Bach Cello Suites Questioned

Jonathan Bellman

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald explains how the conductor of the Darwin Symphony, one Martin Jarvis, has researched J. S. Bach’s ‘cello suites and come to the conclusion that they are not by Bach but, rather, by his second wife Anna Magdalena. He brings a variety of tools including—it is reported—music analysis to bear on the discussion, though it is not explained quite how. “During the past seven years, Dr Jarvis has used forensic analysis to examine various Bach scores, bar by bar, focusing on the musical structure and language, handwriting and the musical calligraphy.” Not surprisingly, this news item spurred some discussion on the American Musicological Society listserv, and one participant, a professional cellist, pointed out that the fifth cello suite was originally written for lute, which would need to be factored in to the theory. Jarvis’s suspicions were first raised many years ago, when as a student he was playing the suites on his viola—that is, an octave up—and noted how un-Bachian they were. One wonders if the tranposition might have had something to do with that? In all fairness, any opinion of mine is not going to be all that informed, since I am not a cellist. I will say that in addition to all the forensic-TV show stuff, I want to hear from Bach scholars and especially cellists—another point made by my friend on AMS-L. Anything can happen with a manuscript, and with copying and transmission, but I am interested in the informed opinion of cellists who know the suites in their hands, hearts, and DNA, and Bach’s other music as well. Those in the Bach scholarly community know his personal musical language as no one else does, also need to weigh in on such matters as “musical structure and language.” Cellists? Bach scholars? I have heard that the cello suites are not the equal of the suites and partitas for solo violin, for what that’s worth, but would really appreciate some well-informed thoughts on the subject.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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9 Responses to Bach Cello Suites Questioned

  1. Miss Mussel says:

    I’m not a string player but have played the cello suites on horn and carillon, so I know them fairly well.
    They are certainly not as complicated as the violin sonatas and partitas and have far less double stopping.
    I attributed that to the fact that the violin is smaller and can cover 9 semitones first position rather than 7 for cello (I think) and it is just generally easier to get around on a smaller instrument.
    Also, I find the key of the fourth suite – Eb – to be strangely unidiomatic. Great for horn but cello?

  2. Dan Johnson says:

    This is absurd on the face of it. The composer of the Cello Suites is obviously the composer of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Miss Mussel guesses right: if the Suites don’t sound like Sonatas & Partitas, it’s because both of those sets were written very idiomatically for two very different instruments.
    Dr. Jarvis’s theory is exciting to consider, since it (1) invents the greatest woman-composer in history, and (2) puts her in bed with the greatest composer, period—imagine the brainpower at that breakfast table!—but I’m afraid it’s B.S.

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    Reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Toccata in Fugue, BWV 565. Has that one been resolved lately? Or are we going to find that, like Shakespeare, Bach didn’t write anything. In fact it was the composer Franz Schinkenspeck, whom J.S. appropriated.

  4. Michael M. says:

    An argument like this, based on internal (stylistic) evidence can never amount to a strong case. How many of us had professors back in the day who refused to accept that Cantata #4 was not a late work (“Just LISTEN to it…anyone with an ear will hear the truth!”)?
    Of all composers, Bach’s style seems to have been so flexible, so adaptable, that any argument of exclusion will have to be based on stronger evidence (external source evidence, paper types, rastra) than “it sounds so un-Bachlike” if it is going to coax anyone into a major reassessment of his output.

  5. I would really like to know what techniques this guy applied to the analysis of the musical content. I don’t have a position either way on whether he’s right or wrong, and I barely even care except in the sense that I prefer to see the right people get credit for their work. Is anybody out there doing forensic musical analysis in the way that computer aided analysis of text composition has been used to identify things like the authors of the Federalist Papers?

  6. Joe Butler says:

    How can anybody claim that the ‘cello suites are not equal to the violin partitas? Surely anybody else who has played the ‘cello suites will agree that they are some of the greatest and most challenging (intellectually if not technically) pieces ever written for the ‘cello.
    Also, listen to the beginning of the prelude from the first ‘cello suite and then the beginning of the first prelude in C major from the well-tempered clavier then decide how ‘bach-like’ the suites are.

  7. David Keeffe says:

    I would like to stir the pot of cognitive dissonance (the inherent reluctance of people to rock the boat) and to ask where is the evidence that JS Bach actually *did* write the cello suites? No original manuscript exists: so we assert that JS composed them because others have said so. And if they were written by Anna, does that diminish them as music? Of course not. If they were acknowledged as by Anna in the 17th century would they have survived? Probably not. Social pressures control what we perceive as good and bad as much as any intrinsic merit!

  8. John R. Knickerbocker says:

    As a cellist I must say I am appalled that anyone could think that anyone but Bach could have possibly written the suites. The composition is so specific on the cello in creating the illusion of different voices that no one but a musician of Bach’s caliber could have written them. Also, the theory is at least based on Bach’s composition (with resolutions, etc. taken into account). It seems to me that this Jarvis may have written the article for publicity.

  9. Daniel McIntosh says:

    As a cellist who has played all the Siutes for cello for 45 years,I must say the suites were not written by the same composer who wrote the violin Sonatas and Partitas. Until someone finds a copy in the hand of JS Bach all that can be said is that one (insert the name of whomever)thinks based on this or that analysis that they are JS Bach. To me they are mere imitations of JS Bach. As if a student of his wrote them.

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