It is magical music and possibly biblical in the sense that it narrates stories in a comprehensible language from the archaic to the refined, about the immeasurable dimensions and variations of the human experiment. For that reason we are grateful: grateful that these pieces exist, that they seem to be about everything, that we are moved without being able to grasp them or even know whether we are meant to grasp them, that we enjoy them quia absurdam est. [Pieter Wispelwey]
The Cello Suites have had a chequered history. They were composed in the early 1720s at the same time as the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, when Bach was court composer at Cöthen and surrounded by superb musicians. No manuscript survives and we rely on a copy written by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, who was both a musician and a precise copyist. There is strong evidence that the two sets were written as a school for string players. And until the young Pablo Casals discovered a nineteenth century edition of the suites in a second-hand bookshop, they were considered to be no more than this – unperformable studies for the cellist’s private laboratory.
Each suite begins with a Prélude, where the performer is given the greatest interpretative freedom due to its improvisatory character. This is followed by the traditional sequence of dance movements, an Allemande in moderate quadruple metre, a faster Courante in triple time, a slow Sarabande also in triple time with its characteristic stress on the second beat and a more animated Gigue. In addition Bach inserts a pair of lighter dances between the Sarabande and the Gigue, the first dance being repeated after the second. There is also a strong sense of development from the serene but straightforward first suite, the self-doubt of the second, the generosity of the third, the awkward key of the fourth to the ferocious demands of the last two, with the special tuning of the fifth and the five strings of the sixth.
None of this explains the hypnotic effect these works exert on modern cellists and audiences alike. A set of archaic courtly dances nearly 300 years old seems an unlikely obsession for our speed-driven age but their grip on our taste is unwavering. In the case of the G major Suite there is the combination of rhythmic energy with what we could call the eternal spirit of the dance, which seems to work unbidden into every crevice of our minds and leaves us elated and purified.