The Bach Cello Suites: A Brief History

Written between 1717-1723 and 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 gigueKing 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). He even founded the Académie Royale de Danse, Europe’s first school dedicated to dance.

Bach and the Classical Style Suite

Johann Sebastian Bach

When you look at the number of suites in Bach’s catalog, it is soon 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 of the physical dance steps for each piece based on the meter, and which beats in the measure were emphasized. Not bad for someone who spent his life living 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 five-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 the higher E, this suite requires players to go into higher positions while navigating Bach’s highly technical passages.

Sheet Music for the Bach Cello Suites

Because of their popularity, there are numerous editions of the six suites available in our catalog. You can find versions ranging from the 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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Beginning a Lifetime of Musical Memories

student with viola

They may have walked in with some doubts, but they left as budding musicians, ready to begin an amazing journey that may last a lifetime.

That was the feeling in the air at the instrument rental event held at Canton High School in Canton, MA on September 14. Coordinated by the Performing Arts Program, the event matched up students with the stringed instrument of their choice. Johnson String Instrument sales staff were on hand to answer questions and help parents complete the necessary rental paperwork, while their children waited patiently for their instrument, handed to them in a padded black carrying case.

“For the last few days my daughter has talked about nothing else but getting her first violin,” one parent remarked. “But when she saw the viola displayed at the Johnson table, she fell in love with it and that’s what she ended up choosing.”

Ensuring equitable access to a high-quality stringed instrument is part of Johnson’s core mission. We know from decades of experience that if a child isn’t happy with their violin, viola, cello, or bass, then the less likely they are to practice or enjoy the experience of playing. Even if it means swapping out the instrument for a different size — or for a different instrument altogether — Johnson is ready to assist.

“Tonight is about more than just renting instruments,” said Joe Heffernan, Director of Sales at Johnson String Instrument. “It’s about introducing students to their first stringed instrument, which in turn can help them develop a deeper appreciation of music. Our staff understands this because many of us are string players who started out at rental nights like this one. We want to help students experience the joy of making music.”

Many students were beaming as they headed home with their instrument. “I can’t wait to get my viola home,” said one Canton student, who proudly hugged her new instrument against her chest. “My brother plays violin, and I want to be as good as him some day.” 

That’s exactly what we like to hear from new string players, and we wish all of them the best of luck as they begin making a lifetime of musical memories. •

Learn more about Johnson String Instrument’s rental program. We are happy to provide instruments for students of all ages and levels of experience.


Copyright © 2021 · All Rights Reserved

Famous Pedagogues of the String Instrument World

It’s back-to-school time!   Whether students are in the building or learning remotely this school year, teachers are working hard to make sure their students are getting the best education they can offer.  This blog post celebrates some of the most famous pedagogues in the string instrument world throughout history and their influence on today’s music students.

Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831)

Kreutzer was born in Versaille, France on November 16, 1766.  He studied violin with his father, then with Anton Stamitz (1750-c. 1809) and Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824).  He met Beethoven in 1798 on a European tour.  Without Kreutzer’s knowledge, Beethoven dedicated his Sonata in A Major, opus 47 to him.  Kreutzer himself composed 19 violin concertos and 40 operas.  He passed away in Geneva, Switzerland on January 6, 1831.

As a teacher, he was one of the founding violin professors at the Conservatoire de Paris, and taught there from 1795-1826.  A famous pedagogue that co-wrote the violin curriculum for the conservatory, he is considered one of the founders of the French violin school.  His method book, the 42 Studies or Caprices (ca. 1796) is still a popular method book used by many violin students. It has been transcribed for viola and cello

Lillian Fuchs (1901-1995)

Fuchs was born in New York City on November 18, 1901 to a musical family – her brothers Joseph and Harry played the violin and cello.  Her music education began by studying violin with her father and later with Franz Kneisel at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Julliard School).  Fuchs began her career on violin in 1926, but quickly shifted to viola.  She became a highly respected string player, performing with chamber groups and as soloist with major orchestras like the New York Philharmonic,  and passed away on October 5, 1995.

Fuchs also had an exceptional career teaching at some of the most renowned music schools around the country, including the Manhattan School of Music and Julliard.  Among her most notable students is Isaac Stern.  During her teaching career, she composed two method books for viola:  16 Fantasy Études and 15 Characteristic Studies.

David Popper (1843-1913)

Popper was born in Prague, Bohemia on June 16, 1843.  He studied under cellist Julius Goltermann (1825-1876) at the Prague Conservatory.  Conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow recommended Popper to become Chamber Virtuoso for the court of Prince Constantin (1801-1869). He composed works for cello, including four concertos, a Requiem for three cellos and orchestra, and a number of pieces for cello and piano.  He passed away on August 7, 1913 near Vienna.

At the Conservatory at Budapest, he taught many cellists who would go on to have successful careers, including Adolf Schiffer, who was János Starker teacher.  In addition to his compositions, Popper wrote a collection of études called High School of Cello Playing.

Franz Simandl (1840-1912)

Simandl started his career by studying double bass at the Prague Conservatory with Josef Hrabe (1816-1870).  After his studies, he became the principal bassist in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra.  He was professor of double bass studies at the Vienna Conservatory from 1869-1910.

As a pedagogue, Simandl was extraordinarily influential in double bass studies.  He wrote his method book, New Method for the Double Bass, during his tenure at the Vienna Conservatory.  Simandl said the purpose of the book was to provide the first complete double bass method that is not only thorough, but also easily accessible[1]

Special thanks to Yoonhee Lee, John Guarino, Phil Rush, and Robert Mayes of Carriage House Violins for their assistance.


[1] Franz Simandl, New Method for the Double Bass (New York: Carl Fischer, Inc., 1904), 3.

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Copyright © 2020 · All Rights Reserved · Stephen Loikith

Electric Violins: Preamps

This post is part of a series. Read our previous posts for more information about electric violins, amps and pickups.

Do I need a preamplifier for my electric violin?

Short answer: Yes. A preamplifier, or preamp, is key to getting a great tone out of an electric violin, viola or cello.

Long answer: We need to get technical.

The electric string instruments and pickups we stock at Johnson String Instrument all use variations of piezo electric sensors (piezo for short). Piezo pickups work differently than the magnetic pickups found on electric guitars; instead of sensing a string’s vibration, a piezo pickup senses an instrument’s vibration.

Piezos work best under pressure, which is why these pickup systems are usually found in or beneath the bridge of an instrument. As the instrument vibrates, the piezo generates an electrical signal that can be amplified. However, piezos have ultra high impedance outputs. In order to maximize the frequency response and tone of a piezo pickup, you must match it to an ultra high impedance input. This is what a preamp does: it buffers the impedance of your signal, making it fuller and stronger.

Why is this important? Most amplifiers and accessories on the market are designed for electric guitars and their impedance, not electric violin. Plugging a passive electric violin directly into an electric guitar amp will work, but the sound you get may not be what you were expecting.

Do I need to buy a preamp?

That depends on your setup. Many electric instruments already have on-board preamps that take care of this impedance mismatch. These instruments are what is called “active” and typically require batteries. “Passive” systems do not require batteries.  An external preamp is highly recommended with these piezo systems. The chart below shows products we carry and which category they fall into:

These passive pickup systems all produce a very strong signal so a preamp is not mandatory. However, we highly recommend a preamp to maximize your instrument’s amplified tone.

The benefits of external preamps go beyond impedance matching; all have XLR outputs, allowing you to connect easily to a PA system. This is a major time saver when playing live. When you connect to a PA, you  do not have to leave your tone up to the sound guy; most preamps feature tone-shaping EQ controls. Many preamps on the market also have boost functions, allowing you to boost your volume by a few decibels when you are ready for a solo or need help cutting through the mix.

NEXT: watch for our Preamp Buying Guide to find out which preamp is right for you.

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Copyright © 2017 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner