The Bach Cello Suites: A Brief History

In celebration in J.S. Bach’s birth month, we are focusing on some of his most famous works for strings: the six suites for unaccompanied cello. We are in the middle of the 300th anniversary of these works being composed (written between 1717-1723). Popularized by Pablo Casals in the 1930s and by Yo-Yo Ma in more recent years, the Bach cello suites have become standard in many repertoires. 

Origins of the Bach Cello Suites

A suite (pronounced “sweet”) is a collection of dance pieces.  Though not standardized at first, a German composer and keyboard player named Johann Froberger (1616-1667) ended up forming what is known today as the classical suite style. It consisted of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.  King Louis XIV (1638-1715), an accomplished dancer, was also heavily influential in the development of the suite. He was the patron for many composers who wrote many dance suites on his behalf, including Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and François Couperin (1668-1733), and even founded the Académie Royale de Danse, Europe’s first school dedicated to dance.

Bach and the Classical Style Suite

When you look at the number of suites in Bach’s catalog, it seems pretty apparent that he was at least familiar with the French dance styles.  However, when you take a closer look at his dance music, you can see that he not only knew how many measures a piece needed to be and their respective time signatures, but he also had intimate knowledge with the physical dance steps for each piece based on the meter and which beats in the measure were emphasized.  Not bad for someone who always lived in Germany!

The cello suites themselves more or less follow the form established by Froberger, except that each one begins with a Prelude and there is either a minuet, a bourrée, or a gavotte in between the sarabande and gigue.  While each suite has its own unique character, arguably the most noteworthy one is Suite no. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012.  This was written originally for a 5-string violoncello piccolo (strung C-G-D-A-E).  With the higher E string at his disposal, Bach took advantage of that higher range. Since modern cellos do not have that string, this suite requires players to go into higher positions in addition to navigating Bach’s technical passages.

Sheet Music for the Bach Cello Suites

Because of their popularity, there are numerous editions available in our catalog.  You can find versions ranging from the always high quality Bärenreiter and Henle edition, to the more affordable Carl Fischer editionInternational Music Company also has an edition that includes scans of Bach’s autograph manuscript.  In addition to cello, we have versions for viola and bass as well.

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Silvija Kristapsons

Silvija is a violist and works in the marketing department at Johnson String Instrument.

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