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The word ‘Baroque’ comes from the Portuguese barroco, meaning an irregular pearl and came to signify ‘ill-constructed’ or ‘bizarre’ before being applied to the art of the 17th and early 18th centuries; here it designates a style which gives free rein to the emotions, exaggeration and grandiloquent declamation. Baroque art creates a dramatic tension often founded on an innocent detail, forcing its contours and distorting it in order to project it into the future, suggesting some metamorphosis and giving way to a moment of relaxation. In an exuberant and theatrical staging, Baroque art likes to give expression to extreme passions, excesses, illusions and complexity in the ambiguity of the trompe-l’oeil. The Baroque is loquacious; it likes to conjure up agitation and passionate effervescence, earthly pain transformed into spiritual ecstasy. It brings out intertwined paradoxes in the form of daring allegories. A Baroque artist is someone who takes his art to the limit.

In music, the Baroque followed the Renaissance around 1600 and finished in about 1750. The musical innovations of the Italian and French schools were exported all over Europe and Latin America, and each country introduced its own specificities. For the first time in history, instrumental music became something to listen to in itself, independently of the voice, and instrument makers and performers developed new techniques which completed and then left behind the vocal polyphony which had dominated until then. The Baroque in music is an art of contrasts. The writing was increasingly dense, and, like spoken language, very articulated
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), brought to perfection all the possible combinations of Western contrapuntal art. His work is the culmination of five centuries of polyphony and the point of departure of the different styles which follow. It represents the apogee of the Baroque, and remains unequalled. From 1717 to 1723 Bach was Kappellmeister in the small Saxon town of Köthen at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. He directed the Collegium Musicum, an orchestra of fifteen excellent musicians who had mostly come from the recently dissolved Berlin orchestra. He himself played the viola; he had little occasion to play the organ as the religion of the court was Calvinist and music was not permitted during religious ceremonies. Prince Leopold, who was strong-minded and intellectual, admired Bach and became his friend. There were concerts every evening and this was the period when Bach composed most of his profane works (Suites, Partitas, Sonatas, Concertos, Preludes and Fugues, etc.). It was here that he wrote his works for solo violin and cello, instruments which are usually treated monodically, but for which he imagined a polyphonic treatment. This was a happy period for Bach; he was working in the informal conditions of a court where the prince himself would play the violin in the orchestra and in the midst of an effervescent family life, in spite of the death of his first wife and one of his children (over his whole life, he lost 11 out of 20). This period spent at the court of Prince Leopold presents a very different picture of Bach and his music from the austere view we often have of them. And yet in the Bach family it had been traditional to put music to the service of religion, ever since Veit Bach, a miller and musician from Hungary had settled in the town of Wechmar in Thuringia in the mid-16th century to be able to practise his Lutheran faith freely. This perhaps explains in part why in 1723, weary of the Calvinist religion which gave no function or spiritual role to music, Bach left Köthen for the Lutheran city of Leipzig where he was the Kantor of St Thomas’ church until his death in 1750. There were other reasons too, such as the hostility of Prince Leopold’s young wife who did not like music, the death of his first wife Maria Barbara (1684-1720), perhaps, and his desire to provide a good education for his children, in particular his eldest and favourite son, Wilhelm Friedeman (1710-1784). In Leipzig, his conditions of work were much worse than in Köthen. He had left his friend Leopold for a score of hierarchical superiors, a lot of teaching duties and miserable pay. However, he was able to go back to the organ and devote himself to sacred compositions: cantatas, passions and masses
In composing the Six suites for solo cello, Bach reached the summit of technical difficulties and expressive variety: if the 1st Suite is luminous, the third is mostly robust in expression, and the fifth seems much darker. Bach wrote the Suites for the Baroque cello, whose form had been establkished by Stradivarius (1644-1737) and he composed in a style adapted to this instrument, which had not yet definitively displaced its great contemporary rival, the viola da gamba. There is no manuscript of the Suites in the composer’s hand. Four copies have survived, that of his second wife Anna Magdalena (1701-1760) being probably the most accurate; although the manuscript of the organist and composer Johann Peter Kellner is also an important source. There are two other manuscripts, both dating from the second half of the 18th century, one anonymous and the other, with personal annotations, by the organist Johann Christoph Westphal. Whereas Bach annotated his manuscript of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001 to 1006), we have no indications of what he intended for his cello Suites, and this allows or even requires a greater interpretative freedom for the player. Our Western polyphonic writing rests on a thousand-year-old principle: a melody and its accompaniment, also called the ‘harmony’. This harmony may be compared to the grammatical rules of a language. The musical understanding of these Suites requires an analysis of the solo melody and the reconstitution of the accompaniment. It is impossible to reconstitute Bach’s harmonic intentions exactly, as elsewhere we find him providing many harmonisations of the same melody, and the final choice would also depend on the psychological state of the composer at the moment when he was writing his solos. Nonetheless, the second voice that I propose here respects the harmonic bases while adding a few personal ideas in the spirit of Bach. Remaining faithful to the musical thought of the period, I have also tried to come closer to the sonorities of the organ, Bach’s favourite instrument.

The ‘Suite’ of dances : very refined musical forms

The ‘Suite’ is a succession of dance tunes from the Baroque period. It was the job of the instrumentalists to accompany the dancers at balls in the princely courts. The difficulty of tuning their instruments forced them to use a single tonality throughout as they moved quickly through differently paced dances. With the composer Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-1667) the Suite consisted of four dances: Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue. Bach added an introductory Prelude to this succession, and sometimes intervening Doubles. At his time, these dances were probably no longer actually danced. In the 19th century the pieces were considered to be ‘Studies and Sonatas’, according to the first printed edition (1825) and it was only at the beginning of the 20th century thanks to Pau Casals that they began to be played as concert pieces. The 5th Suite in C minor (BWV 1011), the most polyphonic of the series, also exists in a version in G minor for lute (BWV 995). In this piece Bach recommends lowering the highest string by a tone from A to G (‘scordatura’), which darkens the tone of the whole.
The Prelude, from the Latin Prae and Ludere (‘before playing’) is the introduction to the Suite; it is not a dance: initially its aim was to check the tuning of the instrument, and it became an opportunity for free play and expressive improvisation. Louis Couperin (1626-1661) wrote his Preludes without bar lines; the length of the notes is only approximate and written without rhythm, allowing the performer great expressive freedom. In each of Bach’s preludes, the pulsation stops at a moment near the end, after which several cadences develop freely over a long implied harmonic pedal [8]-[15]. It is in these preludes that the baroque alternation of tension and relaxation [1] is best expressed, emphasized by the modulations The Allemande once nicknamed a « piece for the graveyard » [17] is dedicated to the memory of someone in particular. It seems to be of Swabian origin, and is mentioned in the 16th century in Thoinot Arbeau’s dancing manual, Orchésographie (1589) as being « a dance full of mediocre gravity, well known in Germany.” The Allemande changed its character somewhat in Bach’s period, when it came to have a more natural, improvisatory feel, closer to the improvisation of the Prelude and containing no obligatory steps. The Allemande of the 3rd Suite [9] is more playful than the others, and instead of the usual opening upbeat of a single quaver has three semiquavers. The Courante is described as an elegant dance in three time involving leaps and improvised diagonal movements of irregular lengths. It appeared for the first time with the composer Claude Gervaise (1525-1560) in his Danceries (1550). Two versions are distinguished: a rapid Italian Corrente [3] with a marked step on the first and second beats, and a French Courante [18], not so rapid, nobler and more majestic. The first traces of the Sarabande go back to Panama around 1540. The “Zarbanda” came to Spain through Andalusia and took on Moorish sonorities. It was judged immoral and Philip II had it forbidden. At that time it was excited, sensual and rapid. In France under Louis XIV it became slower and more graceful with a sliding step on the second beat [4]-[11]. Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) is said to have danced an insolent Sarabande in front of his rival the Queen, Anne of Austria (1601-1666), who was the King of Spain’s daughter. The Minuet, the Bourrée and the Gavotte are galanteries to vary the pleasures of the ballet. The Minuet is a dance in three time of a moderate tempo, happy and graceful [5]. Originating in a popular dance from the Poitou or the Anjou regions of France, it is formed of a single step with obligatory variations and movements. This dance is followed by a second, contrasting minuet, and completed by the return of the first (Da Capo), without the repetitions. It was one of Louis XIV’s favourite dances, and during his reign it replaced the Courante. Towards the end of his reign, when the King suffered from arthritis, the Minuet became a somewhat slower dance. The Bourrée was a folk dance from the lower Auvergne. It is mentioned in the Syntagma Musicum (1615) with Michael Praetorius and later Purcell (1659-1695) composed several. Corneille and Rousseau describe it as a dance in two time, gay and lively, similar to the Gavotte. The Gavotte was a French folk dance from the region of Lyons or further South, near Gap. Later it was to be found in England, and then all over Europe. It was a social dance in two time, danced in a line [20], then in a circle [21]. It could be elegant, graceful and of great tenderness, and its steps were used for the “kissing game” and the “bouquet game”. The Gigue [22] began as a jig, one of the three main Irish folk dances, and came to France from England. In the Suites, Bach seems to give it a French character. In each Suite the Gigue is like a sailor’s dance [7]. The Fugue is a contrapuntal musical form originating in the Middle Ages and exploiting the principle of imitation. From the 17th century, a “fuga” (from fugare, to flee in Latin) is a piece with a theme which “flees” from one voice to another. This is Bach’s main method of composing. In this Fugue [16], there are seven hemiolas (two bars in three time transformed into three bars in two time) doubled in the two voices together, and four hemiolas separated between them. This Fugue moves forward in a great progressive crescendo, then becomes more playful with a grand cadenza, to finish majestically on a chord of C major.
As we have said, Bach wrote these Suites for the Baroque cello, not the Romantic instrument we are familiar with today, when even instruments made by Stradivarius himself have been transformed into Romantic cellos, with spikes, metal strings, etc. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) harmonised the 3rd Suite and the cellist Paul Bazelaire (1886-1958) harmonised all six. In the present recordings, the Suites are presented twice: on CD 1 as Bach wrote them, and on CD 2 with a second voice* added

Translation: Adam Stephenson