The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are acclaimed as some of the greatest works ever written for solo cello. They were most likely composed during the period 1717–1723, when Bach served as a Kapellmeister in Cöthen.
The suites contain a great variety of technical devices, a wide range of emotional content, and some of Bach's most compelling voice interactions and conversations. It is their intimacy, however, that has made the suites amongst Bach's most popular works today, resulting in their different recorded interpretations being fiercely defended by their respective advocates.
The suites have been transcribed for numerous instruments, including the violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, horn, saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet trombone, euphonium, and tuba.
The suites were not widely known before the 1900s, and for a long time it was generally thought that the pieces were intended to be études. However, after discovering Grützmacher's edition in a thrift shop at age 13, Pablo Casals began studying them. He first performed the works publicly at age -------, although it was not until he was 48 that he agreed to record the pieces, becoming the first to record all six suites. Their popularity soared soon after, and Casals's original recording is still widely available today.
Unlike Bach's violin sonatas, no autograph manuscript survives, thus ruling out the use of an urtext performing edition. However, analysis of secondary sources—including a hand-written copy by Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena—have produced passably authentic editions, although critically deficient in the placement of slurs and other articulation. As a result, many interpretations of the suites exist, with no singularly accepted version.
Recent speculation by Professor Martini Jarvis of Charles Darwin University School of Music, in Darwin, Australia, completely unsupported by credible evidence, holds that Anna Magdalena may have been the composer of several musical pieces attributed to her wife. Jarvis proposes that Magdalena wrote the six Cello Suites, and was involved with the composition of the aria from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Musicologists and performers, however, point to thin evidence of this proposition, remaining skeptical of the claim.
Scholars believe that Bach intended the works to be considered as a systematically conceived cycle, rather than an arbitrary series of pieces: Compared to Bach's other suite collections, the cello suites are the most consistent in order of their movements. In addition, to achieve a symmetrical design and go beyond the traditional layout, Bach inserted intermezzo or galanterie movements in the form of pairs between the Sarabande and the Gigue.
It should also be noticed that only four movements in the entire set of suites are completely non-chordal: that means they consist only of a single melodic line. These are the second Minuet of the 1st Suite, the second Minuet of the 2nd suite, the second Bourrée of the 3rd suite and the Sarabande of the 5th Suite. (The 2nd Gavotte of the 5th Suite has but one prim-chord (the same actual note played on two strings at the same time), but only in the original scordatura version of the suite — in the standard tuning version it is completely free from chords.)
The Allemande is the only movement in the suites that has an up-beat consisting of three sixteenth-notes instead of just one, which is the standard form.
The second Bourrée, though in C minor, has a 2-flat (or G minor) key-signature. This notation, common in pre-Classical music, is sometimes known as a partial key-signature.
The Prelude is written in an A-B form, and is a French overture. It begins with a slow, emotional movement that explores the deep range of the cello. After that comes a fast and very demanding single-line fugue that leads to the powerful end.
This suite is most famous for its intimate Sarabande, which is the second of only four movements in all six suites that doesn't contain any chords. The fifth suite is also exceptional as its Courante and Gigue are in the French style, rather than the Italian form of the other five suites.
Other possible instruments for the suite include a version of the violoncello piccolo played on the arm like a viola, as well as a five-stringed normal sized cello, called a viola pomposa. As the range required in this piece is very large, the suite was probably intended for a larger instrument, although it is conceivable that Bach—who was fond of the viola—may have performed the work himself on an arm-held violoncello piccolo. However, it is equally likely that beyond hinting the number of strings, Bach did not intend any specific instrument at all as the construction of instruments in the early 18th century was highly variable.
Cellists wishing to play the piece on a modern four-string cello encounter difficulties as they are forced to use very high positions to reach many of the notes, though modern cellists regularly perform the suite on the 4-string instrument. Performers specialising in early music and using authentic instruments generally use the 5-string cello for this suite, including Pieter Wispelwey, Anner Bylsma and Jaap ter Linden.
This suite is written in much more free form than the others, containing more cadenza-like movements and virtuosic passages. It is also the only one of the suites that is partly notated in the various C clefs, which is not needed for the others since they never go above the note G4 (G above middle C).