Gradus ad parnassum: Bach’s Cello Suites in several editions

Beginning of the first Gavotte from Bach’s VI. Suite for Violoncello solo (from BA 5257)

Robert Schumann called them ‘the most beautiful and significant compositions in existence for violoncellos’; Pablo Casals considered them ‘the quintessence of Bach's creative output’; Mischa Maisky declared them to be his ‘Bible’. We are referring, of course, to the Six Suites for Violoncello Solo (BWV 1007–1012), composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, probably in Cöthen, some 300 years ago. These works of timeless beauty represent the pinnacle of the cello repertoire; they are the constant companion of every cellist from early lessons to the concert stage, the touchstone and benchmark of the cellist's craft. Never has their potential been exhausted. Their special attraction lies in their restricted means: only one player, one instrument, four strings and four fingers. Yet each suite spans an entire cosmos of central European musical tradition in a seemingly unrestrained juggling act of harmony and counterpoint, of musical erudition, intimate song and cheerful dance.

Yet the Suites pose a challenge not only to musicians, but also to editors. Bach's autograph score has not survived, and the only handwritten sources are four copyists' manuscripts from the 18th century: one by Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena, another by the Thuringian organist and church music director Johann Peter Kellner, a third by Johann Nikolaus Schober and an anonymous scribe at the royal court of Prussia in Berlin, and the last one by an unknown copyist probably active in Hamburg. Then there is the first edition published in Paris in 1824. Yet each hands down conflicting readings, especially with regard to articulation and phrasing. The obvious question – which of these sources is closest to Bach's intentions – will perhaps never receive a satisfactory answer.

Anyone wishing to tackle Bach's cello suites will find several editions from Bärenreiter, each tailored to meet the needs of a particular target group. For students starting cello lessons, the affordable performance edition by August Wenzinger (BA 320) has proved its worth. Wenzinger's years of experience in historically informed performance practice has left its mark on this edition, making it an excellent starting point for accurate interpretations.

To learn and understand these pieces properly, cellists must willingly and necessarily face the issues of their conflicting readings, aesthetic assumptions and stylistically appropriate delivery. The edition presented in a folder by Douglas Woodfull-Harris and Bettina Schwemer (BA 5217) offers not only a scholarly-critical Urtext edition of the music with many alternative readings, but all five sources in facsimile as well as a text volume with extensive and detailed information on the works' genesis and source tradition, their compositional design, and questions specifically related to 18th-century performance practice. Here scholarship rubs shoulders with musical performance in ideal fashion: musicians receive exemplary support, allowing them to make well-founded artistic decisions and thus to arrive at their own personal readings.

Gudula Schütz
(Translation: Bradford Robinson)

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