THE SIX SUITES FOR VIOLONCELLO
For which instrument did Bach actually write his Cello suites –violoncello, violoncello piccolo, or "viola pomposa"?
The myth of Bach's invention of the viola pom- posa, recurring from the late eighteenth century until the present day is likely – despite substantially docu- mented refutations – to impress the minds of music- lovers for a long time to come. Unfortunately, no source from Bach's immediate circle or period proving that he was the inventor of this instrument is known to survive, nor is there any music from Bach's hand con- taining such a designation. There are mid-eighteenth century compositions for "viola pomposa o violino" by Georg Philip Telemann, Johann Georg Pisendel, Christian Joseph Lidarti and Johann Gottlieb Graun. These compositions are for an instrument with five strings, tuned as the viola with an additional e''-string. However, according to Johann Nikolaus Forkel (Musikalischer Almanach, 1782) and Johann Adam Hiller (Lebensbeschreibungen, 1784), Bach's viola pomposa was tuned in the cello range: C-G-d-a-e'. In his scores Bach invariably chose the formal name "violoncello piccolo"– "viola pomposa" is probably a collo- quial name for the instrument. If everything seems so clear, where do the confusion of terms and our uncer- tainty with the terminology and the use of instruments come from?In the end, it seems we are trying to draw a distinction where there was never any clear line. When we take a closer look at contemporary encyclopaedias, we notice that in the Baroque period the term "violon- cello" did not necessarily refer to the type of instru- ment as we know and play it today, but to one which could take several forms and names, and could be played in several ways. Gottfried Walther says in his Praecepta der musicalischen Composition (1708): "The Violoncello is an Italian bass instrument resembling a Viol; it is played like a violin, i.e. it is partly supported by the left hand and the strings are stopped by the fin- gers of the left hand, partly however, owing to its weight, it is attached to the button of the frockcoat". Johann Mattheson describes it in Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1713) as follows: "The excellent Violoncello, the Bassa Viola, and the Viola di Spala are small bass violins in comparison with the larger ones, with five or six strings, upon which one can play all manner of rapid things, variations, and ornaments with less work than on the larger machines. Additionally, the Viola di Spala, or Shoulder-Viola produces a great effect when accompanying because it cuts through strongly and can express the notes clearly. A bass [line] cannot be brought out more distinctly and clearly than on this instrument. It is attached by a band to the chest and thrown at the same time on the right shoulder, and thus has nothing that in the least holds back or pre- vents its resonance." The Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612) defined the violone as "a large low-pitched viola, which is also called basso di viola, and violoncello when of smaller size". Pictures, written documents, and about 40 surviving instruments show that early violoncellos were made in different sizes, ranging from the size of a large viola to the modern full-sized violoncello. Unlike the present day, when small instruments are made only for the use of chil- dren, these smaller instruments were played by profes- sionals.
the parts! As we have seen above, the late 18th century sources stated that Bach's viola pomposa had been tuned in the normal cello range. However, many later researchers rejected this possibility and assumed that the instrument had to be tuned in another way – higher than was given in the primary sources. Though some scholars accepted the tuning found in historical sources, why did many others reject it, considering the sources to be erroneous?
The reason is the strings: the vibrating string lengths of the surviving instruments classified as violas pomposa or violoncellos piccolo are only half those of modern cellos. In order to sound at the same pitch they must have approximately the same weight, and this poses a physical problem. Moreover, no original strings have survived. This may explain the researchers' mistrust of the sources. Consequently, for the reconstruction of the instrument such strings had to be conceived from scratch. So it was clear that the strings would be a major obstacle when making the first violoncello piccolo for Sigiswald Kuijken in 2002-3.
Due to the variable sizes and playing techniques, bass instruments were held in at least three distinct ways:
1. Suspended vertically with the aid of a belt, scarf or a rope;
3. Suspended horizontally against the shoulder or across the chest, usually with an aid of belts, buttons or other devices, though these devices are not always mentioned.
While cellists or gamba players were generally unable to play a bass instrument da spalla, violinists or viola players could do it immediately or with only lim- ited practice. On the other hand, violinists and viola players are generally incapable of playing the same instrument da gamba without a great deal of practice.
There are two ways to approach the repertoire that is appropriate for the violoncello da spalla:
1. Focus exclusively on works which specify 'violoncello piccolo'. Using this method the repertoire is restricted to the few masterpieces by Bach – the nine cantatas BWV 6, 41, 49, 68, 85, 115, 175, 180 and 183, and the six suites for unaccompanied violoncello BWV 1007-1012;
Analysing the notation and performance mate- rials of several cantatas, we also see that the violoncello piccolo parts in cantatas BWV 41, 49 and 85 are notated in the treble G (violin) clef, and were probably played by the first violinist rather than by a violoncel- list. Even more convincing is the example of cantata BWV 6, where the violoncello piccolo part was first written in the first violin part, and only later given to the viola. Of course, we should not exclude a da gamba performance as one of the possibilities.
Due to the loss of the autograph, Anna Magdalena Bach's copy is one of the most important
sources for the cello suites. Many modern violoncel- lists use a violoncello piccolo for the last suite, although Anna Magdalena did not use the term "pic- colo", but wrote "à cinq cordes". Johann Sebastian Bach never used this French term in any of his works, so it is possible that Anna Magdalena is entirely responsible for it, just as the use of a smaller violoncello in the sixth suite is the choice of modern players. Besides the pos- sibility of input from Anna Magdalena, it is feasible that all six suites were meant for the violoncello pic- colo. Lambert Smit, who played an important part in reconstructing the violoncello piccolo da spalla, combined a traditional analysis of original sources with practical study of Bach's music, concluding that the number of unavoidable shifts is no more than average for baroque music, whereas the execution on a full-size instrument requires ceaseless shifting. Historical evidence suggests that Johann Sebastian, being proficient on both the violin and viola (nothing is known about him as a violoncellist da gamba), would then have been the first to play the Suites for an unaccompanied vio- loncello on his own violoncello piccolo, played on the arm: the Suites I to V on a four-stringed and Suite VI on a five-stringed instrument.
New and enriching aspects of music by Johann Sebastian Bach are revealed by the use of this instrument which was known in Bach's circle, and for which he obviously wrote. Any violinist or violist can rapidly become accustomed to the fingering almost identical to that of the violin. The right-hand technique is more challenging: it requires the avoidance of the near-ver- tical movement for up- and down-bows in which the weight of neither the arm nor the bow are in balance with the rest of the player's movements. The particularly large amount of silver in violoncello piccolo da spalla strings gives them their characteristic sound, similar to male voices or viols, especially apparent when playing messa di voce or full-bodied chords. Their tension is about half of that of common cello strings, their core is thin, and they are extremely reactive to changes in bowing. The response of the instrument's small body is fast and accurate. The dynamic range is greater than that of a large violoncello, especially at the piano end although, while the instrument is capable of powerful forte, it is not absolutely as loud as a large violoncello.