Bach Second Cello Suite – Prelude: A small but crucial omission

last 5 bars

The final five bars of the Prelude to Bach’s Second Cello Suite are often misinterpreted by performers, argues Mats Lidström, Leo Stern Professor of Cello at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Here he traces the source of the problem back to the ink- and paper-saving abbreviations of Baroque composers

Each performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite in D minor BWV1008 reveals the cellist’s knowledge of 18th-century Baroque notation. Four bars before the concluding tonic chord, the energy and flow that have characterised the music up to that point are suddenly interrupted by a single dotted minim (d) chord in each bar. This in itself puts great demands on the cellist’s bow-speed control – especially after having played almost two pages of mainly semiquavers (s). To sustain a chord across three strings for that amount of time, while also trying to maintain sound quality, is not only difficult, but makes little musical sense: the music resorts to practicalities, while expression and drama are lost rather than intensified. Graphically, these last few bars look strikingly different from the rest of the piece – more in the style of a sarabande – and are worth investigating.

In Bach’s time, paper was expensive and could also be difficult to come by, so wasting it was not an option. In one example Bach completes the last movement of a harpsichord concerto on the upper half of a page and follows it immediately with the beginning of a trio sonata in G minor – which he never completed. Added to the financial aspect was the fact that writing and copying music with pen and ink made for a tedious occupation, especially in the evenings when the lack of light slowed precision. Saving both paper and time was essential – hence composers’ use of abbreviations…

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