Bach’s Cello Suites Offer Endless Opportunities for Growth and Experimentation

By Juliana Soltis | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

Player: Cellist Juliana Soltis connects audiences with the forgotten stories of classical music through historically informed performance. Her new album, Going Off Script, explores the long-lost tradition of spontaneous improvisation in the Bach cello suites. 

Title of Work: Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 1010

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

Date Composed: An exact date of composition for the cello suites remains unknown, but they were definitely part of Bach’s compositional output while employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen from 1717–23.


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Name of Edition: Six Suites a Violoncello Solo senza Basso, BWV 1007–1012, Scholarly-Critical Performing Edition (Bärenreiter Urtext, BA 5217, 2018)

I’m touring Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello throughout the United States during the 2019–20 season in support of my new album, Going Off Script: The Ornamented Suites for Cello. On any given day, at least one of the suites is on my music desk—today it’s No. 4. I first studied Suite No. 4 during my freshman year at the New England Conservatory, and most recently revisited it in December 2017 as I prepared to record the album.

For me, No. 4 is easily the most challenging and rewarding of the six suites, as it continually compels me to confront my preconceived ideas of “good sound.” E-flat major is not a particularly resonant key on the cello, and it’s tempting to try and force a resonance from the instrument that isn’t characteristic of that sound world. 

I’ve always loved the Prelude—harmonically, I think it’s one of Bach’s wildest. But I’m absolutely passionate about all of the suites. They connect with listeners in a way that never ceases to amaze me. I always feel privileged to be part of that experience.

My advice to players approaching these works: don’t be afraid to experiment with historical ornamentation on the repeats! Bach’s works come from a musical culture in which this kind of improvisation was expected—but in the 21st-century we’re often told not to “mess” with Bach. Improvising in this way is an incredibly personal way of engaging with the music, however, one in which the material is never the same twice, and I would love to hear more cellists give it a try.

It helps to remember that Bach was an organist, and I often find it helpful to think of the cello as an organ.

In approaching the works, it helps to remember that Bach was an organist, and I often find it helpful to think of the cello as an organ—especially in the Prelude! Imagining a foot-pedal drone on that repeated low E-flat really helps to free up the upper arpeggiated figure and keep the music rolling.

The study of Bach can be intensely humbling, and a perpetual reminder to cultivate an open mind! As a string player, I find it keeps me curious and receptive to new ideas and interpretations. I think of the Bach suites as companions for life: works that grow and change with us throughout our careers as cellists. Every player—whether student, professional, or hobbyist—can find joy and benefit in engaging with Bach.

There are lots of editions of these pieces available, and performer-edited manuscripts can be fascinating, but if you really want to devise your own interpretation, you need to start with a clean slate. The Bärenreiter urtext I use is wonderful for cellists looking to dip their toes into historical performance for the first time and for those who simply want to forge their own path. That blank performer’s edition can seem intimidating at first, but there’s something incredibly empowering about considering all the sources and making choices to create a version of the suites that is uniquely your own.

Longing for more Bach? Take a look at the following stories at StringsMagazine.com.