The next chapter: Bach on five strings

By Miranda Wilson

My first Luis & Clark cello, which my puppy loves almost as much as I do.

Bach’s six suites for solo cello have been a major research area of mine for a long time now. After much reflection, I’ve decided to play my first ever marathon concert of all six suites in the upcoming Idaho Bach Festival.

Six years ago, when I did my first Bach 36 project, I was frustrated by the poor tone quality I was producing in Suite No. 6. It’s written for a cello that has five strings, as opposed to the usual four, and while you can play it on a standard cello, it’s fiendishly hard and you really miss that high E-string Bach had in mind. A five-string cello is basically like a hybrid of a cello and a violin, and lets you play much more easily in the upper register.

Well, to cut a long story short, I fell head over heels in love with my Luis & Clark carbon fiber cello when I bought it two years ago, and I knew it was possible to custom-order a five-string version from this brilliant company. With the generous support of the University of Idaho College of Arts, Letters & Social Sciences-Office for Research and Economic Development Partnership, plus further research funds from the Dean of the College of Arts, Letters & Social Sciences, I was able to do this, and I’ve fallen in love all over again.

I never want to play the Sixth Suite on four strings ever again — and what’s more, I’m also inspired to re-learn some other high-tessitura repertoire, such as the Franck sonata, Schubert’s arpeggione sonata, and Haydn’s D major concerto on five strings.

This is what I did when I first lifted my new treasure out of its shipping carton:

(By the way, I’ve become addicted to Instagram. I know, I know, I’m a late adopter. I started after I read a piece online about musicians who’ve exponentially grown their careers through this media. I took a look, and my first thought was that it was the most narcissistic thing I had ever seen in my life. My second thought was “I could totally do that!” and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. The filters are fun to play with, and the video uploading feature is a breath of fresh air after trying to deal with YouTube and basically giving up because its interface is so clunky.)

Playing the five-string cello turned out to be harder than I’d anticipated. The strings were rather closer together than on a four-string cello, and I kept bumping into the adjacent string to the one I was playing on. The hardest string to play was the D, which is right in the middle of the fingerboard where I’m not used to having a string. But I’m sufficiently convinced by my experiment with playing eighteenth-century music on space-age materials that I don’t think I’ll go back to a four-string cello for the Sixth Suite, that’s for sure. It kind of feels like cheating after all those years I spent practising the high bits and the hard chords!

Here’s an excerpt from the Allemande from this morning’s practice session.


One thought on “The next chapter: Bach on five strings

  1. Welcome to the club. I’ve played a five string bass for decades. Glad to see cellists think outside the box.

    Cincinnati Symphony


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