Dance music came as naturally to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) as chorale tunes and counterpoint. For most of his contemporaries, dance was a manifestation of social order in time and movement. Bach was certainly sensitive to those implications, but for him dance also touched more mystic levels of expression. The final choruses of his St. John and St. Matthew Passions, for example, can be considered as vast, transcendent sarabandes.
The issue of dance became crucial for Bach in 1717, when he moved from Weimar to a secular position in Cöthen. Much of his surviving non-keyboard instrumental music comes from the six years he spent serving a music-loving prince in this small town, and much more from the period is lost. Bach had a group of talented musicians - many hired away from Berlin - at his disposal, and he reveled in the fresh challenge, testing the capabilities of the musicians and the instruments as well as the conceptual and substantial scope of the music.
The three sonatas and three partitas he composed for solo violin were finished in 1720, and the six suites for solo cello probably sometime earlier. All six cello suites follow the same format - a prelude, followed by an allemande, a courante, a sarabande, a pair of modish galant dances (minuets in the first and second suites, bourrées in suites three and four, gavottes for suites five and six), and a gigue. This sequence of dance movements was fairly conventional in Baroque instrumental music, following the models of French harpsichordists and lutenists. (Confusingly, Bach's English Suites for keyboard have a similar structure.)
The Third Cello Suite, in C major, is probably the most sonically sensuous of the set. The standard cello tuning - C, G, D, A - makes drones and double stops (playing on two strings simultaneously) relatively easy in the key of C, and allows extra resonance from open strings.
Bach responded to this acoustic opportunity with warm, spacious, extroverted music. His tunes are based on scales and broken chords, clearly indicating the harmony an accompaniment would have supplied in other media. The grand prelude begins with a scale and broken chord, running down two octaves, then back up the scale. Bach plays with the shifting patterns that emerge from his steady stream of 16th notes, arriving at an extended passage of harmonies gliding over a repeated open G. It closes with a rich cadenza full of four-note chords, combining maximum reverberation and rhetorical impact.
The sound of open strings and double stops, and the rhythmic play of cross-accented patterns continue in the ensuing dances. The allemande is stately and wide-ranging, and the courante is an exercise in athletic elegance. As with all of the Cello Suites, the sarabande is the heart of the matter, here a luxurious palace of sound, the second half expressively expanded to twice the length of the first half of the dance. The rustic bourrées stamp heartily, and the leaping gigue ends the suite with comic acrobatics.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.