Reality & Illusion, part 2: Bach's Invisible Cello

In my last blog post I remarked that listening to the pianist András Schiff playing the music of J. S. Bach got me meditating about reality and illusion.

I first studied Bach’s music as a 14-year-old cellist, growing up in São Paulo, Brazil. Bach composed six suites for solo cello. The sixth of them he wrote for a five-stringed instrument tuned like a standard cello (from the bottom up, C G D A) with an added E string. Some well-trained minds speculate that Bach never meant his pieces for the cello as we know the instrument today, but for a large viola-like instrument held from the player’s shoulder by a strap. This instrument is called by some people a violoncello da spalla . . . and by other people a violoncello piccolo da spalla or violoncello da span . . . and by some other people a viola da spalla. It’s said that Bach and other composers of the time (three centuries ago) called this instrument violoncello.

Here's a spirited violoncello da spalla performance of a movement from Bach's Sixth Suite. The performer is Sergey Malov.


Now let's go back to the 14-year-old kid in Brazil. Playing a modern cello made from materials that didn’t exist in Bach’s time, the kid buys a score for a piece composed for some other instrument; and the score is in fact a Frenchman’s heavy-handed interpretation of Bach’s wife’s dictation of the piece, and no one can be sure how she ever went about taking down that dictation in the first place. Reality or illusion? Was I really playing Bach's actual cello suites? Or was I having some sort of rather subjective head trip?

Over the centuries since their composition, these pieces went through multiple transformations in the minds and hearts of musicians. After Bach’s death most of his music “disappeared” from public awareness for a while, until (as all students in music history classes learn) the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn “rediscovered” Bach and advocated his music anew—some of the music anyway, which was then performed in the fashion of Mendelssohn’s time.

The cello suites stayed out of public awareness for much longer. From time to time they were used as technical studies, and very occasionally some fool would play a movement or two in performance. I say a “fool” because the suites weren’t really considered “music.” (Reality and illusion, anyone?)

Pablo Casals finally brought the suites out from oblivion, studying them in depth, performing them in public as works of art, and recording them as a complete set in 1938 and 1939. Here's the great man, performing the First Suite in 1954.

Since Casals’s time, the Suites have become an integral part of the canonic repertory. Thousands of cellists of all ages and abilities have performed the pieces hundreds of thousands of times all over the world. These cellists practiced passages from the pieces hundreds of millions of times. Some notes in some suites have been played more than a billion times. I myself made a modest contribution to these statistics, adding roughly five thousand attempts at playing some of the suites in my practice room and in public from 1972 to 2013. Or ten thousand attempts, maybe. But certainly not more than fifty thousand attempts, at most.

Besides the thousands of cellists, tens of thousands of other musicians also studied or performed the suites, in whole or in part—including violists, trombonists, flutists, guitarists, lute players, marimba players, you name it.

According to an Internet source, there are over 80 printed editions of the suites, some claiming to be as close to Bach’s intended ideas as possible, others making no claims of any sort. I don’t know how many commercially available recordings there are, but a quick search of “Bach cello suites” on shows 1,482 choices as of January 14, 2013, with the top two spots being the complete CD sets by Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovitch.

Here’s a nifty thing as regards our discussion. This is how these top spots are listed at Amazon:

The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites Complete by Yo-Yo Ma and J. S. Bach (2010) 

Bach: Cello Suites by Mstislav Rostropovich and Johann Sebastian Bach (1995)

The players’ names are listed before the composer’s. The Suites are as if “by Yo-Yo Ma first and foremost, and also by J. S. Bach.” It could be a simple matter of information display, or a simple matter of marketing considerations. Or it could be food for thought if you’re interested in figuring out reality from illusion. Other choices in information display are available. The #4 item on Amazon’s page, for instance, is listed as “Bach: Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (2003)”, with the name of the performer not shown at all. (You can find out easily, of course. Click on the link for details. All right, I’ll tell you anyway: It’s Pablo Casals.)

Is it crazy for Yo-Yo Ma to be listed as a co-creator of the Bach Suites, or is it crazy for Pablo Casals not to acknowledge that he’s a co-creator of the Bach Suites?

To put it differently, do the 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, by Johann Sebastian Bach (born 1685, died 1750) exist? Are they “real,” or are they “illusory”?

Does Bach himself exist?

Stay tuned.