By Miranda Wilson
A marathon performance of all six of Bach’s Cello Suites is a milestone in a cellist’s career. Most of us work our way through the Suites in order, starting in childhood with the First Suite in G major. An advanced player might master the difficulties of intonation in the Fourth Suite and scordatura in the Fifth. But it takes a special kind of virtuosity to learn the Sixth Suite on a standard cello. That’s because it wasn’t written for a cello with four strings, but a mysterious five-string instrument whose exact description Bach never made clear.
Bach’s autograph manuscript of the Cello Suites, which might have elucidated the matter, is frustratingly and irretrievably lost. So what are we to make of the instruction “a cinq cordes” at the top of the fair copy in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena?
In the 1720s, the cello was a relatively new instrument, at least compared with the venerable viol family, and experimental instruments of all shapes, sizes, and string tunings were in use all over Europe. Bach himself would have been familiar with more than one type of cello. In several of his cantatas composed between 1724 and 1726, for example, the instrumentation includes “violoncello piccolo.” This provokes the question: Was this small cello the same type of instrument for which he wrote Suite No. 6?
Or—and here lies another problem—might cellists be conflating the violoncello piccolo with another instrument that’s often associated with Bach? Various sources close to Bach suggest that the composer, together with a luthier friend, had a hand in developing a five-stringed instrument called a viola pomposa. What was the nature of this instrument? Was it played between the knees, like the modern concept of a cello? Or was it a kind of tenor viola played on the shoulder? What were its range and its stringing? Perplexingly, scholars have never reached universal agreement that the viola pomposa even existed.
“Playing the Sixth Suite on a four-string cello is daunting for most players, and can end up demonstrating more about the virtuosity of the performer than about the glory of Bach’s composition.”
The challenges of the Sixth Suite remain. If performers are to play it, they need a workable solution to Bach’s high tessiture and multi-note chords. For decades, the only option was to learn it on the four-string cello, where it’s necessary to make extensive use of high positions and occasionally leave out notes from chords, or at least re-voice them to make them playable. To put it mildly, playing the Sixth Suite on a four-string cello is daunting for most players, and can end up demonstrating more about the virtuosity of the performer than about the glory of Bach’s composition.
During the 20th century, early pioneers of historically informed performance practice attempted to address the problem by adapting four-string instruments. August Wenzinger (1905–96), the editor of Bärenreiter’s 1950 edition of the Cello Suites, had his three-quarter Louis Moitessier cello of 1820 fitted with five strings, and the British cellist Amaryllis Fleming (1925–99) did the same with a small Amati cello from around 1600. After Anner Bylsma’s influential recordings from 1979 and 1992, in which he played the Sixth Suite on a violoncello piccolo from ca. 1700, many top players were inspired to record the Sixth Suite on historical and modern violoncelli piccoli. These include Ophélie Gaillard (2011), Josephine van Lier (2010), Tanya Tomkins (2011), Pieter Wispelwey (1990, 1998, and 2012), and Matt Haimovitz (2015).
Not everyone was convinced by the violoncello piccolo solution. In an interview with Strings about his 2013 recording of the Cello Suites, Jan Vogler recounted that he had tried to play the Sixth Suite on a violoncello piccolo, but found that it sounded “like a trumpet” and “really boring.” In the end, he opted for a four-string cello. Steven Isserlis, in the booklet notes for his 2007 recording, recalled trying out a five-string cello, but found its sound “anti-climactic.” He too chose to record on a four-string cello.
There was, however, another solution to the Sixth Suite problem in the form of the violoncello da spalla (“shoulder cello”). This re-created instrument by the violinist and luthier Dmitry Badiarov is a small cello played on the shoulder viola-style with the aid of a shoulder strap, whose fingering and bowing techniques are comparable to those for violin and viola. In an article in the Galpin Society Journal in 2007, Badiarov set forth convincing iconographical and historical evidence for the violoncello da spalla, and at the request of the celebrated Baroque violinist Sigiswald Kuijken, Badiarov spent six months making one. “I decided to be thoroughly prepared,” he told me, “because I knew Kuijken would take it onstage even if it’s a disaster.”
Luckily, the instrument was a success, demonstrating a compelling resonance, power, and consistency of tone that you can hear on Kuijken’s recording of all six Cello Suites on violoncello da spalla (2009) and on Badiarov’s own recording of the works (2013). Since then, Badiarov has continued to refine his design, which he magnanimously shares with other makers. The violoncello da spalla has many big-name proponents, including violinists Sergey Malov and Ryo Terakado.
Excitingly, the violoncello da spalla opens up the cello repertoire for violinists and violists. I asked Badiarov if the fact that its technique has far more in common with violin than with cello might prohibit cellists from mastering it. “Almost all the players are violinists,” he replied, “but a cellist doesn’t have to play the instrument on the shoulder. You can play it da gamba, but you’d probably find it more comfortable to play on slightly bigger ones.”
The size issue seems to be a sticking point with a number of cellists, some of whom prefer the convenience of a five-string instrument comparable in size to a standard cello. And there is evidence of historical instruments in larger sizes, such as the Bohemian five-string cello from the late-18th century used by Viola de Hoog in her recording of the Cello Suites. Others have complained that small cellos, though ideal for the high E-string, lack power in the lower strings. Practical research conducted by cellist Clemens Doll, together with Minori Yamazaki and luthier Yoshio Ueda (5stringcello.com), demonstrated the difficulties of getting an optimal tone quality from both a larger and a smaller five-string cello prototype.
This was on my mind as I started my own journey into the world of five-string cellos in early 2017. Living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I had neither geographical advantage nor funds to travel the world in search of the perfect five-string solution. So I turned to sources closer to home: cellist colleagues who played in folk, pop, and rock bands. If there’s anyone who knows about instrument modifications, it’s the cellists working in these compositional traditions, who often play on five- and six-string instruments. A singer-songwriter friend had purchased a five-string carbon-fiber cello from the Massachusetts-based company Luis and Clark, and when I asked her about it, she raved “I’m in love!”
I was familiar with Luis and Clark instruments because I already owned one of their standard four-string cellos, so to commission a five-string custom order seemed both logical and cost-effective. The University of Idaho generously provided research funding for the instrument, and after some weeks of excited anticipation, I received an enormous shipping carton with my new treasure inside it.
Having assumed that playing a five-string cello would be technically almost the same as playing a four-string cello, I was surprised when it took several months of practice to get comfortable with the new instrument. The main surprise was that the strings were closer together than I’d imagined, although this makes sense when you consider that wider spacing would require an impracticably wide fingerboard and bridge. Having the D-string in the middle was another unexpected difficulty, since I kept aiming my bow at what I thought was the D and slamming into the A instead. Finally being able to play Bach’s chords as written was great fun, but bumping the wrong strings was maddening. The E-string was much brighter than the somewhat muted A-string, though I overcame this by experimenting with dolce-grade E-strings and forte-grade A-strings.
The only lasting problem was that the D- and G-strings had a rather “muddy” tone quality above the third position—a problem also reported by Doll and Yamazaki, and which I assume to be a common phenomenon in larger five-string instruments. This was easily solved by seeking lower-position fingerings on those strings. In January 2018, after six months of practice on the five-string cello, I performed the Sixth Suite on it at the end of a 150-minute recital of all six of the Cello Suites. The recital went well, and I concluded that the Luis and Clark instrument, while not a historically based solution to the “problem,” was at least a practical and enjoyable one.
It seems clear that the Sixth Suite isn’t exactly easier to play on a five-string cello, though it certainly sounds more resonant than on a four-string instrument. Having an E-string also invites the possibility of greater resonance in other high-tessitura compositions such as Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata, Boccherini’s sonatas and concertos, Haydn’s D major concerto, and many viola da gamba compositions. (I had anticipated performing the Franck sonata on five strings, too, but the curiously viol-like timbre of the E-string wasn’t suited to its Romantic ethos.)
The more I played my new instrument, however, the more I started suspecting that Bach really had had a smaller cello in mind for the Suites. For example, musicological research has concluded that thumb position didn’t exist in Bach’s time—and yet I can’t see a convincing way of performing the Prelude of the Sixth Suite without it on my five-string cello. On Badiarov’s violoncello da spalla and some of the smaller violoncelli piccoli, violinistic fingering means that thumb position never becomes necessary. But a gnawing doubt about small cellos remains, because of the scarcity of surviving examples of such instruments from Bach’s lifetime. If these instruments were so important, why don’t more survive? Were they lost, broken, destroyed? Did they ever exist at all?
Perhaps the question should be whether this even matters. As much as we might wish for a time-machine to the 1720s so that we could ask Bach exactly what he wanted, another possibility remains. Bach was not normally one to write music “for the shelf,” but he famously wrote the Art of Fugue for unspecified instruments as an intellectual demonstration of his contrapuntal skill. I can’t help wondering if the Sixth Suite is another “utopian” composition, written for the day when instruments and playing technique had caught up with the perfection of Bach’s art. Can it be that the great Capellmeister of Cöthen was anticipating a later age, an age that might now have arrived?
Miranda Wilson is associate professor of cello at the University of Idaho and the author of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Strings magazine.