Cello Suite No.6

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cello Suite No.6 in D major


Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

As unique and extraordinary as each of Bach's other five cello suites are, the Suite No. 6 is perhaps the most ambitious, strangest, richest of all. For this suite, Bach chose the key of D major, the triumphant key of his Magnificat and the "Dona nobis pacem" which concludes the Mass in B minor. He also calls for a five-stringed variant on the cello, though the work is playable on a conventional (four-stringed) cello. With these resources, Bach calls for resounding joy, carefully implied harmonies, and a rich, dense counterpoint that tests the cellist's skills to the maximum.

The Prelude, in a steady triple meter, is the only place in the set where Bach employed the dynamic markings (forte and piano), to simulate the effect of a Vivaldi-like echo sonata with phrases calling, responding, and gradually growing and developing into a fast-moving and playful cadenza and an untroubled recapitulation. With each suite Bach continues his progression away from simple dance-like structural roots. Melodic leaps are introduced in the fourth suite, chords in the fifth suite, and a subtle mix of chords, leaps, and implied harmonies, which become as important as the melodies, in the sixth suite. Indeed, this suite comes close in its technical challenges to the polyphonic simulations that Bach created in the partitas and sonatas for solo violin.

Joy takes many forms in this suite, from the echo-sonata textures of the Prelude to the stately grace and implied bass harmonies of the Allemande and Sarabande, and the homophonic march-like Courante. But the most unusual movement here must be the double Gavotte, where the subsections call for wide chords and melody over a ground bass, almost resembling a hurdy-gurdy playing at a peasant celebration. Its like wouldn't be heard again until Zoltán Kodály took up solo cello writing some 200 years later. The Gigue culminates this suite, and this great cycle, with a duet for solo cello, where the two interlocking voices gradually climb the scale, ascending to a high climax and sweeping back down to finish.