Bach’s D Minor Cello Suite

Musical Works in Context: A Sample of Bach

Having grown up in a family of musicians, it comes as no surprise that Johann Sebastian Bach would become one of the most prolific composers of the baroque era. Born in 1685, he was introduced to the organ as a child by his older relatives, who also exposed him to the other music of his time. Bach studied music at schools in Lüneburg, in what is modern-day Germany, before moving around the Germanic states to find posts as church organist and court composer for numerous members of the aristocracy. It was through these religious appointments that Bach’s largest body of work originates, composing cantatas as part of his occupation rather than as an artistic passion project. Over time, he acquired more open occupational roles, working as the Kapellmeister for German princes in the early 18th century, from which his solo cello suites come. Towards the 1720s, Bach settled down in Leipzig, working as a teacher for music and cantata composer for the church of the Thomasschule there. In his later years, his compositional output was dominated by larger works, the famous B Minor Mass, Goldberg Variations and Art of the Fugue taking large positions in his life. Perishing in 1750 from complications arising from an eye surgery, Bach left behind an immense corpus of work, all bearing the distinctive Bach sound, of intricate polyphony and harmonic mastery.

The exact origin of the Bach Solo Cello Suites is not known, the works only rediscovered in the 1900s with Pablo Casals bringing the work to the forefront. Thus, the lack of an autograph manuscript created an degree of mystery around the work, the earliest manuscript in existence being a hand-written copy taken by the composer’s wife, Anna Magdalena. Despite having fallen into obscurity in the centuries following Bach’s death, the harmonic appeal and artistic power of the Solo Cello Suites has pushed them to become core parts of the solo cello repertoire, and indeed a common subject of performance for the viola.

A Commentary on Excerpts

The Prelude of the D Minor Suite is decidedly melancholy, a sorrowful refrain carried through a single impassioned viola line that is almost entirely constant throughout the movement. Embodying many characteristics of Bach’s writing for lower strings, the Prelude carries with it a sense of harmonic completeness, despite the (almost complete) lack of supporting harmony either in chords or an accompaniment, testament to the composer’s skill for weaving a melody that could stand without the scaffolding provided by a harpsichord or piano. Chords, and the more bombastic sounds of Bach are reserved for climactic areas of the music, a resolute cadence at the end of the Prelude firmly placing the music in the minor key, the frequently used picardie cadence that is so common to his other music noticeably absent. The lack of a major turn at the end of the Prelude marks it apart from many of Bach’s other works, the sense of sorrow reinforced rather than met with catharsis.

The sorrowful mood is carried forward into the Sarabande, the impassioned but flowing melodies that dominate the Prelude (and indeed the Allemande and Courante) replaced with a calmer, but also more contemplative atmosphere. The presence of harmonic support in chords furthers this, a deep sense of sorrow present, with melancholy and resolution in places where the phrases are a little brighter. There are moments of quietness, of peaceful contemplation, before the music rises and grows to a pinnacle before ending on an ambiguous cadence.

A departure from the wallowing of the earlier movements then comes in the Gigue, full of life and a sense of drive not found elsewhere in the suite. The jaunty dance rhythms characteristic to quick movements in dance suites are carried throughout the Gigue, a distinctly jovial sense given to the flow of the music. The phrases ebb and flow, carried through several keys before arriving triumphantly back at D Minor, a satisfying closure to the Suite.

This article is a programme note submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for a Licentiate of Trinity College London Diploma in Viola Performance (originally written, June 2021)

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