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.

Want exclusive offers delivered directly to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter!


Copyright © 2020 · All Rights Reserved · Stephen Loikith

Districts are Coming: Preparing for an Audition

Bach has a question for you....

Every student’s worse nightmare: Bach judging your district audition.

Auditions got you worried? Not sure how to prepare? We’ve got you covered! Many of us at Johnson String Instrument have gone through auditions so we’ve been there. We asked our staff to share their tips and tricks to help you do the best that you can. They had some great advice:

1. Relax! Breathe! Try not to get too worked up about it. Every musician (even the judges!) has had to go through auditions, and everyone knows it’s a nerve-wracking experience.

2. Scales! Practice scales! More scales and arpeggios! I missed out on senior districts by bombing the scales because of a combination of nerves and not practicing enough.  Get the format down, make them second nature, and that will help you not only with scales but also with sight-reading.

-Alex Wagner, Product and Inventory Specialist, violinist

1. Be sure to listen to the entire piece. The audition committee can tell if you are hearing how your part interacts with the rest of the ensemble. Hearing the piece as a whole rather than just your part is the difference between a good instrumentalist and a good musician.

2. Perform your audition rep for as many people as possible before the audition. I know it can feel awkward or embarrassing but that’s the point! Better to get all the jitters out in front of friends/family than the audition committee.

-Sara Wilkins, Customer Service Representative, cellist

My biggest piece of advice would be not to practice for several hours on the day of an audition. The truth is that your repertoire is as good as it’s going to get that day. A great alternative to playing through the music over and over is to come up with a ritual that helps you feel calm and focused. A couple methods I’ve used are to play a scale (slowly) with all of its arpeggios or to eat a piece of my favorite chocolate while I warm up.

-Sarah Rogers, Administrative Assistant, violinist

1. Be able to play excerpts in any order presented. Be able to switch from fast and technical to slow and calm.

2. Play for non-string players. If you have rhythm issues play for drummers. Excerpts that have tricky shifts or string crossings, play for flute or other wind players; they are less forgiving about string player-specific issues.

3. Tape and film yourself to look for areas that need improvement.

4. Be ready at least a week before the audition, and relax.

-Jon Crumrine, Bow Maker, violist

Set a box of doughnuts (or preferred favorite treats) in the corner of the audition room. Whenever you get nervous, look at them & feel relieved 🙂
Then treat yourself afterwards!

-Amy Nolan, Store Manager, cellist

1. Get plenty of sleep.

2. Eat well.

3. Live healthily.

4. Play your audition for anybody who will listen, especially if they might have some constructive advice.

5. Read all of these books by Don Greene, and practice the techniques found therein with diligence and devotion.

-Phil Rush, Sales Consultant, violist

Still need to purchase your music for districts? Stop into our store or visit our website, and good luck to all auditioning in the coming months!

Copyright © 2015 · All Rights Reserved · Silvija Kristapsons