The Kennedy Center

Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Richard Rodda

In 1713 the frugal Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia dismissed his household musical establishment in Berlin. The young, cultured Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen took the opportunity to engage some of Friedrich's finest musicians, and provided them with excellent instruments and established a library for their regular court performances. In December 1717 Leopold hired Johann Sebastian Bach, then organist and Kapellmeister at Weimar, as his director of music. Inspired by the high quality of the musicians in his charge and by the Prince's praise of his creative work, Bach produced much of his greatest instrumental music during the six years of his tenure at Cöthen, including the Brandenburg Concertos, Suites for orchestra, violin concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, many chamber and keyboard compositions, and the works for unaccompanied violin and cello. The six Suites for unaccompanied cello were apparently written for either Christian Ferdinand Abel (whose son Carl Friedrich became the partner of Sebastian Bach's son Johann Christian in an important London concert venture in the 1760s) or Christian Bernhard Linigke, both master cellists in the Cöthen court orchestra.

The cello in Bach's time was still an instrument of relatively recent origin. It was the Cremonese craftsman Andrea Amati who first brought the violin, viola, and cello to their modern configurations around 1560 as the successors to the old, softer-voiced family of viols. (The modern double bass, with its tuning in fourths and its sloping shape-compare its profile with the square shoulders of the other orchestral strings-is the only survivor in the modern orchestra of that noble breed of earlier instruments). For the first century of its existence the cello was strictly confined to playing the bass line in concerted works; any solo passages in its register were entrusted to the viola da gamba. The earliest solo works known to have been written specifically for the instrument from the 1680s are by Domenico Gabrieli, a cellist in the orchestra of San Petronio in Bologna (unrelated to the Venetian Gabrielis); notable among them are his Ricercare for unaccompanied cello of 1689. The first concerto for cello seems to be that composed by Giuseppe Jacchini in 1701. The instrument gained steadily in popularity as it displaced the older gamba, a circumstance evidenced by the many works for it by Antonio Vivaldi and other early-18th-century Italian composers. When Bach proposed to write music for unaccompanied cello sometime around 1720, however, there were few precedents for such pieces. The examples with which he was most familiar were by a tiny enclave of composers (Westhof, Biber, Walther, Pisendel) centered around Dresden who had dabbled in compositions for solo violin, and it was probably upon their models that Bach built his six Sonatas and Partitas for violin and the half-dozen Suites for cello. In comparing these two series of Bach's works Philipp Spitta wrote, "The passionate and penetrating energy, the inner fire and warmth which often grew to be painful in its intensity [in the violin works], is here softened down to a quieter beauty and a generally serene grandeur, as was to be expected from the deeper pitch and fuller tone of the cello."

Bach's unaccompanied cello Suites follow the traditional form of the German instrumental Suite-an elaborate prelude followed by a fixed series of dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. Between the last two movements are inserted additional pairs of minuets (Suites Nos. 1 and 2), bourrées (Nos. 3 and 4) or gavottes (Nos. 5 and 6). The First Suite, in G major, opens with a fantasia-like Prélude whose steady rhythmic motion and breadth of harmonic inflection generate a sweeping grandeur which culminates magnificently in the heroic gestures of the closing measures. The ensuing movements follow the old custom of pairing a slow dance with a fast one: an Allemande (here marked by wide-ranging figurations and swiftly flowing rhythms) is complemented by a Courante, a dance type originally accompanied by jumping motions; a stately Sarabande is balanced by a pair of Minuets (the second of which, in G minor, exhibits a delicious, haunted languor) and a spirited Gigue of vibrant character.