Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the most important composers of his time. His works are commonly found in the standards for many different voices and instruments. In particular, his instrumental suites and partitas have been in the standard canon for many years. They are requested at all higher level auditions due to their challenges to technique and musical interpretation. Bach wrote the cello suites during his time as kapellmeister of Cöthen. It was only after the Catalonian cellist, Pablo Casals "rediscovered" them that they have been performed and recorded in abundance. He himself refused to record them until 1936, becoming the first to record the cello suites.
Each of the dance suites consisted of the following movements:
- Galanteries – (Minuets for Suites 1 and 2, Bourrées for 3 and 4, Gavottes for 5 and 6)
Bach's fouth suite for cello is in a particularly challenging key since the performer must make use of many extensions. The prelude is almost consistantly arpeggios and like other preludes is improvisatory in nature. Bach uses lower notes to establish the key and follows it with the arpeggio. In the first half, the basis of the music is in the various changes in harmony. Bach uses c and g minor as key areas instead of the subdominant and dominant (A-flat/B-flat) to get the most out of the cello's open strings. The cadence at the end of the first half lands on a D-flat, giving no finality before a scale passage. Bach makes use of a short recapitulation before ending on chords.
Bach's solo writing is masterful, he creates the illusion of rich harmonies even with just one voice. His string works also make use of double and triple stops quite often. He also creates different 'voices' using different ranges of the instrument. This can be seen in the fifth suite prelude and fugue. The six suites as a whole can be seen as different parts of the story of Christ. In order by suite: "Nativity," "Agony in the Garden," "Descent of the Holy Spirit," "Presentation at the Temple," "Crucifixion," and "Resurrection." This is not for sure, but it would not be surprising since Bach was a very religious man.
Style-wise, it is very easy to tell Bach apart from others. There is a lot more depth to his music than others from his time. His incredible use of counterpoint and harmonies separates him from his contemporaries and imitators. The solo suites for cello wouldn't have any noteworthy successors until Britten's suites written in the 1960s. Max Reger wrote some, but they aren't performed much.
Just like for the cello, the violin has sets of solo works which are standards for performance. The Chaconne from Bach's second partita is a very good example. It challenges the violinist with many different techniques through its variations. In comparison to the cello works, his violin pieces are very long. Perhaps because he was a violinist himself that he wanted to show what it was capable of. Paganini did a good job of this, but that's really the entire essense of his compositions. In the chaconne, the violin uses almost its entire range unlike many of the cello suites. It wasn't until the sixth suite that the upper range of the cello was used much.
This was one of the harder pieces that I've worked on and auditioned for graduate schools with this work. I didn't really enjoy this suite at first, but the practicing process is a great way to discover the finer details in composer's music. This holds true for all composer, Bach to contemporary. It is easy to see why he is held in such high regard. His music to put it simply sounds like it's on a completely higher level than most others.
Christoph Wolff, et al. "Bach." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 30, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40023pg10 .
Donald Grout and Claude Palisca. "A History of Western Music." (Norton & Company, New York, 1996). pp. 405, 412.
Daniel Prindle. "The Form of the Preludes to Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites." (U. Mass, 2011) accessed April 30, 2014 http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1704&context=theses
Suite 4 Prelude video: http://youtu.be/GQoUFQ8o5HM
Chaconne video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqA3qQMKueA&feature=youtu.be