Johann Sebastian Bach was better known as a virtuoso
organist than as a composer in his day. His sacred
music, organ and choral works, and other instrumental
music had an enthusiasm and seeming freedom that
concealed immense rigor. Bach's use of counterpoint was
brilliant and innovative, and the immense complexities
of his compositional style -- which often included
religious and numerological symbols that seem to fit
perfectly together in a profound puzzle of special
codes -- still amaze musicians today. Many consider him
the greatest composer of all time.
Bach's fifth cello suite, in C minor, continues the
experiments with texture, style, and counterpoint
undertaken in the first four works in the set of six.
It calls for the top string of the cello to be played
scordatura, in this case tuned down from A to G. This
affects the sonority of the open string and the
overtones produced when played with other strings,
creating a distinctive effect. Some cellists disregard
the unusual tuning specification, but doing so adds to
the work's already formidable technical challenges.
The fifth suite's Prelude replaces the toccata-like
movements of the rest of the set with an overture in
the French style, beginning with a slow, moody Adagio
introduction with dense chords and irregular rhythms.
These lead into an Allegro section where a fugue-like
counterpoint is implied but not explicitly played.
The Allemande and Courante have a mournfulness
reminiscent of their counterparts in the second suite,
but feature richer, denser chording. But as much as
Bach explores the contrapuntal possibilities of the
cello here, his truly sublime achievement is the
Sarabande. It offers some 100 notes of one-voice,
single-line playing, with no chords and an unchanging
rhythmic pattern. And yet its mix of great leaps and
leading tones convey a lifetime of sorrow and wisdom.
The harmonic structure is haunting, providing one point
of tension after another with little resolution until
the very end. The Gavotte galanterie is chordal and
anguished again despite its name, but the final Gigue
closes on a much more ambiguous, hushed note than does
its D minor relative
Although originally written for Solo Cello. I created
this Arrangement of the Suite No. 5 in C Minor (BWV
1011) Transposed to A Minor for Lever Harp.