Remarks on playing Bach

Where can we find help?

How to decide the tempos? How to decide the dynamics? What bowings should I use? What fingerings should I use? How do I decide the articulations? Who should I listen to? Who can I ask?

These are some of the questions we have to ask ourselves when playing the Bach cello suites. It can seem very mysterious to look for the right answers as possibilities seem endless. Instead of pretending that with my instincts I can create a perfect logic, I have tried to find all the help that is available from literature, the manuscripts and studying the differences between the modern and barogue cello, bow and strings.

What edition should I trust?

As the manuscript of Bach himself is still lost we have to decide whether to trust one of the three manuscript copies or any of the later editions which claim various degrees of authority. Since Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript copy was most probably done at the very home of the composer I find her copy to have the most obvious authority. We can compare her copy with copies of other works of Bach's where the original still exists and from them we can see that she was a very reliable copyist and even developed a very similar handwriting to Bach's. The other two manuscript copies of the Cello Suites already proceed to fixing "wrong" notes and unifying bowings, I find they hide more than they reveal. AMB may reveal some of her own weaknesses, but there is no reason to believe that she was sloppy, as is often claimed; in a hurry, maybe. After all, there were all those children to attend to as well.  As to the later editions, I find that they are useful in understanding the cellists who made the editions, but less useful in revealing anything new in Bach.

How can I decide the tempos?

The idea of Tempo Giusto was a real thing in the Baroque era, similar movements usually were played in similar tempos, unless otherwise stated. A lot of help can be found by looking at the Suites as a cycle and reading carefully the manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach. One can first consider all Preludes together and look for a tempo that would work for all of them taking into account that the 4th prelude is marked alla breve. It is obviously not necessary for them to be metronomically the same, but a unity of tempos is very helpful.

It is surprising how similar movements can work in similar tempos and how the alla breve marking of the 4th Prelude makes sense. After looking at the preludes one can move on to the dance movements and look at each of them also in relation to other suites and the tempo marking. If one sees for example that the 1st and 4th Allemandes are also alla breve it is clear that they are faster than the other four. We can also find information about how these dances would have been danced. The suites were surely not meant to be danced, but one should not play for example a Sarabande in a tempo so slow that one couldn't possibly try to dance to it. Following these simple means of deduction one can find out a lot about the tempos and eliminate a lot of unstylistic extremes.

The 5th Suite is different from the others in several ways, obviously because of the scordatura and the fact that it is the only "French" Suite. Knowing the difference between the Italian Corrente (which would be a more correct title for the other Courantes) and French Courante is very important in deciding the tempo, the Courante being partly in two and partly in three, which makes it a much more complex and necessarily slower than Corrente. Help can be found from the lute transcription said to by done by Bach himself, although I am not convinced that the manuscript is really in his handwriting. Some of the rhythmic complexities are much clearer in the lute Suite. I don't think it is necessary transcribe the lute version back for cello, it loses its originality, but it is very helpful to hear the extra lute notes played by a second cello when learning the piece.

How do I know what dynamics to play?

Although Bach wrote only two dynamics in all of the suites - f and p in the Prelude of the 6th suite - we know some fundamental principals on the use of  dynamics in his time. The one rule above all others was that dissonance is always stronger than consonance. With this simple rule one can build a map of dynamics built on the degree of dissonance at any moment. The result will be surprisingly different from a standard 20th century habit of following a melodic line. If one considers that the release of tension is always softer than the tension that precedes it one can bring out the architecture of the music very easily.

One can also ask oneself if the forte and piano markings in the 6th Prelude mean that in similar repeated passages one should use these terraced dynamics or is he telling us in a subtle way exactly the opposite. Could he mean that it was not a given?


Analyzing the phrase structure is another very useful method to eliminate some questions. If one pays attention to where a phrase ends and the next one begins, one immediately knows where to breath. Understanding when the structure is even and when it is uneven also makes it easier to avoid confusing the listener with an arbitrary rubato. Obviously the point is not to make a charicature of pointing out every phrase, but knowing and feeling the structure helps understanding. One often hears that the players haven't thought of the phrases in the dance movements. When you combine the attention to phrases with some basic knowledge about the particularities of each dance and the use of rhythmic devises such as hemiolas, one can see the complexity of Bach's world. Bach uses hemiolas very often in all of the suites to lend ambiguity to the phrases, sometimes they are hidden and can be subject to discussion, but looking for them is fascinating.

Is there a right way to approach the bowings?

The best teacher could be the manuscript copy of Anna Magdalena together with her and Bach's own manuscripts to the solo violin works. When one looks at the manuscript of the violin works and AMB's copy of them one can see that she was not a sloppy copyist. She went to great lengths to reproduce an ambiguous marking of Bach's. Knowing this, the many very surprising and ambiguous slurs become very interesting. One observation about them is that whereas in the violin pieces the slurs seem to be quite consistant, here they are definitely not consistent; similar passages rarely receive similar bowing in the cello Suites. Even if it sometimes difficult to know exactly what the exact slur is it is clear that they are constantly changing. It could well be that some while there probably are mistakes somewhere, some of the wild ones could well come directly from Bach.

I have decided myself to follow as closely as possible what I see in her manuscript. Even that produces a changing result, one tends to see them differently every day. One has to also admit that our vision is always guided to some extent by what we would like to see. My two main points are: 1) the phrasing is meant to bring out something new in similar passages 2) if one is able to make all of her slurs sound musical one has found a key to the style of Bach. It is not important that one follows the bowings of the manuscript religiously, what is important is not to systematically unify them.

Following AMB's phrasing forces one to learn a very flexible bow technique. A similar chord may turn out up-bow after having just been down-bow, or a perfectly ordinary passage returns with backwards bowings.

Which wrong notes are wrong?

Every edition and cellist has to make some desicions about notes that seem like mistakes. Some of them actually sound right or wrong only because we have heard generations of cellists follow someone else's "correction". Many of the uncertainities can already be verified if one understands the way Bach used accidentals. He never repeated an accidental within a beam, or on consequent notes, even if there is a bar-line in between. There are no naturals unless the note is within the same beam. But he did repeat an accidental within a bar on a separate beam. These rules are slightly different to what are in use today and automatically a few readings will differ. There are more "mistakes " than elsewhere in the 5th Suite because of the scordature and the fact that Bach notated in tablatura. AMB must have been humming the music as she copied and forgotten sometimes to allow for the transposition. Luckily we do have Bach's own manuscript of the Lute transcription to check the differences.

What can one learn from the baroque cello, bow and strings?

If one only plays Bach on a modern bow it is impossible to know what the vocabulary for articulations was. As soon as one takes up a baroque bow one notices that certain things disappear and new things appear in the vocabulary. Certain comfortable modern staccatos or a jumping bow (for example in the c major Courante) is quite unnatural on a baroque bow. Fast separate bows (such as in the d minor Courante) stay much more on the string and speed becomes a pleasure and not a virtuoso showcase. Playing chords in any direction is much easier and it is soon evident that the modern square way of playing a chord gives way to a round, more balanced harmony. The seemingly complicated changing bowings of Bach feel immediately more approachable when the articulation is more flexible. If there is no baroque bow at hand one can get very close to the feeling by holding the modern bow about five centimeters closer to the middle of the bow.

The gut strings change a lot in the way this music sounds. They speak rather with the speed of the bow than with a sharp accent. The use of open strings is more natural. It is also clear that the resonance of the open strings is something that all baroque and classical composers knew how to use to great effect. I feel often that it creates a kind of a pedal for the cello, I often look for fingerings where I can leave all the notes of a chord resonating to emphasize the dissonance or consonance. Using higher positions sounds most of the time out of place, it sounds like a special effect, on the gut strings that color and resonance change even more than on metal strings and the longer resonance of the lower positions seems more appropriate to this music.

I encourage everyone to try holding the cello without the end-pin to see how one's relation to the whole instrument changes. If one uses an end-pin the instrument is more immobile and the flexibility of bowings is not easy to achieve.

The understanding of how to use vibrato with real meaning is also helped a lot by the baroque bow and gut strings. If one uses too much vibrato, the use of open strings becomes more difficult, they stand out as being different. Expression is so easy to achieve with the baroque bow and gut strings that it seems a pity to spoil it with too much vibrato. Vibrato tends to mute the subtleties of bowing. It is useful to reverse the use of vibrato, to think that the norm is no vibrato and look for places where it might be a useful color.

No conclusion?

These ideas hopefully help to eliminate some of the questions and mysteries in playing Bach. There is no conclusion, no lasting truth, just convictions that last the duration of one performance and then we have to go back to questioning everything.

© Anssi Karttunen June 19th, 2016


On Bach

At the source of a river.

Thoughts about playing the Bach Suites (program notes for a concert in Paris 30.9.2000)


The fact that the Bach Suites have been a part of my life longer than any other pieces gives me the opportunity to examine how I have arrived to where I am today.

My first contact with these Suites came as a child, around 1971, through my teacher Vili Pullinen, who told me proudly that he had studied them with Pablo Casals and had copied the masters bowings. I copied those bowings carefully before I even had heard the pieces. Like all young student, I just concentrated on learning the notes and as to the interpretation I did as I was told. I didn't question the validity of this or any other vision.

My next teacher, Erkki Rautio had studied Bach with Enrico Mainardi, whose vision of Bach was totally different from Casals's. Some well-meaning people actually advised me to be careful not to become corrupted with these "crazy" ideas. I started to realise that playing Bach was a complex business, and one had to be prepared to defend oneself against practically everyone else who had ever played the works. Whereas Casals's vision of Bach was very intuitive and "romantic", Mainardi's was analytical, not in the musicological sense, but from a curious cellist's point of view. He constructed his own rules to bring out what he felt to be the so-called hidden counterpoint. He was a performer who wanted to be absolutely sure that every last person in the hall understood the music just the same way as he did.

I next went to London to study with William Pleeth, who - once again - had a totally different approach. Although he had studied with Julius Klengel he never spoke about Klengel's Bach-playing (I have later heard a recording of Klengel playing the Sarabande from the 6th Suite, it is like from another planet, much more "romantic" than Casals). Pleeth spoke to me about performance practice, natural phrasing, holding a bow like a baroque bow and letting the music and instrument propose the phrasing. All this seemed at first anarchic, but soon started to make sense. I understood that one's own ears and eyes could be a guide to playing this music. At the same time the music didn't get easier, the responsibility started to weigh on my shoulders. But a seed had been planted, which sent me on the road on which I still feel I am. Around this time I bought the facsimile of the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach. It still took me years to learn how to read it.

Another important teacher of mine, Tibor de Machula, used the strangest edition of all, that of Diran Alexanian, who claimed to be the only real disciple of Casals in Bach. This edition naturally had nothing in common with that of my first teacher. Again the music was so thoroughly analysed (and again the method of analysis was invented by the cellist himself), every note placed in its only possible place in the universe that the edition was actually impossible to read, so complex had the notation become. However, what was fascinating with de Machula, was that although he felt strongly about his Bach, he let me play "my" Bach, complimented me and played me his interpretation in turn, totally different. He never tried to impose his vision on me. These were very important moments in my life, I had never felt this respect for my opinions, which - while very unrefined - where very much my own.

After this I spent years reading the manuscript and wondering what I really was meant to do. I started to play the baroque cello, which gave me new ideas about the sounds I was after, but I still lived in certain anarchy. I thought that provided one has enough knowledge about the period and performance practice one automatically falls on the right kind of phrasings. I did begin to feel that I couldn't play this music on a modern cello, so important was the right relation to sound that the instrument automatically gives you.

Finally, in the late 1980s I visited the cellist and gamba player John Hsu in United States, with whom I only had two days to talk about Bach. Maybe exactly because of the short time available and because we had to look at all the suites as one entity I saw how one really has to know them as a set to get a deeper understanding. He also showed me how to read the manuscript more carefully and to take it more literally. Until then I read them in the modern sense, correcting what I thought to be the mistakes in phrasing and notes. I now came to realise, that even at the danger of being inconsistent, I have more chance to play the right note in trusting Anna Magdalena Bach than any later scholar. Even if she made mistakes in the copying, they are surely not more numerous than our possible reading errors. If a note or slur seemed funny to her, she could simply ask her husband.

It now seems to me that the idea behind the phrasings in this manuscript is quite opposite from any modern edition; Bach seems to be interested in avoiding ever to repeat similar passages with the same phrasing, he goes to great lengths to invent as many different bowings as possible for very simple passages. The other copies of the manuscript from a slightly later period already started "correcting" and standardising the pieces.

Even if I have been in contact with many conflicting views on Bach I don't feel that any of them corrupted me nor would have alone put me on the right track. What is more, I have learned something essential from all of them and can enjoy listening to all those wonderful cellists and envy their conviction.

Many years have gone by since all those lessons and I have found many new truths. I feel I know more what the music is about. But each time I play Bach, I still have to start again. I no longer buy new editions, I end up making a new one myself practically before each concert. It is curious that even if I now only read the manuscript and try to play what I see there, it looks different every time. I see different notes and slurs every time, they are so many uncertainties, one can never rest.

Even if I try to learn as much as possible about the way music was performed in Bach's days, there is obviously no way I will ever play even one phrase the same way he imagined it. When one listens to the only existing recordings of Joseph Joachim playing Brahms from the beginning of the 20th century, one realises that in barely 100 years the performing has changed so much that even to copy what he does on those recordings is impossible, let alone to guess how someone 150 years earlier would have played Bach. Luckily, in music there is always a truth for every moment and provided one knows it is only for that moment, one can be totally convinced about it.

© Anssi Karttunen 29.9.2000