Bach Cello Suite III

Submitted to the Royal Northern College of Music, M.Mus academic committee 2011

Research question: How can performers of Bach’s C Major Cello Suite benefit from utilizing slurring and articulations suggested in the Anna Magdalena Bach source?


August Wenzinger, editor of Bach’s Cello Suites Barenreiter edition stated that “The modern cellist is almost exclusively trained in the legato playing for the presentation of romantic and post-romantic music…For the seventeenth and eighteenth century string player however, non-legato playing…was the primary style.”[1] As the autograph of Bach’s Six Cello Suites did not survive, performers and scholars relied on four separately copied manuscripts to work from. The first of the copied manuscripts by Anna Magdalena Bach, the closest to J.S. Bach and arguably the most reliable source with respect to the original autograph, had been my inspiration in my research. The main discrepancy between this manuscript and many recent editions of the Suites lie in the numerous “suggested” articulation markings, added ornamentation and slurring. While I have seen and tried the suggestions printed in several editions including Fournier (1972), Wenzinger (1950), and Leisinger (2000), I was very confused by the number of suggestions including extra slurs, omitted notes and even different rhythms found while comparing them to the original AMB copy. Laura Kramer in her dissertation suggested that while it could be easier that performing Bach’s Cello Suites on a modern instrument to adjust the markings to better suit the modern performer’s training, it would follow that an eighteenth century approach to bowing is more appropriate in these works as it assumes that notes should be differentiated according to their musical importance since the Suites are not purely ‘melodic’ but rather integrate harmony and contrapuntal voices.[2] My research began not out of an endeavor to clarify the ‘authentic’ performance methods of Bach’ Cello Suites, but rather focus on a set of suggestions which attempt to justify the method found behind the markings found on AMB’s copy and consequently present my findings as an option to other performers as a basis for alternative interpretation.

The eighteenth century musician was accustomed to present a continuous musical line with detached bowing. The slurs had the object of distinguishing and picking out of from the uniform flow a group of notes as a figure.[3] Upon studying the four manuscripts, each copy yielded differing details such as slurs, articulations and omitted or changed notes. It is also to be noted that each copy may contain ‘possibilities’ of inaccuracies within themselves when copied from the original autograph.[4] Despite these inconsistencies, I have noted several similar characteristics which are shared throughout. There are several important characteristics of the use of slurs which occur throughout the Suites;

  • Slurs in the sources were primarily used to articulate small groups of notes of not more than four. Kramer asserts that the number of short slurs in the Suites suggest that the type of articulation Bach envisioned for these movements required a relatively small amount of bow and was one in which individual notes were varied through changes in length or dynamics.[5]
  • Asymmetrical slur patterns (3+1 or 1+3 etc) are more common in the eighteenth century copies than symmetrical (2+2 or 4+4), which necessitate a separate bow stroke at the beginning or end of the group.[6] The performer should note the separate note is subject to a lighter bow stroke and should not be unnecessarily heavy. There is a prime example in the Prelude of the C Major Suite bars 45-60 where several modern century editions suggest symmetrical slurs rather than what Bach intended.
  • Symmetrical slur patterns are usually reserved for an alternation between adjacent strings, prominently displayed in the Gigue of the C major Suite bars 21-31 and bars 81-91.

The number of short slurs in AMB’s copy suggested that they weren’t an indication for legato playing but rather a contrast and an interruption for the series of detached notes. This also appears to me a logical explanation for the number of asymmetrical slurs in the Suites, taking into account the necessity for a gentler articulation on the separated note. Continuous legato and unarticulated playing was condemned by eighteenth century musicians as poor execution. Therefore, substituting the shorter slurs for longer slurs causes the modern cellist to forfeit the ability to separate notes in the musical line, which instead becomes a smooth continuum in which all notes are of equal importance and length.[7] The exception lies only in the Preludes, where short slurs seem to be associated with sequential passages, long slurs may indicate a freedom of rhythm much like a cadential passage.  In bar 49 of the Prelude of the Eb major Suite contains a slur over three bars encompassing thirty eight semi-quavers in total which indicated to me an intention to break the arpeggiated quaver pattern in favor of the musician’s own educated interpretation. Likewise in the overture section of the C minor Prelude, the probability of playing the slurred semi-quaver passages as a perfectly executed scale passage is highly unlikely.

The need to articulate frequently and differently is vital in demonstrating an understanding of phrasing and the musical line. Since there are few markings throughout the Suites it was common practice for eighteenth century musicians to vary articulation in terms of harmony, internal configuration and metric structures. According to Helmut Perl, “…music should be as highly differentiated as speech, in which no two consecutive syllables are equally long or short, light or heavy, loud or soft, more or less accented, even though all the notes look the same.”[8] This suggested a hierarchic system of articulation not only limited to the traditional ‘strong-weak-weak’ or ‘strong-weak-moderately strong-weak’ pulses, but also to distinguish each note according to their relative degree of importance. I refer to Richard Efrati as he describes in Chapter III the two types of accents in the case of no composer markings, the Metric and Agogic.[9]

  • The Metric Accent is described as “Generally the accent of the expression or the stress of tone falls on the ruling or strong beat…In every bar, the first note of the first crotchet, the first note of the half-bar or third crotchet in 4/4 time: the first note of the first and fourth crotchet in 6/4 and 6/8 time…These may be called the strong beats on which the chief stress of the tone always falls if the composer has indicated no other expression.”[10] The beginning of Allemande in the C major Suite contains such an accent, the three semiquaver upbeat gives a natural crescendo to a simulated tenuto articulated downbeat. The third beat of the first bar can also be slightly accented, though not as loud as the first C. This ties in rather nicely with the slur markings in the AMB copy having the metric accents positioned on a separated bow stroke. During a play through of this characteristic I noticed a natural diminuendo occurring in the descending passage which enabled me to apply the same articulation as the upbeat in preparation for the next metric accent. I only noticed afterwards that Efrati had suggested a crescendo in the upbeat to the strong beat in fear of being unmusical.
  • The Agogic Accents are best defined as an accent that belongs to the context of the phrase. It should be noted that Agogic Accents are brought about by dwelling on a note rather than a forceful accent. There are numerous possibilities in which to be expressive with the accent ranging from rallentando to accelerando, a pause and the means of vibrato. Should the trained musician choose to make use of Agogic Accents, the articulation would exist in the context of what came before and what occurs after. While practicing the C major Suite, I noticed that abrupt harmonic changes such as bars 14, 24, 72 and 73 of the Prelude and bars 9, 47, 57 and 65 of the Courante are among many possibilities for an Agogic Accent. Another possibility would be discovering the high point and low point of the phrase, using the lowest or highest note emphasize the importance of the pivotal point in the music brings direction to the performer. In bar 11 and 15 of the Gigue, the low A and G respectively can be emphasized without sounding out of place as well as add an element of forward momentum in reaching the tenth leap upwards in bars 12 and 16.

The polyphony that exists in Bach’s Cello Suites often tends to be overlooked. According to Efrati, “Bach knew how to intertwine several lines to form a seemingly single homophonic line. It is of the utmost importance for the phrasing to differentiate between the different voices.”[11] Unlike the inventions and other keyboard works where two or more voices are usually played simultaneously, distinguishing several voices in a single musical line can be challenging and easily missed; the Allemande of the C major Suite is one example. The following illustration is bars 14 to 17, a transition from the dominant G major to the relative A minor (of the tonic) and makes use of several abrupt G# and F natural accidentals.

The high voice begins with the upbeat and ends just after the second beat of the bar, after which the middle voice begins the introduction of the F# and G#. The low voice begins on the final note of the first bar on C, playing an F major chord perhaps to establish the augmented leap soon after. The middle voice begins again after and switches abruptly to the lower voice again after the G# for two notes before all three voices take the sequence of notes once in each register. The final A minor declaration comes in the form of a chord after the high voice runs up to a D before passing the spotlight back to the middle voice by falling a minor third. This is one of the more complex combinations of voicing I have found in the third Suite. Finally, to understand the numerous possibilities available for performers when dealing with the absence of notation marks; articulations in phrasing can often help vary musical lines. The following two statements “The pupil says, my friend is sick.” and “The pupil, says my friend, is sick.” illustrate that by shifting the punctuation marks, the sense of the sentence has been reversed.[12]

Throughout my research, my attention is constantly being returned to the burden of using a modern bow to articulate an eighteenth century work. Although the theory of eighteenth century performance practice relates directly to using baroque equipment, I believe that the modern performer can apply eighteenth century principles by firstly training the ears to perceive the suites as harmony and polyphony adapted for a melodic instrument.  Despite choosing to perform Bach’s Solo Cello Suite on my modern instrument, my study inspired me to believe that with keen listening and creatively varying bow techniques between detaché and short slurs combined with metric/agogic accents can form a foundation for many artistic possibilities for interpretation for the modern cellist.








Bach, Johann Sebastian, Sechs Suiten fur Violoncello Solo. Edited by August Wenzinger. Kassel: Barenreiter, 1967.


Bylsma, Anner, Bach, the fencing master : Reading aloud from the first three cello suites. Amsterdam : Bylsma Fencing Mail, 1998.


Donington, Robert, Baroque Music: Style and Performance. NY: Norton & Company, 1982.


Efrati, Richard R, The Interpretation of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and the Suites for Solo Cello, Zurich: Atlantis, 1979.


Kramer, Laura Elizabeth, Articulation in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Violoncello Solo (BWV 1007-1012): History, Analysis and Performance. Michigan: UMI, 2007.


Ledbetter, David, Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. London : Yale University Press, 2009.


Mozart, Leopold, A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.


Perl, Helmut, Rhythmische Phrasierung in der Musik des 18, Jahrhunderts: ein Beitrag zur Auffuhrungspraxis. Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofens’ Verlag, 1984.


Quantz, Johann Joachim, On Playing the Flute. New York: Schirmer Books, 1985.




[1] Johann Sebastian Bach, Sechs Suiten fur Violoncello Solo, ed. August Wenzinger (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1950), pg 3

[2] Laura Kramer, Articulation in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Violoncello Solo (BWV 1007-1012): History, Analysis and Performance, (Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 2007), pg 210

[3] Johann Sebastian Bach, Sechs Suiten fur Violoncello Solo, ed. August Wenzinger (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1950), pg 3

[4] The inclusion of ‘possible’ inaccuracies are due to some recent studies on whether the slur markings in the AMB score contained omitted slurs due to her carelessness and whether she may have incorrectly placed the start of the slur on certain notes. However, I chose not to focus on this area.

[5] Laura Kramer, Articulation in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Violoncello Solo (BWV 1007-1012): History, Analysis and Performance, (Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 2007), pg 207

[6] Laura Kramer, Articulation, pg 208

[7] Laura Kramer, Articulation in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Violoncello Solo (BWV 1007-1012): History, Analysis and Performance, (Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 2007), pg 209

[8] Helmut Perl, Rhythmische Phrasierung in der Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts: ein Beitrag zur Auffuhrungspraxis (Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofens’ Verlag, 1984), pg 29

[9] Richard Efrati, The Interpretation of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and the Suites for Solo Cello, (Zurich: Atlantis, 1979), pg 99

[10] Leopold Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948), pg 219

[11] Richard Efrati, The Interpretation of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and the Suites for Solo Cello, (Zurich: Atlantis, 1979), pg 135

[12] Richard Efrati, The Interpretation, pg 109