seems to implement a call-and-response illusion with a single line, while the second section offers a lovely contrast with a limpid, quiet succession of quarter notes and textural simplicity. The quirky rhythms of the Gigue confirm that this is new ground, deeper in its multi-instrument contrapuntal illusions, more ambitious in scope and depth. And this finale in turn prepares us for the glories of the final two suites” (Liu 4).
Cello Suite No. 5:
“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. It calls for the top string of the cello to be played scordatura, in this case tuned down from A to G. This affects the sonority of the open string and the overtones produced when played with other strings, creating a distinctive effect. Some cellists disregard the unusual tuning specification, but doing so adds to the work’s already formidable technical challenges” (Liu 5).
“The fifth suite’s Prelude replaces the toccata-like movements of the rest of the set with an overture in the French style, beginning with a slow, moody Adagio introduction with dense chords and irregular rhythms. These lead into an Allegro section where a fugue-like counterpoint is implied but not explicitly played” (Liu 5).
“The Allemande and Courante have a mournfulness reminiscent of their counterparts in the second suite, but feature richer, denser chording. But as much as Bach explores the contrapuntal possibilities of the cello here, his truly sublime achievement is the Sarabande. It offers some 100 notes of one-voice, single-line playing, with no chords and an unchanging rhythmic pattern. And yet its mix of great leaps and leading tones convey a lifetime of sorrow and wisdom. The harmonic structure is haunting, providing one point of tension after another with little resolution until the very end. The Gavotte galanterie is chordal and anguished again despite its name, but the final Gigue closes on a much more ambiguous, hushed note than does its D minor relative” (Liu 5).
Cello Suite No. 6:
“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. For this suite, Bach chose the key of D major, the triumphant key of his Magnificat and the "Dona nobis pacem" which concludes the Mass in B minor. He also calls for a five-stringed variant on the cello, though the work is playable on a conventional (four-stringed) cello. With these resources, Bach calls for resounding joy, carefully implied harmonies, and a rich, dense counterpoint that tests the cellist’s skills to the maximum” (Liu 6).
“The Prelude, in a steady triple meter, is the only place in the set where Bach employed the dynamic markings (forte and piano), to simulate the effect of a Vivaldi-like echo sonata with phrases calling, responding, and gradually growing and developing into a fast-moving and playful cadenza and an untroubled recapitulation. 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. Indeed, this suite comes close in its technical challenges to the polyphonic simulations that Bach created in the partitas and sonatas for solo violin” (Liu 6).
“Joy takes many forms in this suite, from the echo-sonata textures of the Prelude to the stately grace and implied bass harmonies of the Allemande and Sarabande, and the homophonic march-like Courante. But the most unusual movement here must be the double Gavotte, where the subsections call for wide chords and melody over a ground bass, almost resembling a hurdy-gurdy playing at a peasant celebration. Its like wouldn’t be heard again until Zoltán Kodály took up solo cello writing some 200 years later. The Gigue culminates this suite, and this great cycle, with a duet for solo cello, where the two interlocking voices gradually climb the scale, ascending to a high climax and sweeping back down to finish” (Liu 6).