The Fascinating Story Behind Bach’s Cello Suites (300 Years in the Making)

Bach Cello Suite No.1 performed by Yo Yo Ma

Bach’s Cello Suites. They are arguably the most widely recognizable compositions written for cello. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) likely composed the suites sometime around 1720, three hundred years ago. They are featured in concerts, advertisements, movies, transcribed for an array of instruments and interpreted for every style of music imaginable. But despite their popularity, Bach Suites weren’t always so well-known. In fact, there is very little known about the history of the suites or how they were meant to be played. The story of Bach’s Suites is one of genius and tragic neglect with a triumphant ending.

By today’s standards, Bach was relatively unknown in his time. Music publishing was a new endeavor in the 18th century. His Suites were not published until 1825, seventy five years after his death. And even then, they were only known by a few cellists who viewed them as finger exercises – if they learned them at all. In fact, the development of the cello as a solo instrument evolved for over a century without Bach’s influence whatsoever.

It was 1889, nearly 170 years after Bach wrote the Suites, a 13-year-old cellist named Pablo Casals happened out on a stroll with his father in their home town of Vendrell, Spain. As the story goes, they were heading to the music store to locate sheet music by a popular French composer of the time, Gabriel Faure. While thumbing through the various prints available, Casals stumbled upon an old copy of Bach’s Cello Suites. He took them home. He played them. He fell in love. Pablo Casals would hold the Suites dear for his entire life but it would be another 47 years before the rest of the world would realize the genius that he discovered in a local music store that day.

Fast-forward to 1915 – the cello is still widely considered an accompaniment instrument. But for the first time in nearly 200 years, a major composer by the name of Zoltan Kodaly decided to write a piece of music for a solo cello. It was a compelling sonata. In the same year, Max Reger wrote his own suites for solo cello. After Kodaly and Reger wrote their music, other composers jumped on the bandwagon. As a result, more music was written for the solo cello in the 20th century than any other instrument, aside from the piano.

The year is 1936. Inspired by the popularity of the solo cello movement, Casals records Bach’s Suites and releases it to the world. In an instant the musical landscape shifted! At once, there was an expectation that all cellists should learn and perform the Suites. Any “true virtuoso” of the cello would record their own rendition. The number of recordings exploded and Casals, a once unknown cellist was thrust into international fame. The popularity and influence of Bach’s Suites grew exponentially and continue to shape our culture to this day.

There is a saying, “If the cello were to write music for itself, it would be the Bach Cello Suites.” Three centuries later the Suites are considered by many – “the ultimate expression of the soul of the cello.” Yo Yo Ma (above video) is recently quoted as saying “…in creating these works, Bach played the part of a musician-scientist, expressing precise observations about nature and human┬ánature.” Bach was a musical genius and we are all benefactors of young Casals visit to the local music store that day in 1889. It begs the question of all music lovers, are there other works waiting to be discovered and resurrected? How many musical scores were composed by brilliant, unnamed composers that were never published?

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