Johann Sebastian Bach Suites pour violoncelle seul BWV 1010, 1011 & 1012


Johann Sebastian Bach
Three Suites for Solo Violoncello (vol. 2)
BWV 1010, 1011 & 1012

Alain Meunier

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°184
"10" de Répertoire n°75
Prix d'interprétation de La Nouvelle Académie du Disque


In no other art did the Bach miracle occur. To strip human nature down to its divine core; to endow with spiritual fervour that is most universally human; to give divine wings to the flight of the ethereal; to render the human divine, and the divine human; this is Bach : the highest, purest musical pinnacle of all time.” Pablo Casals

The violoncello in Bach's time

In Corelli's time the violin was already well established, in virtually its modern form. Its size has not been changed since, and the minor details that have been changed do not constitute major alterations to the instrument as a whole. Can the same be said for the violoncello? What instruments was Johann Sebastian Bach familiar with? The hypothesis according to which his Suites might have been composed for the celebrated viol-player Abel, who played at the chapel of the Prince of Saxe-Weimar, oblige us to examine this aspect of the problem carefully.

At the time the six Suites were presumably composed - between 1720 and 1723 - there existed a number of instruments of various sizes and with various names that could all be considered "violoncellos". The most widespread, even in Italy, was the bass or "procession" violin. This instrument measured 85 centimetres*, or 10 centimetres more than the modern violoncello; was played in a standing position; and tuned differently from modern instruments. The "bass violin" continued in use until the end of the 18th century, when most extant models were re-cut and converted into violoncellos.

There was also a smaller, less popular bass violin, and the relatively rare, 75 centimetres* long "Italian violoncello" which became the violoncello as we know it today. The crucial evidence comes from Bernard Romberg (1767-1841). In his treatise on the violoncello (1840), he writes : "The instrument I play comes from Antonio Stradivarius; it is a small model made in 1711. By 'small model' I do not mean it is abnormally small, but that Stradivarius also built instruments too large for the modern style of playing". From this it would appear that even among the instruments produced by Stradivarius, violoncellos figured less importantly than bass violins.

Excluding the large double-bass viols, which were rare and little-used, there are two other instruments with which Bach may have been familiar : the viola pomposa and the piccolo violoncello, both of which resembled viols as much as they did violins.

Johann Nikolaus Forkel posits that the viola pomposa was invented by Bach and built by the instrument-maker Hoffmann. Very few examples were made. This instrument measured 50 centimetres* and was played on the arm, compared to the five-stringed 60 centimetres* piccolo violoncello, which Bach used in several Cantatas composed during his early years at Leipzig. Possibly there was some confusion in Forkel's mind  between the viola pomposa and the violoncello piccolo. (*: All measurements refer to the case alone, not the total length of the instrument).

It is unclear why Bach, if he had been familiar with the "violoncello" - the most balanced instrument in this family of strings - would have turned to the "piccolo violoncello" for his sixth Suite. The latter instrument is indeed rich in the treble register, but relatively poor in the bass; when he used it for Cantatas, Bach confined it to the solo parts, entrusting the continuo to a second bass violin. Our final point is that, as the sixth Suite was written for a five-stringed instrument - viola pomposa or piccolo violoncello - it must have been composed in 1724 at the earliest, and not in 1720. This point weakens the hypothesis that a homogeneous group of six Suites was composed for the celebrated viol-player Abel, who very possibly possessed only a bass violin...

The Suite

Johann Sebastian Bach preferred the suite to the sonata for both the violoncello and the harpsichord. A legacy of the 17th-century lute-players who perfected the form, the Suite consists of four "compulsory" dances : Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. The Prelude, particularly characteristic of the lute tradition, is treated in various ways by Bach : free prelude, French overture, invention, etc... In the Suites for Solo Violoncello, Bach introduces dances in the French style (Menuets, Bourrées, Gavottes) between the Sarabande and the Gigue, in an apparent effort to demonstrate that the violoncello is equal in expressivity to the viola da gamba, which enjoyed great popularity in France at the time.

Suite IV in E flat Major BWV 1010

As noted above, these Suites can be divided into groups of two, linked by the common feature of a dance in the French style. The fourth Suite - like the third - thus features two Bourrées. The Prelude is inscribed "Praeludium" and, although this is the only time such a notation appears, it should not be understood as indicating any specifically exceptional intentions. The key signature (E flat Major) is the more exceptional characteristic, since this is a perilous key for stringed instruments, one in which few open strings are possible.
This Prelude is comparable in length to that of the third Suite. The initial arpeggio theme is repeated in its entirety, endowing it with grave nobility. The climax comes in the middle, on a bass C sharp, with only two cadences interrupting the regularity of the arpeggio theme.
The Allemande is sprightly, alternating a theme made up of four sixteenth-notes with a group of isolated eighth-notes. The second, more-extensively developed section, elaborates on the four sixteenth-note theme.
As in the other Suites, the Courante is closely linked to the Allemande, in a vivacious mood alternating binary and ternary rhythms. Here again, the second section is more developed, expanding on themes introduced in the first section.
The Sarabande is the most polyphonic piece in the fourth Suite. Two, and sometimes three, voices can be heard or sensed. The piece is built on a two-measure theme, with the accent falling at the beginning of the second measure - a procedure which shifts the structural balance usual in this dance form. The many chords are more in the viola da gamba than in the violoncello style, one means by which Bach demonstrates that the "bass violin" can be just as expressive as the viola da gamba - still highly popular in France and Germany.
The two Bourrées are unusual in that both are in the major key, although common stylistic practice for this form would place the second in the minor. Bach preferred retaining E flat Major for both, since the key of E flat Minor is difficult to execute on stringed instruments, and the second Bourrée thus makes its appearance as a central section with a less marked dance mood.
Like a "mobile perpetuum", the Gigue spins out variations on a single theme consisting of three eighth-notes. The first two measures introduce the theme, which is then swiftly reduced to a figure varied solely by shifting the strong beats. The swirling conclusion comes as something of a surprise after the relatively solemn mood of the suite as a whole.

Suite V in C Minor BWV 1011

The fifth and sixth Suites form a separate group within this magnificent whole, since the fifth Suite is composed for an instrument tuned differently and the sixth Suite is for a five-stringed instrument.
We have advanced several hypotheses for the dates of composition. Some features of these two Suites support the theory that they date from the Leipzig, rather than the Cöthen period, and that the Six Suites grouping was made by Anna Magdalena for the copyist. Note that no manuscript score by Bach for these Suites has survived.
A manuscript does exist for a lute version of the fifth Suite, however, and this was probably written in 1727. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer, and Wolfgang Schmieder, who compiled the BWV catalogue, both believed the lute version came after the violoncello version, although there is no decisive evidence to support this thesis. The opposite is just as conceivable...
The fifth Suite requires different tuning - C, G, D, G instead of C, G, D, A. Although the violin literature shows this practice to have been common at the time, Bach may nevertheless have adopted it in order to preserve some of the chords from the Suite for Lute. If so, then the latter must have been composed prior to the violoncello version.
The Prelude to this Suite is the most extensively developed of all, and is actually a prelude and fugue, as in the Sonatas for solo violin. In this instance the Prelude serves primarily as an introduction. It is a freely-constructed fantasia reminiscent of some of the preludes, for example, in the Well-Tempered Clavichord (BWV 852). This is a two-voice fugue in which, despite the limitations of the instrument, the polyphony is quite developed. Here again, even when one or the other of the voices is only sensed rather than heard, Bach drives his statement to its conclusion while exploiting all the resources inherent in the contrapuntal form.
The Allemande, like the Courante, is punctuated with chords that break up the continuity of the melody and emphasize the rhythmic structure of each dance. The Sarabande, in contrast, is remarkable for its apparent simplicity. This is the only Sarabande in the Suites with no double stopping and no chords, yet the polyphony remains highly perceptible. The two following dances are Gavottes. Once again the traditional alternation between major and minor modes is not respected, and the second Gavotte serves as a relatively developed intermezzo. The powerfully rhythmic concluding Gigue is more reminiscent of warbling canary than of a gigue.

Suite VI in D Major BWV 1012

As noted in the hand of Anna Magdalena on the top of the manuscript score, this Suite is composed for a five-stringed instrument. We have explained the reasons that incline us to identify the instrument in question as a piccolo violoncello - which would date the Suite's composition sometime during the early Leipzig years.
The Prelude's "ambitus" is extensive, possibly because of the instrument chosen. This is also the only Suite with indications for the dynamics (forte, piano). It is built on a figure consisting of three eighth-notes embellishing an arpeggio, with the beginning of each section alternating the same note played on two strings. The three eighth-note motif continues imperturbably while being varied in a host of ways, and is finally interrupted only by a sixteenth-note phrase announcing the conclusion.
The fairly slow Allemande unfolds long, melodic thirty-second note passages in sharp contrast to the Courante that follows, which is quick and vivacious - an apparent attempt to explore all the registers of the violoncello. The highly polyphonic Sarabande is written entirely in chords. Of all the Sarabandes in the six Suites, this is the one that best preserves the original sensual quality of a dance form banned by the Spanish clergy in the 16th century.
The two Gavottes, both in the major, also return fully to the original dance. The second is a Gavotte in rondo form, its mood French, its style reminiscent of Jean-Philippe Rameau.
The Gigue concluding the sixth Suite is fairly rustic, with a proliferation of bourdon effects. From the lively initial theme spring increasingly complex figures accentuated by very marked polyphonic effects.

The sixth Suite - perhaps because it was written for the piccolo violoncello? - is the one that reaches farthest back into the past. Bach appears to be using it to bring his exploration of the violoncello's aesthetic possibilities to an end. Although not entirely forgotten during the 19th century, these six Suites disappeared from the violoncello repertory. Justus-Johann Dotzauer published the first edition under the title "Exercises". Pablo Casals rediscovered them in about 1890 and subsequently included them in his repertoire, introducing them to music lovers and performers alike.

In the early 20th century, Johann Sebastian Bach's six Suites for solo violoncello became a model of their kind, serving as the inspiration for a host of works in the same vein, as witness the Sonatas and Suites by Zoltan Kodály, Max Reger and Paul Hindemith.

Text after Georges Boyer original

Alain Meunier


Alain Meunier was born in 1942 and received his training at the French National Conservatory of Music in Paris, where he won four first Prizes : Violoncello, Instrumental Ensemble, Professional Chamber Music, and Theory of Music.

An accomplished soloist specializing in the classical and romantic repertoire, with an emphasis on chamber music, Alain Meunier is also a fervent supporter of new music. Numerous contemporary composers have written for him, including Georges Aperghis, Alain Bancquart, Franco Donatoni, Pascal Dusapin, Marc Monnet, and Maurice Ohana.

Teacher, during 28 years, first at the "Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse" in Lyon, then in Paris, he has also taught for more than 35 years at "Accademia Musicale" in Siena (Italy). He shares the direction of "Quatuors à Bordeaux" which associate the International String Quartet competition and the Chamber Music Festival. He heads the "Festival d’Entrecasteaux"  (Var, France) and the "Serate Internazionali di Musica da Camera di Napoli" (Italy). He is frequently invited to perform in music festivals world-wide.


Suite lV  BWV 1010
Bourrée l et Bourrée ll

Suite V  BWV 1011
Gavotte l et Gavotte ll

Suite Vl  BWV 1012
Gavotte l et Gavotte ll


"Chocdu Monde de la Musique n°184 :

Dans les suites pour violoncelle seul de Bach, l'architecture "abstraite" des préludes et des allemandes, l'édifice contrapuntique des sarabandes ou les mouvements plus décoratifs des courantes, menuets, bourrées, gavottes et gigues sont construits dans un style très libre mais doivent toujours suggérer une science polyphonique complexe (même si une ou plusieurs voix restent souvent sous-entendues). S'il n'existait déjà une incomparable brochette discographique, où dominent Fournier (DG), Starker I (EMI), Casals (EMI), Tortelier I et II (idem), Starker II (Mercury), Gendron (Philips) et, pour les baroqueux, Bylsma (Sony), on pourrait dire qu'Alain Meunier redécouvre, en une vision aussi personnelle que sobre, les Quatrième, Cinquième et Sixième Suites. Comme dans son précédent enregistrement des trois premières suites, Meunier assume une partie de l'héritage "romantisé" de Casals et Tortelier, mais ses coups d'archet, accents et respirations révèlent un phrasé épuré où le trop-plein d'émotion est constamment dominé, sans que jamais l'expression soit sacrifiée au style (on pense aux versions si divergentes et, paradoxalement, si proches spirituellement de Pierre Fournier et de Janos Starker). Meunier retrouve avec une grande sobriété la richesse d'articulation et la vibrante gravité qu'appellent les préludes, allemandes et sarabandes des Quatrième et Cinquième Suites. Sa déclamation dans la périlleuse Sixième Suite équilibre admirablement la continuité mélodique et le rebondissement rythmique.
Par-delà d'évidentes qualités factuelles (intonation, beauté du son, générosité très "libre" de certaines inflexions), Meunier nuance la rudesse de certains mouvements 
(Quatrième Suite) par une cambrure plus féline; mais il sait avant tout exalter les visées les plus ambitieuses du recueil tels le prélude de la Cinquième Suite ou l'extraordinaire sarabande de la même suite, avec ses immenses résonances et sa polyphonie sous-jacente. L'expressivité n'est point ici exacerbée, elle est intégrée dans une architecture donnant à chaque phrase un sens "vérifiable" dans la suivante. - Patrick Szersnovicz
Technique : 9,5/10. Superbe prise de son, pure et naturelle.

"10de Répertoire n° 75 :

On pourra toujours dire - et on dira sans doute - que Navarra déployait plus de fougue, que Fournier faisait preuve de plus de mysticisme, Tortelier plus... On pourra en quelque sorte se livrer au jeu subtil mais un peu vain des comparaisons, le catalogue en expansion constante le permet. Mais Alain Meunier ne cherche justement pas à prouver quoi que ce soit vis-à-vis des ancêtres. Jamais dans ces Suites (Fournier peut -être) l'interprète n'aura semblé aussi humble devant l'œuvre. Est-ce sa longue pratique de la musique de chambre? Le syndrome soliste ne lui sied guère. Humilité n'est pas absence : simplement Meunier ne se raconte pas, ne démontre rien. Il s'immerge et devient lui-même le pont entre l'humanité charnelle de l' œuvre et ses éclats spirituels.

L'unité de ces trois dernières Suites s'impose d'emblée : l'écueil de la Sixième, si atypique par l'usage des aigus de l'instrument, disparait dans une unité de timbre étonnante de tout le registre. Mais surtout les tempos, toujours allants, laissent la polyphonie discursive prendre toute son amplitude, sans jamais perdre la motricité et la progression dynamique : un art du discours et du phrasé marqué par une liberté totale. Les danses sont de vraies danses ("Bourrée" terrienne de la Suite n°4), l'appogiature de "l'Allemande" de la même Suite, bien affirmée, lance une danse qui devient ensuite presque mutine, les "Courantes" sont fluides mais solidement architecturées. Dans la Suite n°5, la "Sarabande" joue subtilement sur les résonances pour l'illusion polyphonique, le "Prélude" ouvre des abîmes vertigineux. Mais le sommet est atteint avec le "Prélude" de la Suite n°6, allant et libre, généreux, sans effet appuyé.
Plus qu'une analyse de chaque pièce, c'est le sentiment de sérénité et de plénitude, la projection et la générosité du son, la grande exactitude d'intonation que l'on retiendra. Des 
Suites plus ancrées dans l'humanisme que dans le mysticisme, à l'image de ces graves féconds, préférant à l'austérité spirituelle une liberté rayonnante et charnelle, diablement - pardon, divinement - séductrice. - Sophie Roughol
Technique : 9/10. Comme pour le premier volume, excellente prise de son, pas trop rapprochée, d'une grande pureté.

Prix d'interprétation de La Nouvelle Académie du Disque

Grand soliloque pour âme en peine, ces suites ont résonné de toutes les façons et pour tous les goûts. L'intelligence avec laquelle Alain Meunier a su architecturer son interprétation, la réserve si émouvante de son chant profond, et soudain sa fantaisie, son allégresse, parfois teintée d'une certaine tristesse, tout séduit et convainc. Sans gratuité, ni jobarderie, sans pathos ni larmoiement, Alain Meunier tire de son instrument une palette de sentiments d'une subtile grandeur et d'une rare élégance. Mais il y a aussi une part de mystère dans ce jeu qui opte délibérément pour une certaine distanciation et atteint ainsi une sérénité sans prix. - La sélection d'Antoine Livio. Les "indispensables",

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