Johann Sebastian Bach - Suite 4 pour violoncelle seul BWV 1010


Johann Sebastian Bach
Suite BWV 1010 for Solo Violoncello

Alain Meunier

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

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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.

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 4 BWV 1010
Bourrée l et Bourrée ll


"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°184
"10" de Répertoire n°75
Prix d'interprétation de La Nouvelle Académie du Disque
© 2018 Harmonic Classics