The Six Suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach were most likely composed during his tenure as Kapellmeister in Cöthen (1717-23). The suites each consist of six movements: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Galanteries (Minuets in 1 and 2, Bourrées in 3 and 4 and Gavottes in 5 and 6), and a closing Gigue. They were likely composed as exercise pieces for his students, intended to provide for them a practice routine that would give them a thorough mastery of the instrument’s scope and capabilities. Bach was a born music teacher, accessible, strict and affable. “I consider them to be my sons,” he said of his students. Whenever they became discouraged, he would remind them “I’ve worked hard. Whoever tries to do as much will be able to do what I did. After all,” he would remind them, “I have only two hands and ten fingers just as you.”

Cellists from the North Carolina Symphony — Elizabeth Beilman, Peng Li and Bonnie Thron — are performing the six cello suites as part of the Spirituality in the Arts series; this installment was at Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Raleigh. The concert, postponed from Sunday afternoon due to the wintery mix over the weekend, featured the first three suites.  Suites 4, 5 and 6 will be performed Sunday, February 21. See our calendar for details.
With Bach, what was written as a student exercise is much more. In his hands the solo cello speaks as profoundly, eloquently and completely as the organ or even the symphony orchestra. (Mstislav Rostropovich referred to the 6th Suite as “a symphony for solo cello.”) The melody is obvious, the harmony is clearly suggested or implied and expressed through double string playing, and the development is thorough and explicit. It is said that everything Bach wrote was influenced by his belief that God Himself was listening. After hearing these suites, can anyone doubt that?

The cello suites include a remarkable array of technical devices, but it is the intimate and personal voice that speaks through them which makes them such favorites among cellists and music lovers. It was near the end of the 19th century that the legendary cellist Pablo Casals at age 13 discovered a copy of Grützmacher’s edition in a thrift shop in Barcelona and began studying them. He wrote later, “Bach’s cello suites open the door to a new world. I play them with indescribable joy. They have become my favorite music, so much so that I have studied and worked on them for the past twelve years without skipping a day. Twelve, yes twelve years went by before I had the courage to play just one of these suites in public. At that time, no other violist or cellist had ever played them all in a row; they were often considered mechanical, academic, or lacking in warmth. What nonsense! How can they be considered cold when each and every one of them exudes such poetry and generosity! They are the very essence of Bach and Bach is the very essence of music.”

Today there are dozens of recordings of these gems, each of them bearing the genius of Bach as well as the heart of the performing artists. There is no known autograph manuscript, but there are many secondary sources, including one hand-written copy by Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, who was an accomplished musician in her own right. The variety of editions that exist differ in such critical details as placement of slurs and other articulation indications, and tempo is an individual choice within the limits of known period practice. Thus we have a variety of interpretations with no universally accepted authoritative version. 

Peng Li began the program with the Suite No. 1 in G, S.1007. It immediately insinuates itself and captures your imagination with the very familiar Prelude. If you’ve seen the frequently-played recent commercial with all the strange articles suggesting happy faces, you’ve heard it. His performance continued with the lovely Allemande, a charming Courante, and a Sarabande of lyrical beauty that tugged at the heart. The Minuets and a lively Gigue were convincingly and satisfyingly played by this talented artist.

Li came to the North Carolina Symphony in 2008 from his native state of Texas, by way of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and much other education, training, and experience.

Bonnie Thron, Principal Cellist with the North Carolina Symphony and widely known and admired as a chamber player, performed the Suite No. 2 in D minor, S.1008. The character of this piece is vastly different from the one preceding and the one following it. It is in a minor key and immediately invites us into a more introspective mood, somber at times. Even the Courante, though somewhat lively, is almost frantic, as though running from something. However, it was while listening to the Sarabande that I felt a palpable sadness tugging at my heart and I wrote on a corner of my program, “Could it be this was written after the death of one his children?” (His first wife, Maria Barbara, died in 1720.)  Even with the Minuets and Gigue there is little relief from the sadness of this suite, which was played with passionate intensity by Thron.

The Suite No. 3 in C, S.1009, on the other hand, must have been inspired by an early morning walk in the spring time after he had found Anna Magdalena. Here we have sunny music, almost pastoral. The Allemande is playful, the Courante is robust, and the Sarabande, though somewhat sad, has a sweetness that on this occasion softened the heart. In this suite, the expected minuets were replaced by bourees, rustic country dances, and a closing Gigue that was rousing and joyful. Elizabeth Beilman, Associate Principal Cellist, performed this suite with sure hands and the heart of an artist.

All three artists seemed to perform the music from the inside out, inviting the audience to experience the astonishing artistry of the cantor and school master of Leipzig who is still teaching musicians to be masterful and still teaching audiences to be complete human beings.

To confirm the collaborative effort of this project, for an encore, we heard all three perform a pair of viola da gamba pieces written by Christian Ferdinand Abel, a friend of Bach (and father of Carl Friedrich Abel). They were arranged for cello trio by Thron and wow, what a sound!  Be there for the third and final installment of this series on February 21!