As he prepares for his performance at King’s Place on Sunday 2 April, Christopher Suckling muses on what we know, and what we don’t, about Bach’s Cello Suites

Suckling 209 (002)

Christopher Suckling © Robin Bigwood

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The Bach Cello Suites have, over the last hundred years or so, acquired a certain cult status, indeed, for many cellists, they have become a defining influence. For such famous music, however, we know relatively little about the suites. This is undoubtedly a good thing; history has left us with many creative spaces in which to play. Here are just a few of the ideas I have been toying with while preparing my latest iteration of the suites.

Preparation is very different from performance. Even though I can audialise the King’s Place acoustic as I listen to myself in my music room, I know that how the sound feels in the hall will move me in unexpected ways during performance; touch is critical to my interpretation. It is here that elements of historical performance practices – both those that are our best approximations of the past and those that have become our current traditions – enter my preparation. The balance of the baroque bow, the resistance of the stick and the string, encourage my arms to dance (even if my legs can’t). At the same time they encourage rhetorical articulation.

Discussion of the manuscript sources for the suites has been extensive and remains current; I won’t rehearse these arguments here, except to note that the manuscripts’ flaws demand that every bowing decision by the cellist has meaning and that, with the baroque bow, these articulations are at the heart of expression. 

The music expresses the genius of the dance, but the relationship between dance and music is not straightforward, not least because Bach could dance – as a basic part of his education – and we, for the most, cannot. Even so, the Allemande was no longer danced by Bach’s time (could that be why it is the most exploratory of Bach’s movements?), his Courantes flirt between the French and Italian styles, and his Gigues are frequently more appropriate for fiddling. Tormod Dalen beautifully demonstrates how Bach derives his music from dance, whilst Cooervits and Moelants make clear the different historical instincts of contemporary musicians and dancers. 

The dance suite is a French form, as musically influential as the French language was across Germany in the early eighteenth century. Bach’s dancing masters were French and, collated, the ornamentation in the manuscript sources of the cello suites begins to look suspiciously French. Bach’s didactic ornament table was borrowed from d’Anglebert; an analogous table for the viol (including two types of vibrato!) prefaces the suites by Le Sieur de MachyCharles Medlam conjectures how Bach may have come into contact with these and other French viol suites; reading through these alongside practising Bach asks another question, how ’French’ to play Bach?

Christopher Suckling is continuo cellist with the Feinstein Ensemble and the Gabrieli Consort and Head of Historical Performance at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He will perform Suites nos. 3, 2 and 4 at Kings Place on Sunday 2 April, 6pm. More information can be found here.

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