By Sarah Freiberg | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, BWV 1007–1012, Manuscripts Edition | Edited by David Starkweather | $50

Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites are some of the most iconic and well-known works of classical music, spawning well over 100 editions since the first publication in 1824. Part of the reason for the abundance of editions is that Bach’s autograph manuscript is lost, and we are left without his original markings.


Composed circa 1720, the suites are preserved in four 18th-century manuscripts, all imperfect in their notation, and which often disagree with each other, particularly when it comes to slurs. Two date from close to the composition date: Source A, in the hand of J.S. Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, penned between 1727–31, and Source B, by organist Johann Peter Kellner, from 1726–27. The other two manuscripts hail from the latter half of the 18th century. Source C, the Westphal manuscript, had two copyists. The first copyist has recently been identified as Johann Nikolaus Schober, who copied many Bach works. The second copyist, who took up his pen in the middle of the third suite, remains anonymous. Source D, the Traeg manuscript, hews closely to Source C. Source E is the first edition, published by Janet et Cotelle in Paris, a full century after the Suites were written. There has been much discussion as to which manuscript to follow, with arguments for Anna Magdalena being challenged more recently by ones for Kellner and Source C.

In 2000, Bärenreiter published an edition containing all five sources, a volume of commentary, and a score without bowings or fingerings, showing all source discrepancies side by side. More recently, Andrew Talle’s 2016 edition, also for Bärenreiter, aligns all five sources measure by measure for easy comparison. This comes in at close to 300 pages, and contains Talle’s own score. Meant for scholarly institutions, this version costs over $400.

Luckily for the rest of us, cellist David Starkweather has just published a vertically aligned manuscript edition of the suites—as a PDF. Starkweather, professor at the University of Georgia Hugh Hodgson School of Music, has created a digital edition for use with iPads and computers with all five sources aligned measure by measure. It contains hyperlinks for easy navigation, as well as cleaned-up copies of the manuscripts. (Bleed-through had made the sources hard to read.) This vastly improves the readability of the manuscripts. As with the Talle edition, Starkweather also includes source H—Bach’s own transcription of the fifth suite for lute. Additionally, Starkweather adds comparison symbols to easily identify differences between the sources, and provides helpful commentary as well as his own edition, complete with fingerings and bowings. This 614-page volume is a huge achievement, and a wonderful resource—easy to use, and to keep on a stand whenever you might want to check a note or slur. And, at $50, it’s a bargain! Go online and get yourself a copy.