FAQs- Bach Cello Suites

From my inbox comes a nice question from Felicity in Colorado, which gives me a rare, and nice, chance to answer a cello related question.

Dear Ken,” she writes, “when you’re playing the Bach Suites, do you use a baroque bow or baroque cello, what sort of A do you tune to and so on? I’m a freshman in college and trying work my way through them for the first time, having just learned bits of the first two in high school. Any tips for me as I work on them?”

That’s a huge question, and probably worth several whole posts, but here are a couple of quick thoughts.

I play Bach on my regular cello, which is a 1690 Italian instrument with a “modern” set up, and I do use an endpin. My bow is a Tourte copy, so also, “modern.” I’d love to own a baroque cello, but it’s hard to justify as I can fool almost anyone into thinking I’m playing a baroque instrument on mine (and its old, anyway!).

For me, the most important stylistic consideration in Bach is the vocabulary of bowstrokes I’m going to use. When I perform the Suites, I always use a baroque bow grip on my modern bow; that is, I hold the bow along the stick a few inches above the frog, and not at the frog where we hold the bow for more contemporary and romantic works. This kind of bow hold makes all of the string crossings and uneven groupings that are such an intrinsic part of the suites much more idiomatic. I would strongly, strongly, strongly encourage all young cellists to begin learning to switch back and forth between their “normal” grip and a baroque one from an early age. It helps to have a spare bow, as you’ll no doubt get some finger grease on the bow hair as you practice.

On the other hand, I also practice the suites almost anytime I get the cello out of the case using a modern grip, precisely because it is so unidiomatic that it challenges every aspect of my technique. If you can make the suites sound effortless, clean, articulate and idiomatic with a modern grip, you’ll have a flexibility and precision when you come to later music that will really serve you well. If you’re playing say, the Thrid for a recital, try preparing it with a baroque grip and then warming up every day with a different movement from one of the others with a modern grip.

When you’re young it’s so easy to fall into the trap of feeling too much time pressure as you try to learn each suite for lessons and recitals. You have your whole life to work on them, and from the beginning, it’s good to get to grips with the idea that they exist as much for us to learn from as to perform.

I’m not too bothered about playing at a lower pitch- there is enough evidence now that says pitch in that era varied so widely that I don’t see the point in tuning down, although 440 is really high enough, and anything beyond 442 is too much for Bach. Some American, Japanese and German music schools that have their students playing at 444 and upwards are making the instruments so tight (higher pitch means more tension on the instrument) that it’s almost impossible to get them to speak easily and ring effortlessly (and it is bad for the instruments).

Everyone’s got their favourite recordings of the Bach Suites- mine right now is Pieter Wispelwey’s, but what you should really listen to is OTHER BACH. So many cellists play these pieces as if the only Bach they’ve ever heard is other cellists playing the same pieces, and as a result, we hear them with a lack of rhythmic spine that is totally foreign to the music. Remember, they’re dance suites, not cadenzas.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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4 comments on “FAQs- Bach Cello Suites”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Bryan-Kirk

    Well, unlike the sonatas for gamba and harpsichord, the suites were clearly written for cello, but they are unusually adaptable and would work just as well on gamba as viola, tuba, horn, guitar, bassoon or any of the other instruments they get transcribed for. ON the other hand, the gamba sonatas don’t work as well for me on the cello as I wish they did….

    The more interesting question is what the 6th suite was written for- some people think it was a viola di pomposa, but we now think it was a five string cello. The piece certainly makes more musical sense on a five string than on a standard cello…


  2. GUY

    Hi Ken

    interesting as always to hear your thoughts. I am working my way through the first suite (am just doing the Sarabande) and have tried a couple of bows. My regular bow, which is an about 1920s standard weight German bow, I find too heavy and makes all the string changing difficult (for me). I didn’t find that using the Baroque bow hold improved that. A while ago I got an Incredibow, which I found a lot better for the passages which were difficult with the other bow. Of course the sound isn’t as good as a wooden bow (by which I mean, not as warm) although funnily the Incredibow sounds better when you use a Baroque hold – think it works better too. Still think the Incredibow would be useful for situations in which you didn’t want to risk your good bow (weddings, garden parties etc.) I have just purchased a 67 gram vintage French bow from eBay, for whose arrival I am eagerly awaiting to see if (as I hope) that combines the best of both worlds. I am obviously a bit of a gear freak for my cello – recently got a set of Pegheads and a new tailpiece, which have made it a lot easier to tune and improved the projection on the top 2 strings respectively.

    Your post about the Schubert Quintet was most interesting also – it is my fantasy to play in that piece one day. All that was said about Schubert in your post and the comments I agree with, but from my point of view I would add that he is the great poet of disillusion and despair. But something always follows the crash, if not exactly resolves it – eg the climax of the 2nd movement (Andante?) of the Great Symphony.

    Your advice about 1st position on the 1st string was spot on BTW and many thanks.



  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Guy-

    Thanks so much for the interesting and thoughtful comment.

    One thought about bows…. My main bow is a very perfect and wonderful Jin Wu Lee copy of a Tourte. It’s gorgeous, perfectly balanced and good for everything from spicato to the slow movement of Messiaen’s Quartet from the End of Time. Jin died too young, so I always take every chance to acknowledge what a great craftsman he was. This bow is the best of his I tried, and I like it more than many real Tourtes- he was a genius at finding wood.

    However, since using the baroque grip screws up the hair by geting finger grease on it (at least mine does), I use my other bow for a lot of Bach. It’s a very cheap and cheerful German bow, which is quite a bit lighter than the Lee. Not worried about projection and power since I’m not fighting a piano, it works great.

    When I use my modern cello for concerts I try to use my Lee, which means the bow is worth more than twice what the cello is, and it makes a huge difference. For cellists on a tight budget, you may be better with a 2k cello and a 4 k bow than a 6 k cello and a $500 bow…… Just a thought.

    Thanks again for reading.


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