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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Copyright © 2020 · All Rights Reserved · Stephen Loikith

Lesser-Known Soviet Era Composers

This April, we celebrate the birthdays of two influential Soviet Era composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff (April 1st) and Sergei Prokofiev (April 23rd). Rachmaninoff is known for his soaring, romantic melodies, while Prokofiev’s music is more dissonant and fantastical. Along with Shostakovitch and Stravinsky, they brought international attention to Russian music, often in exile from or direct defiance of the Soviet government. Many other Russian Soviet Era composers made significant musical contributions, yet their works are obscure and under-performed. Here are just a few of these composers:

Reinhold Glière

REINHOLD GLIÈRE (January 11, 1875 – June 23, 1956) made his name with folkloric pieces like his Slavonic epic Symphony No. 3 ‘Ilya Muromets,’ as well as an excellent body of chamber music. He taught Miaskovsky, featured below, and a young Prokofiev. He later conducted musical research in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Today, his most played works are his string duos and numerous works for double bass.

Nikolai Roslavets

NIKOLAI ROSLAVETS (January 4, 1881 – August 23, 1944) was a modernist composer, deeply influenced by Scriabin, as well as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism. Fiercely outspoken about artistic liberty, he was among the first to be targeted by the Soviet Union’s political purges. His string works include two violin concerti, viola and cello sonatas, and many shorter violin works.

Nikolai Miaskovsky

NIKOLAI MIASKOVSKY (April 20, 1881 – August 8, 1950), known as the “Father of the Soviet Symphony,” composed 27 of them. He was good friends with Shostakovitch and Prokofiev, and taught Khachaturian and Kabalevsky. He was an introspective composer, a quality exemplified in his cello concerto.

Mieczysław Weinberg

MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG (December 8, 1919 – February 26, 1996) was a Jewish Polish composer who fled the Holocaust to live in Russia. He struggled to be recognized by the Soviet musical establishment, and narrowly escaped execution by the Stalinist government. He enjoyed a close friendship with Shostakovich, and the two frequently exchanged musical ideas. Weinberg was prolific – he wrote twenty-two symphonies, seventeen string quartets, and many works for solo strings.

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Copyright © 2019 · All Rights Reserved · Nate Faro

Women Composers You Should Know About: Part Two

This Women’s History Month, we honor women of the past and present and acknowledge not only their accomplishments but also their struggles and hard work to attain sometimes the barest recognition from society.
The vast sheet music collection of Johnson String Instrument includes music by countless other past and present women composers, all available for purchase.

Credit: Kuandi Photos

CHEN YI 陳怡 (b. April 4, 1953) is an award-winning Chinese composer and violinist. As a young musician, Chen’s European-influenced education was cut short by the Cultural Revolution. She practiced in secret, before being sent to perform hard labor at a commune, where she became exposed to Chinese folk culture. When she returned to her hometown of Guangzhou at 17, she became concertmaster of the Beijing Opera Troupe. She became the first woman to receive a M.A. in composition from Beijing’s Central Conservatory for the Arts. Her music has been played by such artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Yehudi Menuhin, and Evelyn Glennie. As in Memory for Solo Cello, Chen blends Western classical elements with Chinese folksong.

AUGUSTA READ THOMAS (b. April 24, 1964) is a prominent American composer. Her music has been performed by Mstislav Rostropovich and played under the baton of Pierre Boulez. She has held teaching positions at the Eastman School of Music, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago. Though her music is thoroughly notated, it has been characterized as organic and free, and described in her own words as “captured improvisation”. Her work Silent Moon for Violin and Viola embodies this style, with numerous passages containing rubato, cadenzas, and advanced rhythms.

Hear Augusta Read Thomas discuss her work in a May 2018 interview with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Photo © Bernie Mindich

JOAN TOWER (b. September 6, 1938) is one of the most successful American composers today. Her music developed in the serialist tradition started by Schoenberg, before branching out into a more impressionist sound. She became the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer  Award for her work Silver Ladders, and has won three Grammy Awards for her album “Made in America”. She is perhaps most renowned for her set of Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman. Her solo violin work Second String Force is an advanced work with visceral energy and technical challenges.

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Copyright © 2019 · All Rights Reserved · Nate Faro

Women Composers You Should Know About: Part One

This Women’s History Month, we honor women of the past and present by acknowledging their accomplishments, struggles and hard work to attain sometimes the barest recognition from society. Women composers are particularly absent from the spotlight; however, they have gained increased visibility in recent years. New Hampshire-born Amy Beach is perhaps the most prominent female composer in American history. She enjoyed a fair amount of recognition by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in her lifetime.

Our sheet music collection at Johnson String Instrument includes music by countless other past and present women composers. Below is our first installment exploring these pioneering women and their exciting compositions.

Rebecca Clarke

REBECCA CLARKE (August 27, 1886 – October 13, 1979) was an English composer and violist. Forced on to the streets by her father at age 20, Clarke supported herself as a performer and became one of the first female professional violists, in chamber and orchestral settings alike. Her compositions are known for their lyricism, lush harmonies, and intense emotion. She faced numerous difficulties as a female composer, and her work was largely forgotten at the end of her life. Today, interest in her music has soared. The Viola Sonata from 1919 is her best-known work and a gem of the viola repertoire, its bold opening melody instantly recognizable.

Adriana Figueroa Mañas

ADRIANA FIGUEROA MAÑAS (b. October 19, 1966) has enjoyed performances of works on four continents. She is a member of the International Alliance of Women in Music, as well as the Argentinian Foundation of Woman Composers. She also plays flute and is the saxophonist in the West Jazz Band of Mendoza. Her colorful compositions, such as Tres Piezas en Clave de Tango, evoke the music of her native Argentina.

Grazyna Bacewicz

GRAZYNA BACEWICZ (February 5, 1909 – January 17, 1969) was a prominent Polish composer and violinist. As a student in Paris, she studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and violin with Carl Flesch. She became the concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra in 1936. During World War II, she lived in Warsaw, where she gave secret underground concerts featuring her music. Her violin-centric works display interest in folksong and show the modernist influence of Bartók. Her Concertino for Violin and Piano is a fantastic student-level work of intermediate difficulty.

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Copyright © 2019 · All Rights Reserved · Nate Faro