Bach Series

Anthea Cottee Baroque Cello

Anthea Cottee performs the Courante & Sarabande from JS Bach's Suite No. 1 in G major for solo cello, BWV 1007

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Courante & Sarabande

While its exact date of composition remains unknown, many scholars agree JS Bach’s collection of Six Suites for Solo Cello was written while he was working as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen between 1717 and 1723. At Cöthen musical life was focused on secular music: on playing music for fun and joy, for performances at court, and for social entertainment. Importantly, the prince (Bach’s junior by ten years) was an avid music lover and played several instruments fluently enough to perform alongside the professional musicians of his own orchestra.

The orchestra consisted of eighteen very highly skilled musicians, which allowed Bach to compose instrumental works of great variety and richness. The archives at Cöthen give us the names, origin and instruments of the musicians who inspired Bach to write virtuosic works for violin, violoncello, viola da gamba and flute. Carl Bernhard Lienecke, the orchestra's cellist during Bach’s tenure, may have been the first to play the solo cello suites. Unfortunately, that bit of information is also unknown to us. Furthermore, there is no surviving autograph copy of the suites as Anthea Cottee explains in her notes written during her preparation for this performance:

When I finally came to play the cello, the Bach Suites were some of the first pieces I learned. With such an iconic composition it is hard to know where to start. There is a sense each time you play them of uncovering layers of memory, the voices of teachers and the many recordings and performances you have heard, and of observing once again the beauty, humanity and depth of their construction. This sense of constant searching is compounded by the fact that the original manuscript of Johann Sebastian, thought to be composed about 1720, has never been found, and we find our way to the notes through various manuscripts penned by other hands. These manuscripts have histories, differences and discrepancies that have kept players and scholars of these works fascinated for many years and continue to do so.

Differences in articulation and notes imbue phrases with different meanings, and each copyist had their different habits and quirks. Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, made a copy between 1727 and 1731. She was known to be a fairly accurate copyist with the notes, but careless or inconsistent with slurs and articulations. Johann Peter Kellner, a cantor and organist, made a copy around 1726 which appears to be from a different original source, as there are significant structural differences. Like Anna Magdalena, Kellner was imprecise with his articulation, and appears to have been less careful with his copying, with many wrong notes, duplicated or missing bars, and other additions that may, or may not be, by JS Bach.

In deciding what to play for this recording, I was drawn towards an appealing key to spend time with while in isolation: G major, described by Rameau in 1722 as the key that is right for both tender and happy songs. Each of the six suites has a prelude followed by a selection of dance-influenced movements, with their own specific character. From the First Suite I chose three: Allemande, Courante and Sarabande, using the Anna Magdalena copy as my guide. In 1739, Johann Mattheson described the character of the Allemande as “a broken, serious, and well-constructed harmony, which is the good image of a content or satisfied spirit, which enjoys good order and calm”. The Courante, though spelled in the French manner is the faster Italian style, a lively running dance, and the Sarabande “has no other emotion to express but ambition… and maintains its seriousness”. In this time of great seriousness, Bach is a fine source of good order, tenderness, and humanity.

Dance occupied an important role in society throughout the Baroque period. The origins of the courante (corrente in Italian) are obscure, however as a dance and instrumental form it flourished and was one of King Louis XIV’s favourite dances. Indeed, no French education was considered complete unless the steps of the courante had been mastered.

By the end of the seventeenth century there were two distinct types: a majestic and grave French courante, usually in 3/2; and a livelier flowing Italian corrente in 3/4 or 3/8. In JS Bach’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello the title given for the movement in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript is in French, however, the time signature and character of the music is in keeping with the Italian corrente.

In the first part of the third book of his treatise Syntagma Musicum, Michael Praetorius includes a brief description of the courante:

Courantes get their name from Currendo or Cursitando because there are generally certain measured up and down skips, similar to running while dancing.

In this recording, Anthea follows the Courante with the next movement from Suite No. 1 in G major, the Sarabande. The earliest literary references to the zarabanda come to us from Latin America, and notably this form of the dance was banned in Spain in 1583 due to its extraordinary obscenity. The zarabanda and its sung text was usually accompanied by guitar, castanets, and sometimes other percussion instruments.

During the seventeenth century various forms of the dance were developing concurrently, and this movement closely aligns with the typical characteristics of the slower French and German sarabandes: set in a slow triple metre with a strong sense of balance based on four-bar phrases.

JS Bach begins this Sarabande with the same first two arpeggiated chords of the opening Prelude from Suite No. 1, once again exploiting the resonance of the cello’s open strings to the fullest in the key of G major.


Program Notes: Joanna Butler & Hugh Ronzani, 2020
Image Credit: Katelyn-Jane Dunn, 2020



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