The Recent Editions of the Bach Cello Suites

by Dimitry Markevitch

We are witnessing, since 1996, an unprecedented proliferation of the editions of these wonderful Bach masterpieces. The obvious reason being the observance in the year 2000 of the 250th anniversary of the great musician’s death. It brings now the number of editions, since the first by Louis Norblin in 1824, to a staggering 93! Soon to be 94, when the fourth printing (with a completely new preface) of my edition will come out, hopefully before the end of this special year.

I don’t know of another example of such numerous publications. The Bach violin works didn’t prompted a like outburst of new editions. We have now 8 more versions to study, and for me, personally, with those I have already, it boosts my library to 62 different editions of the Suites!

When in 1964 I published my edition (Theodore Presser), based on the Kellner and Westphal manuscripts, which I uncovered, as well as the Anna Magdalena and the Lute versions, for the Vth Suite, it was the 52nd. It means that in the last 36 years, 41 editions came out. More than one per year! Quite a record. Now let’s bet on when and by whom the 100th version will be published.

Before going any further, I think it is in order to clarify the question of sources for these pieces. In absence of the lost original, until it might surface one day, like the violin works did in 1909, here is what we have to work on:

Four copies:

1. Johann Peter Kellner, 1726.
2. Anna Magdalena Bach, c. 1730.
3. Johann Christoph Westphal.
4. A later 18th century anonymous version. Vienna


5. The transcription for the lute, by Bach himself, of the Vth Suite, c.1730.
6. First edition. Louis Norblin. Janet et Cotelle. Paris. 1824.

So, we still have six texts to help us.

If it is surprising that there are so many editions based on the Anna Magdalena Bach copy, as it is so unreliable, let us not forget that for years, it was the only known manuscript, taken often for the original. But most editors usually try to find excuses for her errors. For instance, Bettina Schwemer and Douglas Woodfull-Harris in the latest Bärenreiter Urtext Edition, which came out in the last weeks, say : "There can be no question that AMB is the principal source for the cello suites", then later: "For all her care (sic) AMB’s copy is not entirely free of mistakes." I counted 117 errors, not including the slurs. And finally: "It is difficult to read AMB’s slurs". This is really an understatement. These editors, though, give very good examples, using the violin works, of uncertain slurring by her.

I would like to make a point clear, about Anna Magdalena's musical knowledge. She was Bach's second wife and married him, in 1721, when she was only 20. The daughter of a trumpet player and, in spite of a nice voice, musically inexperienced, and without any knowledge of string playing. Bach compiled for her the well-known Büchlein that many young people have played when beginning music studies. In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (Vol. 52, No 2), Matthew Head makes the very judicious comparaison between this Büchlein and the one written for Bach's son, the ten year old Wilhelm Friedmann, at about the same time.

Matthew Head says that one is made for a nonprofessional/female, and the other for a professional/male, demonstrating the fact that at the time, a woman was not taken as seriously as a young boy. This shows, clearly enough, that she was not considered an experienced musician, even by her own husband. Therefore, her copy should not be accepted as a reference, like Kellner's, for instance, who, in spite of its shortcomings, was the work of a skilled musician, and was done the closest to the composition date of the Suites.

I would like also to clarify the following matter concerning Urtext editions, as two just came out in the past weeks, and a third one is announced for November. When it comes to “Urtext” editions, we are faced with what Richard Taruskin calls an "ideology" but which is now being slowly abandoned. When, some fifty years ago, appeared the first Urtexts, they were greeted with a relief, as the editions then -- a heritage from the 19th century - were full of markings and additions put in by different editors. So, it was great to work on clean copies, free of all the "corrections", giving us texts closer to the original. Urtext means: like the original. But this is utopia. It is always the result of interpretations by the editors. An ideal edition cannot be achieved, only an honest one can be the goal. There are just as many Urtexts as they are editors. The proof is flagrant with the latest ones. Who is right ? Nobody. As we don’t possess the holograph manuscript, no one can produce a really genuine Urtext.

This doesn't mean that we should not strive for a good edition, based on the best available evidence, and stop following urtexts like a gospel. This is where the study of the sources becomes of primordial importance.

Let’s examine now the latest editions, which have come on the market in the last four years.

  1. Barbara Mueser & Martha Gerschefski.
    Chez Harmonique. Atlanta GA, © 1996

    Dedicated (like mine) to the memory of Luigi Silva, this remarkable cellist, great teacher and serious musicologist, by two of his former students, it is the work of fine musicians. They feel, rightly so, that one should not "adopt the physical paraphernalia of authenticity" but "tackle the musical, stylistic and technical problems with which the Suites abound". For this, they give us many good tips, and describe the elements of the suites. But even if the basic structure of a Menuet is two measures, like in Rameau, those in the first two Cello Suites have stuctural units of four bars. For the Vth Suite they make a fascinating comparaison with a Suite by Marin Marais, showing a possible influence. They explain also their intriguing theory of Metric displacement, which merits to be explored. I only regret that they rely too much on Anna Magdalena, and I don’t agree that one should adopt a neutral mezzo-forte and dispense entirely with vibrato. It is an interesting work.

  2. Werner Thomas-Mifune
    Kunzelmann. GM 561, ©1997

    At first one gets a very cheerful impression, as the score is printed in two colors, blue and black. So you find it pretty and clearly printed. There is also a laudable effort to avoid page turns.

    Then, if you study it at little more deeply, you realize that, in spite of what is claimed by the editor, he doesn’t "give as clear a picture as possible of the notation by emphasizing the articulation of phrasing practice of the Bach period" for whatever this means! The available sources are followed in a very vague manner. Furthermore, as he himself acknowledges, his division in blue and black notes is "a subjective interpretation". He admits that in the VIth Suite he had problems as the piece is "based on the mostly three-part stucture requiring a third color". The reality is that in most Suites we have two, three and even four part writing. In the Prelude II, one finds three part writing and four part in the Prelude III, and naturally in the fugue of Suite V, which is in four voices. So these pretty colors are just Thomas-Mifune’s personal indiosyncrasies and, to my mind are completely useless. In spite of its nice presentation, it is not convincing.

  3. Anner Bylsma, Bach, The Fencing Master.
    Reading aloud from the first three Cello Suites, ©1998 Anner Bylsma

    We are confronted here with a very special case. The first reaction is of puzzlement. Then you think that Bylsma, an excellent musician, must have some good ideas. But to take 160 pages to try to convince you that the truth is to be found in Anna Magdalena Bach, is for me hard to understand. The erratic slurring of ABM is not a proof of Bach’s genius. Bylsma’s text is more a psychological document than a musicological one. He contradicts himself so often that one has difficulties following his reasoning. For instance, he explains, rightly so, that the different movements are French pieces... to tell you later that they should be performed in an Italian manner! Bylsma is obviously a polemist, and as my good friend Jeffrey Solow says, in a few years, he will probably declare just the opposite. After saying all the good he thinks of AMB, on page 144 he admits that her bowing marks are "a bit foreign".

    I only hope he is not going to give ideas to others to go back to AMB, now that we have better evidences.

    But, if you, a cellist, want to try his interpretation, you just can’t. At the end of his long essay, he gives two versions of the first three Suites ... but for viola and for violin ! So where are the cello suites gone? I told you, this is a case!

  4. Mischa Maisky
    Schott Music and Deutsche Grammophon, ©1999, No 463 314-2

    This calls for a special comment. Maisky’s edition is on a CD pluscore, which comes with his latest recording of the Suites. Basically, the idea is great, as you are supposed to be able to follow the score on your computer screen as you listen to the music, or you can also print it on your printer. All this is fine, but it is for PCs only, and programs not more recent than 95 or 98. If you have a Mac, or Windows 2000, for instance, you can’t get it. Such a policy is hard to understand. Obviously, somebody goofed somewhere. I had a hard time to find a person with the right equipment. Most serious musicians have Macs, as the best music programs are on Mac.

    This said, I now have the printed score and, with it in my hands, have listened to the recording. I am almost sorry I did it. It would have been better not to have the score! By the way it is 108 pages long, because all the repeats are printed in full. If you just listen to the playing, you are impressed with the beautiful sound and the complete mastery of the instrument. But, actually, it feels like a return to a kind of pre-Casals interpretation. For instance, the Prelude I is played completely legato, like Casals's historical recording and the old editions. But Casals himself, after I had shown him the Kellner and Westphal copies and my edition, changed, at his great age, his bowings. Maisky, also puts in his own nuances, quite profusely, like the allargandos in the Vth Suite. And, surprisingly, Maisky, after calling the AMB his beloved score, doesn’t really follow it, but follows his whim. His fingerings, which for him are perfect, are not easy. This is definitely not an edition that a young player can use with closed eyes.

  5. Ulrich Leisinger
    Wiener Urtext Edition, Schott/Universal Edition, ©2000, No UT 50133

    For my comments on the Urtexts, see above.

    Ulrich Leisinger is a German musicologist, author of the interesting Bach in Leipzig, recently published by the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig.

    His edition is serious, elaborated with care and based on all the available sources. Naturally all this is done subjectively, as any editing can only be done. But the detailed critical commentaries show the thoroughness of the work. It is, naturally, possible to question some of the choices, but with this edition, the cellist has a good material for study. The publishers made a special effort to avoid page turns. Leisinger, concerning Anna Magdalena Bach, has this to say: “she was little familiar with the specifics of the string instrument”.

  6. Bettina Schwemer & Douglas Woodfull-Harris
    Bärenreiter Urtext, ©2000, No BA 5216

    This is a lovely looking publication. I can’t help wonder, though, why Bärenreiter went into the expense in publishing a new Urtext edition after having printed in 1988, for the Neue Bach Ausgabe, an Urtext with the scholarly comments by Hans Eppstein and the facsimiles of the four existing copies.

    I regret also that the publicity announces, in red letters, “The Original”, which is definitely deceitful, as we know that the real original is lost!

    This new edition comes in a nice blue case, and includes, besides the score of the Suites, an explanatory text, the facsimiles of the four copies, and a very welcome novelty, the reprint of the first edition of 1824 by Norblin.

    The facsimiles are, to my mind, printed too black. The copies I have had in my library, for many years (since 1962, when I found the Kellner and Westphal versions), are clearer. In this edition, all the spots come out too much and blurr somewhat the notes.

    The 41 pages of the Text volume are very instructive and give an excellent background of the works. The section about the Form and Structure of the Suites is very good, and what they explain about the different dances is very important. They quote Mattheson at length, as I did already in my edition in 1964.

    Now, even if they give in a very detailed manner, all the differences between the available versions, it is, once more, based on the Anna Magdalena copy. But it is done in a sly way, correcting the numerous errors of her manuscript. Only in reading closely the Critical Report, you realize the stratagem. Like that it succeeds in making this version acceptable.

    Now for the score itself, titled a "Scholarly Critical Performance Edition", they have provided what they call a "neutral" edition. For the all important question of the slurs, they choose the easy way. The slurs are just completely eliminated ! It looks really naked. Daniel Vandersall had already done this before, in 1970.

    So, in fact, it comes to a kind of do-it-yourself edition! You take the notes, and you pick in the facsimiles the slurs, which you feel, fit the best. Obviously, no students will be able, and qualified to do this. I wonder who are the cellists who will benefit from this idea, and will Bach’s great music profit as well?

  7. Kirsten Beisswenger
    Breitkopf & Härtel, ©2000, No EB 8714

    This is one of the newest of this lot. It is probably just on the market now. I received directly from the publisher a photocopy of the last proofs, which they kindly sent me.

    Ms. Regina Schwedes of Breitkopf, was especially helpful.

    In their current publicity (The Strad, July 2000), they ask the question:

    "Another Edition of the Cello Suites ?" It is a big question when it applies to the 92nd edition!

    This edition comes with a facsimile of Anna Magdalena Bach. Why another one, when there are already a dozen available. It was news, in 1929, when Alexanian published it with his edition, but now it is really redundant, when you have the Neue Bach Ausgabe, who published the four existing manuscripts, already in 1991, and Bärenreiter, very recently, offering the four plus the first edition.

    The work and the presentation by Kirsten Beisswenger are excellent. Her foreword -- which is an afterword in English - is very well documented. I, naturally, agree completely with her when she says that AMB’s slurring "is characterized by negligence", even if she bases her edition principally on AMB. She further admits that she had to “reconstruct the articulation”. For two and a half pages, she then describes the slurring problems of AMB found in both the violin and the cello works. Still, it doesn’t prevent her to dismiss Kellner a little too quickly. Yet she doesn’t follow slavishly ABM, but tries to be "plausible".

    Jaap ter Linden's Introduction, written as a “practicing musician”, gives very good and sensible advice on performing the Suites. He quotes, about Articulation, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who said : "Before Mozart there was language : after him, melody", which I think is so true. One should "speak" the music of Bach, using rhetorical principles. He also says that we can keep a certain rhythmic freedom.

    Beisswenger's history of the Genesis of the Suites is scholarly and gives a complete picture. She is a musicologist, who worked at the Bach-Institut, at Göttingen, and definitely knows her subject.

  8. Egon Voss and Reiner Ginzel
    G. Henle Verlag HN 666, ©2000

    This is the fourth of the Bach Year!

    Henle is at the basis of the “Urtext movement” which has had an immense impact on interpretation and is indirectely at the source of the "historically informed" stream. No one can deny the importance of this "ideology".

    The last to come out with an edition of the Suites which is, I must say, long overdue, I personally have waited for it for some fifty years. But now, at this late date, the 93rd one, I can’t help ask the same question than with the Bärenreiter and Breitkopf editions: is it still really necessary?

    As Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, Henle’s President, very nicely sent me the last proofs of their edition, since its publication is scheduled only for November, I am, therefore, already in the position to examine it carefully.

    It comes in a double version: an "Urtext" and a version with indications for performance.

    The Urtext version is done by Egon Voss. The Preface, in German, English and French is 9 pages long and is followed by a detailed Critical Report. One finds in it a historical background of the works, and credit is given to the Neue Bach Ausgabe of 1988 by Hans Eppstein for its scholarly research. Four different manuscript versions are mentioned, but the first edition by Norblin of 1824 is put aside on the pretext that Eppstein is not sure on what sources it is based. The Lute version, by Bach himself, for the Vth Suite is not referred to.

    Voss says that one should not use too many sources as it becomes "artificial". But, as we don’t have the holograph, it is the only way to proceed. The proof is that he himself, like Bärenreiter, uses the Anna Magdalena, but fully free of its many inaccuracies, having used the other copies for it, in particular for the slurs, which in his text have litlle to do with AMB.

    Having discarded Norblin, still one can find, for instance, in m. 23 of the Allemande in Suite IV, an A natural, which appears only in Norblin.

    On the whole, it is close to the NBA, but fortunately, not done like it, in two versions, one using AMB and Kellner and the other Westphal and Vienna. It meant that you didn’t have a real text to work on, but two half ones, forcing you to constantly go from one to other, which is completely impractical.

    At least here we have a text you can use without turning you in an acrobat. Also, the page turns are very judiciously planned, with complete movements on one page, whenever possible.

    The version for performance is done by Reiner Ginzel. In his short preface, he admits having used the Kellner, Wesphal and Vienna copies, especially for the slurs. He succeeds in offering a fairly good text. But, Henle having made the effort to present two versions, should have asked a cellist with a litlle more imagination for the fingerings. At this stage, with this 93rd edition, we are bound to expect something else, offering a more advanced outlook on this all important question.

    This edition is conservative, and for this matter should appeal to a certain type of cellist, who expect a fairly reliable text, but without adventure. It is done, like all the publications which Henle has made for so many years, with care and in earnest.

All these new editions are interesting to examine but, even if each have their own qualities, too few are the product of professional cellists with a good historical and musicological background.

Before ending this article, let me, once more, come back to the Anna Magdalena Bach version. She made many patent mistakes, which are often "happily" reproduced by many editors. But, paradoxically, when it comes to interesting differences, they are usually completely ignored. Let me give you three very typical examples:

Sarabande I

Measure 4, fourth note. It is an A, not a G, making this way a complete descending scale from C.

Allemande VI

Measure 13, first chord. The low note is a C sharp, not a B, giving a surprising and interesting diminished seventh chord. Piatigorsky was the first to point it out to me many years ago, and he insisted that all his students play it this way.

Courante VI

Measure 14, third note, should be an F, not an E.
See the similarity with mm. 33-34.

Finally I feel that in the Prelude of Suite I, the first four notes (and the following same figures) should be slurred, unlike in the majority of editions which slur only the first three notes, but as it appears in Kellner, Westphal, Vienna and Norblin. It is so much more logical, musical, and cellistic.

These eight new editions are, if necessary, an additional proof of the enduring richness of the Suites, and should be an enticement to the younger generation to study them in depth and realize that they are a bottomless treasure.

Dimitry Markevitch, September 18, 2000

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