Compare the Five Earliest Copies of the Bach Cello Suites at a Glance in Bärenreiter’s New Edition

By Robert Battey

lrg_01The German publishing house Bärenreiter has, for many years, set the gold standard for forensic musicology, their editions always featuring the most rigorous research and scholarship. This is particularly true in the works of J.S. Bach, as Bärenreiter has assumed joint control of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe in Leipzig, the recognized “final word” (though continually updated) on Bach texts.

Bärenreiter has certainly not stinted on the Cello Suites (BWV 1007–12), with three separate versions now available. Since the early 19th century, there have been over 100 published editions of these works. This unending trickle is due to the fact that no original manuscript of the music exists; the five earliest sources are all copies, which diverge in almost every bar. Without a definitive holograph (as exists with the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin), pretty much any detail can be challenged or altered to fit a performer’s interpretation—so everyone’s got an opinion.


Bärenreiter’s first offering, (August Wenzinger, 1950) was for decades the edition of choice for scholarly cellists—a clean text, minimal fingerings and bowings, and sensible readings of the many questionable passages. Other than doing one’s own research, this was the next best thing. Bärenreiter’s “Critical Performing Edition,” however, released in 2000, was a game-changer. In the large cardboard sleeve, one found everything there was to know about this music: separate, full-size reproductions of each of the early sources, a 41-page volume of collected research on the Suites and Bach performance practice generally, plus a tabula rasa copy (shorn of any slurs but including variant readings of particularly controversial passages), on which the performer could notate the results of his or her explorations of all the material, creating an original interpretation. This compendium pretty much swept the field; no serious cellist could be without it.

“With a single glance at this score, the performer can now immediately compare any measure across all the copies.”

But now, Bärenreiter has come out with a remarkable hardbound “synoptic facsimile” (BA 5942-01), whereby all five of the early sources (plus a sixth in the case of Suite V) have been painstakingly juxtaposed, line by line. With a single glance at this score, the performer can now immediately compare any measure across all the copies, noting consistencies or inconsistencies, making of them what he or she will. This requires 274 pages, but the convenience is incalculable. It comes with a second volume (also hardbound) by editor Andrew Talle, containing critical notes with new textual research, appendices, and a working score for the performer.


Talle’s thesis here (well-supported if not universally shared) is that the accretions in the later copies likely came from Bach himself, and thus that they should be given ascendancy. This is fine as an academic argument, but then performers are not given a choice in the matter; instead of a clean tabula rasa copy, upon which they can set out their conclusions from the fancy synoptic facsimile, the working score presents the music with Talle’s own conclusions as far as slurs and ornaments. It is thus just one more edition, when the whole point here (one assumes) was to empower cellists to efficiently create their own.

In any piece of string music, scholarship only gets you so far. Every performer needs to adapt the text (and, in particular, the bowings) to his or her own vision and technique. Bärenreiter understood this in the 2000 edition, which was why the clean score was so useful. It’s unfortunate that they made a different choice here.


This new offering can be ordered directly from the publisher in Kassel for €398, which was $467.75 back in August—thus only affordable for university libraries, mainly. The new linen-bound volume, which consists of two separate books and is a part of the New Bach Edition– Revised, is available at sheet-music stores in the US. But the irony is that this edition is the most useful for performers (with it open on one stand and your own score on another, you have everything you need), while the 2000 is better for researchers (who would want each of the early copies in their original state, as they are in the 2000 edition, not sliced, diced, and collated, as here).

The other disappointment is that while Talle’s thorough scholarship does update that of the 2000 edition as far as the interplay and provenance of the five sources, the text volume of the earlier edition is still nearly twice as long, including highly useful essays on articulation, embellishments, bowing, and other performance-practice details. Omitting that material for this lavish, definitive, permanent edition is unfortunate; it should have been included. All told, it is a flawed if uniquely valuable release.