Bach to the Future: How the Cello Suites Transcended Obscurity to Captivate the World

Byvu lita

Jul 13, 2023

They’re one of the greatest glories of classical music but the Cello Suites took many decades to be appreciated and understood. Steven Isserlis tells the story of ‘one of the pillars of western civilisation’

Steven Isserlis performing at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Steven Isserlis performing at the Wigmore Hall in London. Photograph: Amy T Zielinski/Redferns

Much of Bach’s music was forgotten after his death in 1750. A few works – mainly for keyboard – had been published during his lifetime, mostly at his own expense; and a few unpublished works somehow became known, too. His first biographer, Forkel, tells us that “for a long series of years the violin solos were universally considered by the greatest performers on the violin to be the best means to make an ambitious student a perfect master of his instrument”. Meanwhile, in late 18th-century Vienna, Mozart was introduced to several of Bach’s works by Baron van Swieten, a fanatic for baroque music, to whom Forkel’s Bach biography is dedicated (as is Beethoven’s first symphony). Later, Mozart got the chance to hear more of Bach’s choral works in Leipzig. An eyewitness reported: “As soon as the choir had sung a few bars, Mozart started; after a few more he exclaimed: ‘What is that?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be centred in his ears. When the song was ended, he cried out with delight: ‘Now, here is something from which one can learn!’” Just a few years earlier, the first-ever review of Beethoven, when he was 11 years old, tells us that: “He plays chiefly The Well-Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe [Beethoven’s teacher] put into his hands.”

So Bach was not completely forgotten – but his cello suites were. There is no record of a performance for at least 100 years after they came into being. It was not until cellist Louis-Pierre Norblin published his edition in 1824 – presumably based on the manuscript copy acquired by CPE Bach (Bach’s second son) – that they began to be more widely disseminated. Three more editions appeared in as many years and then another in 1831, possibly prompted by Mendelssohn’s famous Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. After that, things went a bit quiet; but by now, the suites were starting to be appreciated.

Robert Schumann had always been a Bach fanatic: “I myself confess daily to this eminent creator and seek to purify and strengthen myself through him.” He was one of the founders of the Bach-Gesellschaft, the society that aimed to produce the first complete and scholarly edition of Bach’s music, a far-reaching project. In early 1853, Schumann composed piano accompaniments for Bach’s complete works for solo violin. He wrote to the publisher: “I hope that the harmonic braces [‘tragehänder’] which I fastened to them will help bring these treasures up to the surface.”

Soon thereafter, he turned his attention to the cello suites, providing them also with a piano accompaniment. On 17 November 1853 (just a few months before his final breakdown and removal to the asylum in which he was to spend his last two and a half years), he wrote to a different publisher, Kistner, about them, adding that the suites “are the most beautiful and important compositions for the cello”.

Schumann arranged for the first cellist in his Düsseldorf orchestra, Christian Reimers, to play them through: Nos 1-3 on New Year’s Eve 1853, 4-6 on New Year’s Day 1854. A few years after Schumann’s death, a third publisher showed an interest in the accompaniments. Schumann’s widow, Clara, turned to her friends Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim; alas, their reaction was negative (particularly Brahms’), and thereafter Clara suppressed and probably destroyed her husband’s work, along with the Romances for cello and piano written around the same time. To add to the frustration, we know that the suite accompaniments survived for many years in another copy. Reimers moved to England and thence to Australia, where he regularly performed movements from the suites with Schumann’s piano parts. We were fated to be denied them, however: Reimers died on a ship in 1889, on his way back to Europe. His body was thrown overboard, along – probably – with his belongings. (Hopefully the fish in those parts enjoyed Schumann’s music, at least.)

On the other hand, well-meaning though Schumann’s accompaniments undoubtedly were, they were completely superfluous. One of the main glories of the suites (and of course the solo violin works) lies in their miraculous use of the unaccompanied instrument to create a whole world of sound, with no need for anything else to be added. As Forkel put it, Bach “has so combined in a single part all the notes required to make the modulation complete that a second part is neither necessary nor possible”.

Pablo Casals (1876-1973) performs the Cello Suites in front of president John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy at the White House, 24 November 1961.
Pablo Casals (1876-1973) performs the Cello Suites in front of president John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy at the White House, 24 November 1961. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

So back to the career of the suites in their proper, solo incarnation: before the scholarly 1879 Bach-Gesellschaft edition – a turning-point in the history of the suites – there had been five editions that were all, in their different ways, distortions; they couldn’t even get the title right, referring to the suites either as sonatas or etudes (studies) – not a promising start. It would seem that people misunderstood the true nature of the music.

It was extremely rare for anyone to play an entire suite. One exception was the German cellist Friedrich Grützmacher. In 1866 he brought out a “performer’s edition” in which, among other outrages, he had the nerve to transpose the sixth suite into G major. (Perhaps I’m just jealous. It must be easier, which would be nice, I admit; but it’s wrong! A different sound-world altogether.) Aside from tempo and dynamic markings galore, as well as rhythms altered whenever he felt like it, he added and changed notes all over the place. In a letter to his publisher regarding his various editions, he modestly explains: “My main purpose has been to reflect and to determine what these masters might have been thinking … I feel I have more right than all the others to do this work.”

Moving fairly swiftly onwards, we come to the considerably less dubious figure of Pablo Casals. It was Casals who started to play the suites everywhere, in a blazingly successful mission to popularise them around the world. As an old man, he remembered how he first discovered them. In 1890, at the age of 13, while studying at the music school in Barcelona, he earned money by playing in a cafe with an ensemble; a highlight of each evening’s fare would be a solo performance by the prodigy. In an attempt to vary his repertoire, young Pablo was constantly on the lookout for new pieces. One day his father arrived from Casals’ home town, Vendrell, to visit his son. Pablo told him of his need for fresh music: “Together we set off on the search. For two reasons I shall never forget that afternoon. First, my father bought me my first full-size cello – how proud I was to have that wonderful instrument! Then we stopped at an old music shop near the harbour. I began browsing through a bundle of musical scores. Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumpled and discoloured with age. They were unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach – for the cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? That scene has never grown dim.” The love affair that started that day (particularly impressive since the edition he found was the dreaded Grützmacher version!) was to infect music-lovers everywhere.

It took Casals 12 years before he felt ready to perform one of the suites in public. “They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music”, he wrote. His famous recordings of the six suites for EMI – the first time anyone had recorded any of the suites in its entirety – were made between 1936 and 1939, when not only was the second world war looming, but Casals’ beloved homeland was being viciously torn asunder by civil war. Turning to Bach must have provided sorely needed comfort in his darkest hours – as Bach’s music has done, and continues to do, for countless men and women through the ages.

It took some time for Casals’ efforts to bear fruit; but eventually through 75 years or so of impassioned missionary work, people all over the world were converted – ranging from Queen Victoria (in 1899) to Golda Meir (to whom Casals played the Fifth Sarabande in 1973, when he was 96). Furthermore, as the suites grew in popularity, so did the idea of writing for unaccompanied cello. After virtually nothing of musical interest from the 19th century, the 20th was to see the composition of an increasing number of important works (Kodály, Hindemith, Reger, Bloch, Dallapiccola, Britten, Dutilleux, etc), all showing, to a greater or lesser degree, the influence of the great Leipzig master. I hope that Bach, sitting in heaven, felt some satisfaction: after some 200 years, his suites had finally taken their rightful place as one of the pillars of western civilisation.

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