Janet Banks reviews an account by Miranda Wilson of learning and performing Bach’s Six Cello Suites from memory

The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites

The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites

Miranda Wilson

245PP ISBN 9781629920474

Fairhaven Press $18.95


This is an unusual book. Yes, it is about Bach’s Solo Cello Suites, and its six parts correspond to the six suites, but it also takes you through the life of its author in a series of autobiographical episodes woven together with the music.

Aged 30 Miranda Wilson, newly appointed professor of cello at Idaho University, set herself the challenge of studying and performing in one concert all six of the Cello Suites from memory. The book ends as, aged 38, she walks out on stage to do just that, in the lead concert of the Idaho Bach Festival.

Each of its six parts has a title of the author’s creation (Part/Suite no.2 is ‘The Night of Sorrow’, Part/Suite no.5 ‘Discord’) and is then further sub-divided into six sections, each headed by the title of the movement within the suite – Prelude, Allemande etc. These sections always contain something about the movement from the player’s perspective, but then go off on a whole range of interesting diversions – the question of whether a Sarabande should be played as if it is being danced, what cellos were like in Bach’s day, 19th-century editions of the Suites, Schenkerian analysis – as well as linking them to her own experiences and Bach’s own life.

I found the book very readable and enjoyed the author’s humour and honesty. There is no index – you are left to discover the scholarly nuggets as you meander your way through Wilson’s life, from starting on Bach’s G major minuets as an eleven-year-old growing up in New Zealand, to mastering Suite no.6 on a newly commissioned carbon-fibre five-string cello in her late thirties.

Those who are already familiar with the Cello Suites, particularly as players, certainly have a head start with this book. There are no music examples or illustrations, and I found it helped to have a copy of the music alongside me when reading it. Wilson is up front about the practical difficulties she encounters – working on the tuning in the E flat major Suite with its many left-hand extensions, for example – and I found it fascinating to read about her first attempts at playing Suite no.6 on her long-awaited and debated five-string cello.