From 1717 to 1723 Bach served as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Cothen, a gambist. These years seem to have been among the happiest of his life; they were also among the most productive. The Brandenburg concerti, violin sonatas and partitas, viola da gamba sonatas, flute sonatas, two- and three-part inventions, French and English suites, the four orchestral suites, the violin concerti, and the six suites for unaccompanied cello -- these masterpieces and more poured forth.

Of these, the six cello suites stand as a high point in the development of the suite for any solo instrument until then, and, some would have it, ever since. Certainly, for every cellist since Bach's time, the six suites have been the towering monument of the solo literature. For the artist they present supreme challenges of technique, interpretational conception, and emotional expressiveness.

By his exploration of the resources of the cello, which was virtually the same as it is today, Bach revealed in these suites untapped capabilities. His instruction for the use of a five-string cello in Suite VI -- the fifth string extending the instrument's upper register -- and his direction to tune the A string lower (scordatura) in Suite V bespeak a wish to develop the instrument and its literature. In these suites he succeeded gloriously.

Although neglected in earlier musical eras, the suites today, thanks to numerous recordings and live performances and the resurgence of interest in baroque music, are enjoying their greatest popularity.

Each of the Suites begins with a Prelude. This introductory section establishes a mood and a character which are developed in the following movements, all of which are dances. Bach uses a large variety of popular forms; the stately Allemande; the lively Courante; the noble, slow, Sarabande; Minuets, Bourrées, Gavottes; and Gigues.

With the exception of fifth movements, all the suites follow the same order: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and, for the sixth and final movement, Gigue. For these fifth movements, Suites I and II have paired Minuets; paired Bourrées: V and VI, paired Gavottes.

As though to demonstrate his versatility even further, Bach incorporates a Fugue in Suite V and a Musette in Suite VI. He generally writes the music as though he meant it to be danced to. Often enough, he seems to idealize a dance form, transforming it into a concert piece beyond the obvious physical requirements of the particular dance.

Each dance is in two repeated sections, played the first time as written and then repeated with ornamentation. In the fifth movements, the da capo section (the final repeat of Menuet I, Bourrée I, or Gavotte I) is ornamented anew. Ornamentation simply means the embellishment of the musical text. Thus, a trill, added by the performer at appropriate points, is ornamentation. The word itself encompasses much more than this relatively simple adornment. In Bach's day, the elaborate art of ornamentation imposed a large burden of creative responsibility upon the performer. The composer expected him to use all the techniques of embellishment through the promptings of his own improvisational talents, thereby further enhancing the appeal of the music. Not only was performer-ornamentation taken for granted by baroque composers, it persisted until Beethoven's time and even beyond. In popular music, a notable instance can be found in the types of improvisation characteristic of some forms of jazz.

Because there is no manuscript of the Suites extant in Bach's hand, we can only be guided by our knowledge of general practice of the Baroque, and by the highly revealing fact that Bach also wrote a lute version of Suite V. The original manuscript of the lute version exists; it is thoroughly ornamented by Bach himself, giving further credence to the matter of ornamentation in all of the Suites. (Because there are no ornaments for the Sarabande of Suite V in the lute version, it is played as written).

The concept of a "definitive" ornamentation is contradictory; the artist's ornamentation varies from performance to performance, and no two artists will ornament in the same way. Each performer will incorporate their scholarship, virtuosity and imagination in a performance.

It cannot be expected that an ornamented performance of the Suites in the twentieth century will be a precise duplication of early eighteenth-century performance. Much as we may try to reproduce correct performance practice, our efforts can only be an approximation: the modern concert hall environment, sophisticated audiences, and performing conditions generally, preclude any other possibility, however careful the reconstruction. And so, as in all matters artistic, the final criteria are taste and judgment.

What seems abundantly clear is that the Suites were never meant to be played as printed. Bach's genius and the enormous range of his emotional expression demand that this music be performed with the freedom he intended. That freedom cannot be realized without the restoration of the integral dimension of ornamentation.


The Six Suites progress in length and complexity as they unfold. Each Suite has its own personality, and each offers a different mood. If we were to characterize the Suites in literary terms, they could plausibly be listed as follows: Suite I is the shortest, least complex and most charming; Suite II is the most melancholy; Suite III, the most popular of all Six, is the happiest; Suite IV is the noblest; Suite V is the most abstract, or philosophical; and Suite VI, that endless labyrinth of virtuosity, is the grandest. There is nothing in the entire literature for solo string instruments which equals, let alone surpasses, this vast musical structure.

To pay proper homage to Bach's towering achievement, the genuine practices of his time, which he had in mind when he wrote this music, are now restored to their proper place, not as an exercise in antiquarianism or as a novelty dealing in "authenticity," but as a true modern presentation of the music. As for the latter point, it should be mentioned that Bach indicated scordatura (tuning the A string down one full tone to a G). Given modern performance conditions (larger halls, recording studios), the result of such a lowering would generally be a thicker or muddier tone. Consequently, the Sarabande, which because of its nature benefits from a veiled tone, is the only movement of the Suite to be performed scordatura. Finally, as for Suite VI, the directions as given in the Anna Magdalena Bach text (the authoritative source edition which Bach's second wife copied out carefully), are unequivocal. The instrument here directed to be used is a five-string cello (Violoncello "a cinq cordes"), with the fifth string tuned to E above middle C. For the first time, this Suite has been recorded with a cello specially adapted to accommodate the fifth string.


Prelude: This movement consists almost entirely of sixteenth-note figurations which progress bar by bar with increasing harmonic tension. the movement reaches its dramatic height in measure 22 (a D major chord over pedal C) and then, in a more relaxed way which nevertheless accumulates dynamic tension again, ends with a full, powerful chord. To allow for the establishment of the figurational structure, ornamentation is not introduced until measure 10.

Allemande: This typical German dance is presented by Bach in a series of running sixteenth notes up and down the scale. The happy quality of the music and the particular scale progressions lend themselves most felicitously to florid virtuosic ornamentation in the repeated sections.

Courante: Like the preceding movement, this French dance is typical of its kind. Yet it is so distinctive in its effervescence and virtuosic qualities that ornamentation is used relatively sparsely.

Sarabande: As always, the Sarabande serves as a dramatic contrast to the preceding movements. The solemnity of the movement is enhanced by ornamentation of a particularly melodic kind: the frequent three- and four-note chords are converted by the use of full ornamentation into an intertwined and continuous line.

Menuet I and II: This pair of dances is particularly charming. Menuet I, in G major, is placed in a somewhat special light by the fact that Menuet II is in G minor. The opposing character of these two Menuets is resolved in the concluding da capo (Menuet I, played without repeats). The da capo section provides an admirable opportunity for new ornamentation, in this case the use of a triplet figuration.

Gigue: This dance is reminiscent of the last movement of the Brandenburg Concerto VI, which was also written during Bach's stay at Cothen. Like all Gigues, it maintains a strong rhythmic pulse. The ornamentation is intended to highlight the manifold subtleties of this movement.


Prelude: The lyrical quality of this movement is melancholy, established by the somber key (D minor). It is the most melodious of all six Preludes, flowing seemingly freely and gathering a dark intensity in its progress. It is an admirable introduction to the rest of the Suite, which maintains the same mood. Like the Prelude of Suite I, it increases in harmonic intensity, reaching its highest tension in measure 48. Of particular interest is the ending, which consists of five three-note chords. There can be little question that these chords were meant to be ornamented.

Allemande: The figuration of this movement is similar to that of Suite I. The surprising outburst of thirty-second notes at the end of measure 9 indicates the type of ornamentation Bach would expect to hear in performance.

Courante: The special quality of this movement is that whereas most Courantes have some variation of rhythm, here we find running sixteenth notes and almost nothing else. The effect is one of great rapidity and excitement. Any ornamentation must be virtuosic.

Sarabande: This is the most plaintive of the six Sarabandes. From beginning to end the emotional level is unrelieved. The use of a mute (which existed in Bach's day) is entirely natural in this dramatic context. In measures 25 and 26, on the last sixteenth note of the first beat in each measure, a publishing error has been corrected: following the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript, a B-flat and a C-natural have been substituted for the traditional -- and incorrect -- B-natural and C-sharp.

Menuet I and II: Menuet I has a forthright rhythm, in which the first beats are heavily emphasized by the frequent use of double and triple stops. Menuet II, with its delicacy and grace, is a charming contrast to Menuet I. Interestingly, Bach has used the key of D major -- a happy touch -- and eliminated double and triple stops. For the da capo of Menuet I, all of the chords have been altered into eighth- and sixteenth-note figurations; this ornamentation technique strongly resembles what Bach did in the double movements of the Partita I in B minor (S. 1002) for solo violin.

Gigue: Although this movement has all the lilt and bounce of a Gigue, its key of D minor still imparts the sad mood of the entire Suite.


Prelude: This is the most declamatory of all the Preludes; one could not ask for a more clearly stated announcement than a descending C major scale. Unless, of course, there were a rising C major scale -- which Bach immediately and whimsically presents. Most impressive in this movement is the repetition of the open G string (pedal tone) for 16 bars (measures 45-61), creating one of the most exciting climaxes in the Six Suites.

Allemande: This is the liveliest of all the Allemandes in the Suites. Its sprightliness and humor never fail to please the listener. The ornamentation is basically a continuation of the thirty-second-note figures and is evoked in a completely natural way.

Courante: This Courante is unusual because it consists almost entirely of eighth notes. The sixteenth notes of measure 56 provide the clue to the appropriate ornamentation.

Sarabande: This is more affirmative than the Sarabandes of Suites I and II; it announces itself forthrightly with four-note chords and weaves a luxurious melodic line around them.

Bourrée I and II: These French dances appear for the first time in the Suites in the place of the Menuets. Bourrée I is probably the most popular single section of all the Suites; it is a sunny, outgoing tune reflecting its origins. Bourrée II is cast in the key of C minor to contrast with the C major of Bourrée I. The da capo of Bourrée I lends itself superlatively to virtuosic ornamentation.

Gigue: This movement is an appropriate conclusion to the most joyous of the Six Suites. In the midst of the typical rhythmic notation for a Gigue (eighth and sixteenth notes), Bach writes two long sections of successive sixteenth notes that use the cello's open strings to create a tumultuous crescendo effect (measures 21-32 and 81-92). It is a pleasant fancy to imagine that Bach intended this Suite, which concludes the first half of a monumental creative venture, to leave his audience exhilarated.


Praeludium: The Latin form of a Prelude, used uniquely by Anna Magdalena Bach in her manuscript for this movement, may be her -- or Bach's -- reaction to the special qualities of grandeur and spaciousness to be found here. The first 48 measures consist entirely of arpeggiated eighth notes. Such incessant repetitions demand an early initiation of ornamentation, which is developed as the harmonic tension increases. After measure 49, Bach presents a fantasialike series of sixteenth notes, which impels the music forward. At the conclusion of this heroic movement the technique is used again (measure 88 onward).

Allemande: This movement is simple and direct: the ornamentation, which often consists of sextuplets, is intended to enliven the rhythms.

Courante: This movement is unusual because it provides three markedly different rhythms intermingled: eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and triplets. The possibilities for ornamentation are great, and offer the virtuoso cellist an opportunity to display his creativity.

Sarabande: This slow dance, unlike the preceding Sarabandes which emphasized the second beat of each bar, stresses the first beat. The effect is one of melodiousness and stateliness, further enhanced by dotted rhythms (dotted eights followed by sixteenth notes). The ornamentation techniques used in the previous Sarabandes are employed here specifically to heighten the emotional content.

Bourrée I and II: The jauntiness of Bourrée I is achieved by rapid sixteenth notes played on upbeats to create a humorous effect (note especially the witty rhythmic displacements in measures 31-35). In contrast, Bourrée II uses two-part counterpoint and rhythmic simplicity (nothing faster than eighth notes) to create a slower-moving, almost folksonglike effect. The ornamentation emphasizes trilling and arpeggiation.

Gigue: This movement is unique in its 12/8 meter, which creates an effect akin to an Irish reel. Its steady insistence upon eighth note triplets creates great dramatic tension for the listener. Performance of this movement, especially with ornamentation, demands an extremely high level of virtuosity.


Prelude: This movement is written in the form of a French ouverture (Prelude and Fugue) The only rhythms of the Prelude, typically French, are shaped by long held notes followed by rapidly moving figurations. Nearly all the dotted rhythms are played correctly as double-dotted rhythms -- which generally has not been the case in traditional performances of this Suite. The result is a stateliness characteristic of the French style. The fugue which follows in a 3/8 meter is in effect one gigantic crescendo. This is the first fugue ever written for solo cello and Bach's use of two voices imparts almost magically an orchestral quality to the instrument. The ornamentation and corrections of the traditional editions have been taken from the lute version, which exist in Bach's own hand.

Allemande: The stately, even ponderous, quality of this movement strongly suggests that the repeats not be observed. The brooding atmosphere calls for the initiation of ornamentation from the outset. Again, Bach's ornaments in the lute version have been closely followed.

Courante: In 3/2 Meter (French) instead of 3/4 meter (Italian), this is one of the shortest of any of the movements of the Six Suites. The ornamentational devices consist largely of double-stop interpolations. The brevity of this movement may perhaps be a dramatic device to highlight the Sarabande which follows.

Sarabande: The eerie, stark, ghostly qualities of this movement are unequaled anywhere else in Bach's music. The use of a mute and scordatura emphasizes the unearthliness of the music. The appearance of such intervals as augmented seconds, diminished fourths and major ninths create such a disembodied mood that any ornamentation would be an intrusion. Indeed, this is the only movement that Bach himself left unadorned in the lute version.

Gavotte I and II: These dances replace the Bourrées of Suites III and IV as they replaced the Menuets of Suites I and II. Gavotte I is stately, even pompous: the first and third beats of each measure are strongly stressed through the use of double stops and chords. In Bach's lute manuscript these beats in the opening statement also are ornamented. Gavotte II is in rondo form, an almost continuous succession of triplets. In sharp contrast to Gavotte I, it has no double stops or chords. The da capo of Gavotte I is played entirely pizzicato, in emulation of the lute version.

Gigue: Written in 3/8 meter, this movement seems to be a French version of the Italian Siciliana: the smoothness of the Italian form is modified by the use of double-dotted rhythms. Rather than having the happy dance quality of the preceding Gigues, this movement is presented in a heavier, even melancholy fashion. Again, the ornamentation used here relies heavily upon the lute manuscript.


Prelude: This is the only Prelude written in 12/8 time. Bach uses the open strings to imitate a drone throughout the movement. This simulation of a bagpipe, achieved with remarkable verisimilitude through the use of the additional fifth string, clearly shows that Bach intended this suite to be played on a five-string cello. After a long succession of triplet rhythms, in measure 83 the music explodes into a passage of running sixteenth notes, reminiscent of the harpsichord cadenza of the Brandenburg Concerto V. The movement reaches its climax in measure 98 with six successive chords which lead us to a restful resolution in D major. Ornamentation here is confined to filling in the spaces between eighth notes. The total effect of this movement is one of intoxication.

Allemande: This dance is unique in its notation, being written primarily in thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes. The fact that Bach uses such small notes strongly suggest that the tempo should be more rapid than has been the case with traditional performance. The movement, in the French style, is similar to the Allemande of Suite V. The florid writing seems to make the repeat of the second section superfluous, and so it has been omitted.

Courante: The sprightliness of this movement contrasts strongly with the gravity of the preceding and following movements. Although there is little to distinguish this Courante from those of other Suites, it does utilize the high tessitura, which is now made more accessible by the fifth string.

Sarabande: This, the last of six Sarabandes, is the most complex. It has a most unusual form in that the first section consists of only eight measures, whereas the second section contains 28 measures, a most extreme imbalance. Rolled chords are used to produce a luxuriant and beautiful texture. The parallel sixths in measure 17-22, unusual in baroque music, further enrich the almost romantic expressiveness. The ornamentation here is the most fully improvisatory yet employed; through its freedom and creativity it becomes virtually a compositional device, transforming chords into melodies.

Gavotte I and II: In its strong and stately emphasis of beats one and three, Gavotte I recalls the first Gavotte of Suite V. Here the fifth string is utilized frequently for the upper notes of chords, adding a refreshing openness to the instrument's tone, a welcome change from the muddiness encountered in this register of the conventional cello. Gavotte II has a long section which uses an open D string drone to give the effect of a musette (bagpipe). The repeat of the second section is played pizzicato in imitation of the lute.

Gigue: Bach concludes his towering enterprise with a particularly joyous and highly virtuosic version of this dance. Once again, because of the presence of the fifth string, a certain ease and fluency not possible on a four-string cello is available. There is scarcely room for ornamentation when the music is so technical; consequently, the repeat of the second section has been omitted because ornamentation possibilities are few.

Dr. Sidney E Lind and Dr. Frederick Zlotkin

Suite I Courante
I Like to Ornament
Liner Notes From My Recording Of All Of The Bach Suites
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