Sponsored Story by Luis and Clark
Miranda Wilson, Associate Professor of Cello at the University of Idaho, and Co-Artistic Director of the Idaho Bach Festival, has just performed all six Bach Suites on a five-string carbon fibre cello custom made for her by Luis and Clark. While traditionalists may balk at the thought of performing baroque music on such a modern invention, Wilson’s decision to commission the instrument was grounded in the pursuit of historical accuracy.
In addressing the issue of authenticity, we must consider musical decisions made by the composer as well as constraints imposed by the times. The instruments around at the time Bach was writing his Cello Suites (about 300 years ago) were far from the modern 4-string cellos we have today. There was no standardized conception of a “cello” at the time; instruments varied in size and shape, whether they were held between the legs or played off the shoulder, and whether they had four strings or five.
Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript tells us that the Sixth Suite is to be played “a cinq cordes” (with five strings), and the tuning for each of these strings. However, no particular instrument was specified. It is possible that the Sixth Suite was intended for violoncello piccolo, viola pomposa, or violoncello da spalla; it is also possible that it was written as a work that could have been played on any of these instruments.
Most modern performers play the Sixth Suite on a four-string cello, as the period instruments that have survived are often in disrepair and custom instruments have historically not sounded very good, according to Wilson. The constraints imposed by this include the increased difficulty inherent in having to play higher passages in very high positions, the forced use of thumb position rather than the open E string for higher iterations of repeated motifs, and the forced omission of notes or extreme difficulty in fingering chords where a fifth string is truly required. If the goal is an accurate performance of the music written, simplicity allows for the freedom of musical expression. Nowhere is this more vital than in the music of Bach.