You may be thinking right now, “is this is a trick question?” I wouldn’t blame you – for most of my life I thought this was a no-brainer: The Cello Suites are written for cello. Duh. The only confusing parts were Suite No. 5 and Suite No. 6: The former calls for an unusual tuning (C-G-d-g instead of C-G-d-a), the latter calls for a fifth string, but they’re still for cello. If you have any doubts, look at the title page! We don’t have an autograph by Bach himself, but the surviving contemporary manuscripts tell the story:
Title Pages of Surviving Contemporary Manuscript Copies
of the Bach "Cello" Suites
(click on any title page for a better view)
Manuscript Copy by Anna Magdalena Bach (Bach's second wife), c. 1727-31
bottom, from left to right:
Anonymous Copyist, second half of the 18th century
Anonymous Copyist, end of 18th century
Manuscript Copy by Johann Peter Kellner, 1726
It seems obvious, right? Bach clearly wrote these suites for violoncello. Except… what about that last source on the right that has “viola de basso” scrawled on it? This brings us straight to the eTyMoLoGiCaL issue over which my mouth is watering as I type:
Suffixes! For centuries, the term viola was quite loosely applied to any kind of stringed instrument played with a bow, though now we think of viola as a specific instrument (the alto-ranged member of the violin family). So, add to viola the diminutive Italian suffix “-ino” and you get the violino, also a specific instrument. Going the other direction, however, things were less precise: Add to viola the augmentative suffix “-one” and you get the violone, or “large viola.” Add to that the diminutive suffix “-cello” and you have the violoncello, or “small large viola.” Start throwing in some appendages, such as viola da brazzo, viola da gamba, or violoncello di spalla, and the possibilities are endless!
With all these suffixes wreaking havoc, maybe our current understanding of violoncello differs from Bach’s more than we think.
Our ‘modern’ cello today is quite standardized: the full-sized cello varies in dimensions only slightly within certain guidelines, it has four strings tuned in fifths, and is played in a more or less vertical position whilst sitting on a chair. These are pretty fixed parameters.
What about Bach’s cello?
First off, bear in mind that Bach wrote these pieces, most likely, in the first quarter of the 18th century, say, the early 1720s. That’s just about 300 years ago. By this time, the violin had flourished into a solo instrument of sheer endless virtuosic potential at the hands of composer-performers such as Niccola Matteis, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and Arcangelo Corelli. The cello was the under-achieving (big) brother of the violin and took a few decades longer to come of age. The pop star singer-songwriters of the cello didn’t emerge until the last quarter of the 17th century, when a couple of rowdy Italians in Bologna started teaching each other and passing along their mad skills. The first ever pieces for solo cello are considered to be sets of Ricercare written by Giovanni Battista degli Antonii and Domenico Gabrielli, respectively, in the 1680s. (The latter is not to be confused with the more famous Giovanni Gabrieli of the late 16th century.)
Even this new Bolognese cello school did not yet have a unified way of setting up, tuning, or playing the cello the way we do today. There is evidence, written and iconographic, as well as hints in the music which show that different tunings were used. Even the number of strings wasn’t fixed. By the time Bach was composing for the instrument, there was no sign yet of any kind of standardization of the terminology used or of the instruments themselves. But get this: In 1708, Johann Gottfried Walther, Bach’s nephew, wrote this mind-boggling description in his composition treatise:
“The Violoncello is an Italian bass instrument resembling a Viola da gamba; it is played
like a violin, i.e. the left hand partly holds it and stops the strings; partly however, owing to its weight,
it is hung from the button of the frockcoat [...]. It is tuned like a Viola.”
If you still can't imagine it, it may have looked something like on this video.
Here’s the bottom line: If there is one thing we can conclude about Bach’s violoncello situation, it is that it was a mess. Some cellists were playing more or less the way we do now, some cellists were playing the instrument "like a violin." And yet other cellists were actually trombone players who also played violin, and doubled on the cello part on some bigger version of the violin. OR SOMETHING.
So here I sit and find my world turned upside down! Thanks to my historical-performance-induced, can-of-worms-opening curiosity, the two most confusing suites to me growing up – No. 5 in C minor and No. 6 in D major – are now the most straight-forward. These are the only two suites with clear instructions for tuning and number of strings. The suites I used to think were aberrations from the “normal” tuning are now are the only ones I can really trust.
As for the other four – I will just follow my gut.
Friday, June 13 – 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm
Five Boroughs Music Festival presents: “A Suite Ride Through the Boroughs”
Part of the inaugural Early Music Festival: New York City, June 13-19
Early Music Festival: New York City 2014
Five Boroughs Music Festival