Bach Suites and You

by Robert Battey

"In a work of art the intellect asks questions; it does not answer them" -- Friedrich Hebbel

Few tasks are more daunting than attempting to discern and convey J.S. Bach"s precise intentions for his Cello Suites. A true and meaningful interpretation of the Suites requires an entirely different heuristic model than that of our other repertoire. This is because the autograph of the Suites has been lost, and we are left only with several flawed and inconsistent copies. Since there is no original source, everything, from notes to rhythms to phrasings, must be questioned.

With many pieces, one can simply rely on the fidelity and accuracy of a high-quality edition such as Henle, prepared either from autographs or composer-supervised prints. There, you have the simple choice of either doing what the composer wrote or deviating for some (hopefully sound) reason. In the Suites, though, there is an opaque wall separating us from the source, and editors cannot help you. Their eyes are no better than yours, as far as discerning what is actually in the early copies, and their judgment as to where a slur should fall, or which of the possible rhythms in a disputed measure is best, carries no more authority than yours or mine. Those of us who teach have a duty to inculcate our students early to the challenges and complexities of this process, rather than simply pass on what our teachers told us, or even the conclusions we may have drawn from our own study.

That normal teaching model works for most repertoire, but in Bach it does both the student and the composer a disservice. By dint of hard work, careful study of all the sources and of secondary materials (particularly Bach's other works for strings), plus many hours of experimentation, I have arrived at what I feel to be an interpretation that realizes Bach's intentions better than anyone else's. As will you when you go through the same effort. This is what makes for the richness of our art and glorifies the musical deity that is Bach. Thus, our job should be not to deliver wisdom but to instill curiosity and encourage experimentation.

And once the hard choices are made, they must be revisited from time to time. Freezing any interpretation, no matter how thoroughly researched and carefully thought through, is to kill the life-force contained in the Suites. One of the most stimulating artistic activities is the act of recreation; taking a fresh look at familiar music, on a clean copy if possible. New ideas inevitably come to you; your old ones sometimes seem appalling. With Bach, this growth will never end unless you deliberately abandon it.

The earliest known copies have all been collected in one highly useful edition, with detailed historical, textual, and interpretive notes, by Bärenreiter. The one thing the edition lacks, and it's major, is the autograph of the C minor Suite in the lute arrangement. Although set out for a different instrument, in a different key, and on two staves, it nonetheless is the only direct source we have for any of the Suites, and its omission hobbles an otherwise exemplary resource. Still, it would be derelict, lazy, and worse for a professional or serious student today to prepare an interpretation of the Suites without consulting the Bärenreiter.

There are no "answers" to the multifarious questions raised by the conflicting copies; there are only parameters within which choices should be made. Just one example (though usually the first one we face) would be the slurring for the opening of the G major Prelude. In looking over the various copies, there are several possible versions, plus additional variations that are still arguably what Bach may have wanted. But it is clear that whatever Bach may have wanted, he didn't want eight notes slurred together in one bow. Yet how often do we hear it that way? This is just one of thousands of choices that must be made over the course of studying all the Suites.

Pablo Casals, of course, was revered for his Bach interpretation, with several editions claiming, as their raison d'etre, to hew more closely to his vision than any of the others. To his eternal credit, Casals never produced an edition for publication. It would have been simple and extremely lucrative to do so, but he understood that the text of the Suites is not only a living, breathing thing but a protean one as well. A Casals edition would have become holy writ to a large segment of our community, and discouraged the vital personal research and interpretive creativity the Suites demand.

Back to the Bärenreiter for a moment. In addition to the text booklet, it includes complete facsimiles of the earliest sources for the Suites (which were composed around 1720). Current scholarship posits that Bach made at least two and possibly three versions of the Suites. None have survived. What remains today -- the five "primary" sources -- are as follows:

1 -- The earliest surviving copy of the Suites, ca. 1726, made by J. Kellner, a professional musician and contemporary of Bach's who made many copies of his works and almost certainly knew him personally. This copy is incomplete and careless, bordering on sloppy (obvious wrong notes and rhythms, omissions, duplications, etc.). It has been theorized that Kellner worked from an early draft of the Suites, and copied them in haste simply for his own musical studies.

2 -- The most widely-accepted copy of the Suites, made by Bach's wife, Anna Magdalena ("AMB"), sometime in the late 1720's. This copy was clearly made from a different manuscript than the Kellner, and given her relationship we would surmise that she copied from Bach's final version at that time. Unfortunately, Anna Magdelana's penmanship was somewhat careless as well. When we are able to compare her copy to an actual autograph, such as the Sonatas & Partitas for violin, we see a disturbing indifference to Bach's careful phrasing scheme. This "filtering" of the composer's intentions presents huge problems for interpreters.

3,4 -- Two anonymous copies from the late 18th century, which are similar to one another and appear to be based on a different (and later) manuscript or copy than either of the previous sources.

5 -- The first published edition of the Suites, 1824, in Paris. Although edited in accordance with French printing conventions, it bears numerous similarities to versions 3 & 4, suggesting that it too came from the same source. The title page mentions the name of a well-known French cellist who allegedly discovered a manuscript of the Suites in Germany after a lengthy search (how he knew to search in the first place is not addressed).

In sum, 1 and 2 come indisputably from original manuscripts, albeit two different ones. 3, 4, and 5 all possibly came from the same later common source. The million-dollar question is whether that later common source was by Bach himself or another intermediary. There are many examples of Bach returning to, transcribing, or re-working pieces over time. The Brandenburg Concertos exist in an earlier, rougher version, the G major 'gamba sonata also came out in a version for two flutes, the famous Preludio from his Partita for Violin in E later turned up in a cantata, transcribed for organ, and, most importantly, there is the version of the C minor Suite for lute (transposed to G minor). It is not unreasonable to conjecture that the common source for 3, 4, and 5 was a revised version by Bach himself, as it adds details such as dynamics and articulations that appear nowhere in the two earlier copies. But it is equally possible that the source was simply a gussied-up copy by a well-meaning but historically-destructive cellist. Thus our dilemma.

The great Dutch scholar/virtuoso Anner Bylsma has written a fascinating treatise, Bach, The Fencing Master, in which he posits a most singular assertion; that the AMB is inerrant, and should be treated as a virtual xerox of Bach"s autograph. He then proceeds to deconstruct the kaleidoscopic bowing problems that flow from that premise, pointing out the wit and cleverness of Bach's apparently random phrasings, and exhorting practitioners to adhere to them through thick and thin.

I love musical iconoclasts and gadflies, and will meet any creative idea more than halfway. But Byslma's theory implodes because of the frequent ambiguity, not to say illegibility, of the AMB. You and I can look at the same opening phrase, and you will say the first two notes are slurred while I will say that the first three notes are. Whichever one of us is wrong will then be bowing everything "backwards" until the next such fork in the road. Since these points of ambiguity come at an average rate of one per measure, the entire enterprise collapses upon itself. That said, the book is still very much worth reading for its unique, outside-the-box perspective on Bach interpretation generally (both the Bylsma and Bärenreiter are available at

The uncertainties surrounding the text have liberated creative cellists to develop their own synthesis of the known, the guessed-at, and the added-to. Naturally, in such an environment, the cellist's own artistic personality comes to the fore, more so than in other literature. And the comparisons are fascinating. With a few unfortunate exceptions (Feuermann, Piatigorsky, Rose, Nelsova), virtually every cellist of stature from the 1930's through today has made a recording of the Suites. The miracles of cello playing we hear in the best ones constitute an encyclopedia of style, instrumental control, interpretive ideas, and virtuosity, and we are educated and edified in studying them.

But again, none of these artists have any more direct insight into Bach's original intentions than you or I; the maddeningly inconsistent copies erect a high wall between the composer and the performer. The fact that Mr. X plays beautifully doesn't mean that what he's playing is what Bach intended. Before we can make glorious music, create rainbows, or paint pictures, we must first know (or at least be as firmly convinced as possible about) exactly what text we are trying to bring to life.

This isn't an article about recordings, but since I am so often asked my opinions about them (which is the "best," or my "favorite" one), I do have a stock answer. I have heard over 30 recordings of the Suites and countless live performances (I just heard two outstanding artists, Carter Brey and Gary Hoffman, play the C major Suite here a couple of weeks apart). The amazing variety among all these performances demonstrates the inexhaustible nature of Bach's genius, each and every performance finding a facet or nugget that I'd not thought of before. While they "run the gamut" in one sense, they also fall into a map, or grid, in another.

The four points of the compass on this imaginary grid are represented by the four artists who most quintessentially represent certain qualities. All other recordings may be located on the grid depending on their proximity to one or more of these four approaches:

Casals for the deepest humanity, gruff directness of expression, and joy;
Starker for the most perfect technical finish, rhythmic drive, and sharpest detail;
Bylsma for the most creative, quirky, historically-informed realization;
Fournier for the most sensuously beautiful cello sounds, and luxuriously romantic (in the best sense) playing.

These four are by no means monochromatic themselves, but the qualities mentioned are the most potent aspects of their interpretations. The other great recordings (and there are many) combine elements of some or all of these four qualities. It's fun to listen and map them on the grid, or construct imaginary "pie charts" of their aesthetic goals. But this is, of course, just game-playing. Each of us will respond to and enjoy different things about the same recordings. In short, while I would say that any serious cellist should be familiar with the four recordings mentioned, I would also say that they should be only the beginning of a proper collection, not the end.

Coming to grips with these masterpieces is a life-long journey, where the goal seems to constantly change. The uncertainty over so many textual questions forces us to try and be better and more perceptive musicians; we have to aurally "squint" to see what Bach shows us, like discerning a Picasso from a bad newspaper photo. We must study each of the sources carefully, as well as secondary materials such as the autographs of his violin works. Most of all, we must use taste, imagination, and fantasy. If Bach teaches us anything at all, it is that we must feel life fully through all our senses. At the end, the more we study the Suites the more we need to look within, and the smudged AMB manuscript becomes eventually a Rorschach test into which we read the reflection of our souls.

I begin with the name -- "Bach," which means brook. I try to find my sound-world for the Suites by imagining that I am kneeling (appropriately enough) on the bank of a stream, and looking at the rocks and pebbles in the stream bed. They do not move, but the water running over them makes their image refract and quiver. This is my image for the flowing 16th-notes in the Suites; steady underlying rhythms, continually flavored and enriched through use of light, asymmetrical bowings away from the frog. That's one way, anyhow.

Robert Battey studied with Bernard Greenhouse and Janos Starker. He taught cello at the University of Missouri and S.U.N.Y.-Potsdam, and has performed the Six Cello Suites many times.

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