The Recent Editions of the Bach Cello Suites

by Dimitry Markevitch

We have witnessed, since 1996, an unprecedented proliferation of editions of these wonderful Bach masterpieces, the obvious explanation being the observance in the year 2000 of the 250th anniversary of the great musician's death. This now brings the number of editions, since the first by Louis Norblin in 1824, to a staggering 92! (Soon to be 93, when the fourth printing of my edition comes out, with a completely new preface, hopefully before the end of this special year.)

I don't know of another example of such numerous publications. The Bach violin works haven't prompted a like outburst of new editions. We have now seven more versions to study, which boosts my library's collection to 61 different editions of the Suites!

When I published my edition in 1964, which was based on the Kellner and Westphal manuscripts (which I uncovered), as well as the Anna Magdalena and the Lute versions (for the Fifth Suite), it was the 52nd. This means that, in the last 36 years, 41 editions have come 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 may surface one day like the violin works did in 1909, here is what we have to work with:

Four copies:

1. Johann Peter Kellner, 1726.
2. Anna Magdalena Bach, c. 1730.
3. Johann Christoph Westphal.

Beginning of the second half of the 18th century:

4. A later 18th Century Anonymous version, Vienna.


5. The transcription for the lute, by Bach himself, of the Fifth 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 (AMB) copy, being so unreliable, let us not forget that for years it was the only known manuscript, and was often often mistaken 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 recent 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 quite 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 when she was only 20 in 1721. She was the daughter of a trumpet player and, in spite of a nice voice, was musically inexperienced and had no knowledge of string playing. Bach compiled for her the well-known Buchlein 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 comparison between this Buchlein 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 non-professional/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 to be an experienced musician, even by her own husband. Therefore, her copy should not be accepted as a reference, unlike Kellner's, for instance, which, in spite of its shortcomings, was the work of a skilled musician and was created 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. When it comes to "Urtext" editions, we are faced with an "ideology" that is now slowly being abandoned. When, some fifty years ago, the first Urtexts appeared, they were greeted with 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 utopian, since it is still the result of interpretations by editors. An ideal edition cannot be achieved; only an honest one can be the goal. There are just as many Urtexts as there are editors. The proof is flagrant with the two latest editions. Who is right? Nobody. As we do not possess the autograph manuscript, no one can produce a truly genuine Urtext.

This doesn't mean that we should not strive for a good edition, based on the best available evidence, but we should stop following urtexts as if they are gospel. This is where the study of the sources becomes of primary importance.

Let's now examine the latest editions that have emerged in 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 (who was a 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 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 structural units of four bars. For the Fifth Suite, they make a fascinating comparison with a Suite by Marin Marais, showing a possible influence. They also explain their intriguing theory of Metric displacement, which merits exploration. 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," 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 he had problems in the Sixth Suite since the piece is "based on the mostly three-part structure 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 idiosyncrasies 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 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 proof of Bach's genius. Bylsma's text is more of 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 ... only to tell you later that they should be performed in an Italian manner! Bylsma is obviously a polemicist, 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 that he is not going to give ideas to others to go back to AMB, now that we have better evidence. 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 have 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 PC's only, and programs not more recent than 95 or 98. If you have a Mac, or Windows 2000, for instance, you can't access it. Such a policy is hard to understand. Obviously, somebody goofed somewhere. I had a hard time finding a person with the right equipment. Most serious musicians have Mac's, as the best music programs are on the 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. 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' 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 Fifth Suite. And, surprisingly, after calling the AMB his beloved score, Maisky 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, is elaborated with care, and is based on all the available sources. Naturally all this is done subjectively, as with any editing. But the detailed critical commentaries show the thoroughness of the work. Naturally, it is possible to question some of the choices, but with this edition, the cellist has 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 to the expense of 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.

    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 somewhat blur 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 already did in my edition in 1964.

    Now for the score itself, which they call a "Scholarly Critical Performance Edition." They have provided what they call a "neutral" edition. They just did away with all the slurs! It looks really naked. Daniel Vandersall already did this in 1970.

    So, in fact, it is kind of a do-it-yourself edition! You take the notes, and you pick from the various facsimiles the slurs that you feel fit the best. Obviously, no students will be able to do this, nor are they qualified to. I wonder who the cellists will be that benefit from this idea, and will Bach's great music profit as well?

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

    This is the newest of this lot. It is not even on the market yet. I received a photocopy of the last proofs directly from the publisher, 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 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 from dismissing Kellner a little too quickly. Yet she doesn't follow slavishly AMB, 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 Nikolaus Harnoncourt on Articulation, 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 use 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.

All these new editions are interesting to examine but, even if each has 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 "happily" reproduced by many editors. But, paradoxically, when it comes to interesting differences, they are usually completely ignored. Let me give you three 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.

Whether or not necessary, these seven new editions are additional evidence 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, July 4th, 2000

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