Bach’s unaccompanied suites for cello are amongst the composer’s most celebrated and important works. What are the reasons for the suite’s enduring popularity? Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites are highly celebrated works in the modern era. They have been used successfully in advertising campaigns and proven to be popular in classical music consumer’s playlists. However when they were originally written the pieces were not as well appreciated as they are today.
Why was this the case? I will argue that it was due to one exceptional cellist, Pablo Casals who helped bring the pieces to the attention of the classical music community and express their musical appeal in the concert hall idiom. With Casals’ intuitive styling’s, the cello suites infiltrated their way into popular culture. Bach’s cello suites are among the best known works of classical music (Siblin, 2009: Winold, 2007), however, this was not always the case.
It was not until a young Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals, discovered these monumental baritone works and performed them in 1901, that they rose onto concert platforms, “justified as real music”(Johnson, 2000, p. 660: Siblin, 2009). This exploration of the unaccompanied cello suites was a new revelation in the music community, partly because for the best part of two centuries they were only used, almost exclusively as common practice exercises.
After a decade and a half of perfecting the pieces, Casals toured over twelve cities in 1903 and 1904 promoting his evident romance with the suites (Siblin, 2009). As the knowledge of the suites increased, more cellists took on the challenge of perfecting these works, like Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma, who dedicated a good part of his life to the cello suites. In this way, a new medium emerged which saw composers become more interested in the cello as a solo instrument.
Thus Bach’s cello works consequently became more popular among performers and listeners alike (Johnson, 2000, p. 660). The unaccompanied cello suites’ popularity increased substantially after Casals’ reinvigorated interest in them, not only was his performance considered revolutionary, so was his interpretation (Blum, 1980, p. 143). Because these pieces were thought only as technical exercises they were only ever performed with little musical depth (Johnson, 2000, p. 660), however Bach was never one to create something without meaning (Winold, 2007).
It is hard to specify how the suites were intended, as Bach’s original manuscript is lost and the copy that closely depicts his is Anna Magdalena Bach’s transcription (Johnson, 2000, pp. 660-661). Like most Baroque music there was little indication of how the piece should be played in the scores, so it was almost expected of the performers to intuitively add it themselves. When Casals was presented with the Anna Magdalena copy he had the opportunity to reinvent the suites (Winold, 2007). Excerpt 1: Anna Magdalena Bach’s Manuscript, 2007.
Casals embellished, “expressively accentuated” and romanticised the pieces in accordance to his interpretation (Winold, 2007). He added slurs and rubato to the prelude (Winold, 2007), which were styles developed throughout the romantic era (Shotwell, 2002), styles that he grew up with, so it was only natural for him to play the pieces that way. This aided in the development of the pieces popularity as they had a story and a character about them, which made them more relatable to the audiences that were already accustomed to and fond of romantic music (Siblin, 2009).
In the last ten years, Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, particularly the prelude, have found a place in popular culture with an appearance in the film Master and Commander (Universal Pictures, 2003) and in an advertisement for Volvo cars (2010). In doing so, audiences became more commercially exposed to Bach’s Cello suites to such an extent that in 2007, the suites reached number one on the iTunes classical music chart (Siblin, 2009, p. 8). But the fashionability of Bach’s cello suites may lie more in the intrinsic beauty of the pieces more so than their use in films and ad campaigns.
There is a multiplicity of genres suggested throughout Bach’s cello suites (Siblin, 2009, p. 9). Eric Siblin argues that even though the music is from the baroque period one can hear “peasant tunes” with juxtaposing “post- modern minimalism”, “spiritual lamentations” contrasting with “heavy metal riffs”, “medieval jigs and movie soundtracks” (Siblin, 2009, p. 9). With such variety in the music and the stories created in each suite (Siblin, 2009, p. 9), it may well be that Bach’s pieces have found a place in popular culture due to this musical complexity and cultural versatility.
If it were not for Pablo Casals’ intuitive performances the pieces, the piece may not have risen to their status today and may well have been relegated as mere exercise. His romantic rendition introduced Bach’s cello suites to the world as concert pieces, which in turn inspired more cellists, composers and other musicians to delve into the interpretation of the cello suites. Three centuries after their first publication, the cello suites have and continue to be immensely popular works in the twentieth and twenty first centuries and into the digital age age.