The Six Suites for solo cello composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (in all likelihood between 1717 and 1723, during his time in Cöthen) rank among the most famous works in his opus, and among the finest works for solo cello ever written. The Prelude of the First Suite is on a par with other extremely well-known pieces by Bach inasmuch as it has become part of the shared popular culture, and its common use as the soundtrack of movies, documentaries and even advertisements bears witness to its role as an iconic work.
Though Bach’s Suites were not unprecedented (for examples, one possible source of influence for their experimental style can be identified in the Italian Gabrielli’s Ricercari), they doubtless offered a revolutionary perspective on the role of the cello as a solo instrument, capable not only of sustaining the harmony (as in its traditional function as a continuo instrument), not only of singing a melody by virtue of its cantabile tone, but also of creating contrapuntal textures and chordal sequences, in a daring exploration of its technical, musical, timbral and expressive possibilities.
Notwithstanding these revolutionary qualities (or perhaps precisely due to these), the Suites remained for a long time in the background; it took them more time than what was needed by the solo violin Sonatas and Partitas for becoming the common fare of the concert scene they presently are.
However, if they were not considered as pieces “for the stage” (until Pablo Casals’ pioneering championing of these works gained them the reputation they presently enjoy), they were by no means unknown to the cellists. In Italy, they were adopted as compulsory works in the Conservatory programmes, thus contributing to the musical education of countless cellists. This renewed interest encouraged performers of other instruments to take notice of these masterpieces, in a process which did not originate in Italy, but which certainly found one of its greatest representatives in Ferruccio Busoni, the Italian composer and pianist. His transcription of the violin Chaconne, which is both indebted to an earlier tradition (mainly Liszt and Tausig) and independent of it, formed in turn the basis for many other (more or less successful) attempts by Italian and foreign musicians. In the Chaconne, Busoni (different from Brahms, who had previously transcribed it for the piano, left hand) took an imaginary organ version of the piece as its true model, thus trying to translate the organ’s powerful and varied sonorities on the piano (rather than the thinner and more transparent violin original). This attitude mirrored that of other great nineteenth-century musicians, such as Schumann and Mendelssohn (who were among the first to popularize the appreciation of Bach’s music): being seemingly puzzled by Bach’s visionary concept of the violin and cello as self-standing and “complete” instruments, they both added piano accompaniments to Bach’s solos, thus making explicit (and sometimes probably betraying) Bach’s harmonic concept.
Inspired by Busoni, several Italian pianists transcribed individual movements or entire Suites for the piano, thus inflating the original scoring by adapting it to the possibilities of a multi-voiced and dynamically rich instrument. While their versions were, in most cases, intended for the concert scene, the first Italian transcription of Bach’s solos for the flute had a different purpose: in 1957, Franco Crepax published a collection of eight movements, excerpted from the Cello Suites, and transcribed for the recorder. In his Preface, Crepax suggests that the intended readership of his work was made of proficient amateur players, who were in need of a challenging and yet enjoyable repertoire, capable of providing them with the pleasure they sought for in their musical practice without forcing them to find an ensemble of like-minded players.
The choice of which movements to include in his transcription was determined, in Crepax’ view, by the need of selecting pieces whose original scoring was best suited to a performance on the recorder. In fact, if the process of transcribing a Bach Cello Suite for the piano takes into account mostly the taste and musical approach of the transcriber, and is only slightly determined by technical needs, in the case of wind instruments such as the recorder and flute the situation is entirely different.
If Bach had already pushed to the limits the possibilities of a (multi-)stringed instrument such as the cello, in requiring it to perform complex polyphonies and rich harmonies, the idea of transferring this intricacy on an instrument which is normally considered as monodic (with just minor exceptions in the field of contemporary music) may seem virtually impossible. Thus, Crepax decided to transcribe only those movements whose original scoring was entirely, or mostly monodic, and whose rhythmic phrasing seemed closest to the breathing needs of performers of wind instruments.
In more recent times, other transcribers have attempted a different approach, and offered complete transcriptions of the Bach Solos for the flute; this Da Vinci publication presents a fresh approach and a welcome addition to this repertoire.
Indeed, one might paradoxically say that the best model for transcribing Bach’s music from a solo stringed instrument to the flute comes from Bach himself: though actual examples of this activity by Bach are unknown, several musicians and musicologists have noted that Bach’s own Partita in A minor for solo flute features several traits which are more typical for a string instrument than for the flute, such as, for example, the uninterrupted sequences of sixteenth-notes (allowing virtually no opportunities for breathing).
In fact, the practice of playing wind instruments shares with the activity of singing the dependance on the performers’ physical need to breathe; and this natural necessity (which may be seen as a limitation) is indeed so deeply rooted in our concept of musical phrasing that it has structured the musical shape of countless melodies written for other instrumental media, so that, for example, many violin or piano tunes are built on the same temporal units determined by the breathing needs of the human beings. Even when this does not happen, however, the wind performer seeks and identifies the musically optimal moments when breathing may enhance (rather than decrease) the aesthetic and expressive value of the piece.
Luca Bellini’s transcription of the Six Cello Suites adopts such an approach, also taking inspiration from Bach’s own Flute Partita; it offers a fresh and innovative perspective, also when compared with similar undertakings, in that it tries and finds a mediation between the usual breathing habits of the wind players and the bowing practice of the string instrumentalists.
Different from other transcribers, moreover, Bellini frequently chooses to transpose the cello’s chords on the flute not in the form of a string of acciaccaturas, but rather as a quieter and less rushed subdivision of the longer rhythmical units into equal portions. Of course, when acciaccaturas and arpeggios are unavoidable, it will be the performer’s responsibility to compare Bellini’s transcription with Bach’s original, so as to identify those instances where a truly harmonic value is attributed to the notes in small type, and those notes which are “just” embellishments, in order to give a satisfactory rendition of the two kinds.
Also on the plane of timbre, the challenges facing a transcriber of Bach’s cello Suites for a wind instrument are noteworthy, particularly in those cases when Bach plays on the different sound of the cello’s strings (for example by alternating the same note performed on adjacent strings). In this case, Bellini has adopted innovative and unusual flute fingerings, so as to suggest, on a different instrumental medium, an effect similar to that intended by Bach.
It is in such details that the high quality of a transcription is revealed. Indeed, when it is realized with such painstaking attention and creativity, it may in turn push the boundaries of the instrument’s technique, and it may even reveal, or bring to our attention, some details of the original work which may have escaped our notice. A transcription is an interpretation, and when it is truly a masterly interpretation it will not fail to illuminate several facets of the original, thus contributing to its larger history of reception.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.