The traditional trajectory of Bach biography has always oriented the composer toward the past. The tome that set the tone, Philip Spitta's massive, multi-volume study of Bach's life and music, published in Leipzig between 1873 and 1880, begins with a lengthy introductory examination of the composer's ancestors, most of whom were musicians in the center of German-speaking Europe. Bach was, in Spitta's narrative, the culmination of the Baroque era in German music, an argument that dominated Bach biography for roughly the next century.
Recent work on Bach has moved away from this, placing the composer firmly in the context of his age. We now see Bach as a working musician, a craftsman who knew the tools of his trade forward and backward, a man who knew his own worth and was not afraid to squabble with petty-minded local authorities when he needed to promote his interests or his music. Biographies such as Christoph Wolff's (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician) borrow from the methods of recent historical research to fill in the holes in the documentary evidence and paint a picture of a composer who not only knew a great deal about the musical past, but was also in touch with the latest developments in Western music during his lifetime.
What Bach's biographers haven't really gotten into (at least not in a comprehensive study) is the full story of the composer's influence on subsequent generations. The traditional, Spitta-derived narrative leaves the reader with the impression that Bach's music disappeared for more than a half-century after his death, and only started making a comeback in 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted his legendary performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin. In this narrative, Spitta himself was part of the revival - his research and the publication of his biography coincided with the massive German Bach Society edition of the composer's "complete" works issued during the second half of the 19th century, between 1851 and 1899.
Usually, as in the case of the Mendelssohn story, Bach's post-mortem fate is as much a part of other composer's biographies as it is of his own. But his music certainly didn't disappear. Two of his sons, Carl Philipp Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, kept it alive in Hamburg and Berlin, two of Northern German-speaking Europe's cultural centers. (For example, many scholars argue that the prevalent version of Bach's famous Cantata No. 80, "Ein feste Burg," is actually a performing edition prepared by Wilhelm Friedemann, who added the trumpets and drums.) Mozart and Beethoven both knew Bach's music well, and the examples of its influence to be found in their works are too numerous to recount here. Two of London's leading composers during the later 18th century had strong musical ties to the composer - one was another of his sons, Johann Christian, and the other was Carl Friedrich Abel, whose father was a member of Bach's orchestra in Cöthen (more on the elder Abel below). And Mendelssohn wasn't the only later composer influenced by Bach's music. Mahler, for instance, composed in a cabin (really a dirt-floored shack) in the Upper Austrian woods whose only furnishings were a desk, a piano, and that 46-volume Bach Society edition.
So Bach was neither wholly forgotten nor entirely backward-looking. Some of his works are remarkably prescient - the Keyboard Concertos for instance, both in terms of genre (they were the first of their type) and form (many of their movements offer pre-echoes of two stalwarts of the Classical style, sonata form and the rondo).
The Six Suites for Solo Cello, too, were the first of their kind. The cello was a new instrument in the 1720s, when Bach composed the Suites. Antonio Stradivari, the great Cremonese string instrument-maker, started building "modern" cellos during the first decade of the 1700s, when he created cellos whose size became the standard by the end of the century. There had been all sorts of bass string instruments, from both the viol and the violin families, during the preceding century, and many larger bass violins continued to be used well into the 1700s. The cello was thus just one instrument among many when Bach created his Suites, a circumstance underlined by the fact that Bach wrote the Suite No. 6, BWV 1012, for a five-string cello (the standard instrument has four) with an extended range. (Pieter Wispelwey will play the first five Suites on an anonymous French cello of the school of Vuillaume dating from around 1850, and the Sixth Suite on a five-string Baroque cello by an anonymous German maker from the second half of the 18th century.)
Bach wrote the Cello Suites during his tenure as Capellmeister (roughly, music director) in Cöthen, which lasted from 1717 to 1723. The city was the small center - about 3,000 inhabitants - for the primarily agricultural principality of Anhalt-Cöthen, and was (and is) located about 90 miles southwest of Berlin. (Berlin was the largest nearby city, with a population of about 55,000 people at the time.) Bach's patron in Cöthen, Prince Leopold, was a great music enthusiast - during his grand tour, he had traveled with Johann David Heinichen, the Capellmeister in Dresden and an important and underrated master of the German baroque, and he composed and played the keyboard. While he was on that tour, Leopold heard from acquaintances in Berlin that the Prussian king had dissolved his court orchestra, and he immediately took steps to hire as many of those virtuosos as he could, eventually securing eight of them. When joined by local players, these musicians comprised a musical outfit of impressive size, comparable to those at much larger courts. (Leopold spent nearly four percent of his annual budget on music.)
When Bach arrived, he found himself at the head of quite a respectable musical establishment, surrounded by talented instrumentalists and supported by a music-loving prince. No wonder, then, that many of his great instrumental works date from the Cöthen period - not only the Cello Suites, but also the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the Brandenburg Concertos, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, five of the French Suites, and the Orgel-Büchlein, a collection of 45 organ chorales. It was long assumed that Bach wrote the Cello Suites for Christian Ferdinand Abel, based on an assertion in Spitta's biography. (It does make for a good story, after all, since the C. F. Abel in the Cöthen orchestra was the father of that other, more famous C. F. Abel mentioned above.) Carl Bernhard Lienecke, the orchestra's cellist, was more likely the Suites' first performer (which only makes sense). He must have been an outstanding player - the Cello Suites are demanding, intellectually rigorous music. In them, Bach charts a challenging and probing musical course, creating what is essentially polyphonic music for a single instrumental voice - the listener can follow Bach as he threads several independent melodic ideas through each movement of the Suites.
The Suites are rooted in 18th-century court culture, with a succession of dance movements following the prelude in each work. The courtiers in the Cöthen audience would not only have had some sort of intellectual reaction to hearing the Suites, but they would also have heard them as dances and reacted to them physically, the way we might tap our foot to rhythmic background music at a restaurant, or clap along (or even dance) at a rock 'n' roll concert. Courtiers didn't dance to Bach's Cello Suites, but their additional, physical level of understanding is lost to listeners today (apologies to the gavotte-dancers).
Each Suite is constructed from a prelude followed by five dances. Four of these are common to every suite: the allemande (a moderately-paced German dance in duple or 4/4 time), the courante (a fast French dance with a mixture of triple and duple rhythms), the sarabande (a majestic, slow dance in triple time, Spanish in origin, typically with an accent on the second beat of each bar), and the gigue (a quick, rustic dance of British origin in triple time). Bach adds an extra dance of moderate tempo (menuet, bourrée, or gavotte) to each Suite, which fits nicely in each case between the slow sarabande and the quick gigue. Though they share certain characteristics, none of these movements is generic in the least. Bach infuses each of them with its own spirit and eloquence - some are tragic (the prelude of the C-minor Suite), radiant (the same movement in the D-major Suite), dignified (the G-major Suite's prelude or the C-major Suite's allemande), elegant (the menuets in the first two Suites), or joyous (the gigues that end the major-key Suites, and much else besides). With every note, Bach seems to have reveled in the challenge of writing his kind of music - polyphonic, dense, complex music, rich in both conception and expression, music that usually needs space to breathe and many voices to sing it - for the single voice of a solo cello. It was once new music for a new instrument, and two intervening centuries haven't lessened one bit its power to surprise, charm, and move us.
John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.