Editions of Bach’s Cello Suites…How Do I Choose One?

By Miranda Wilson

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Just as there are a lot of different ways to be a cellist, there are a lot of different ways to play Bach’s Cello Suites. I’m often asked what I think is the best edition of the Cello Suites, and there’s no clear answer. How do you decide, when at last count there were more than 100 editions to choose from?

What you use will depend very much on your skill level and what you’re hoping to achieve. Are you a student playing Bach for the first time, or a seasoned pro? Are you invested in the historically informed performance practice of early music, or are you a traditionalist who prefers a more “romantic” style of playing? Do you want a lot of guidance in fingerings and bowings, or do you prefer to add your own?

I’ve spent a lot of time with Bach editions recently as part of a sabbatical book I’ve been writing on the Cello Suites (currently attempting to find literary representation…pray for me, y’all!), and comparing editions has been a big part of it. There are just so many of them that I can quite understand how bewildering it can seem when you’re trying to select one, and I’m not even going to attempt to comment on them all because it would take a very long time. What I’ll do instead is to divide them by category and address the pros and cons of the categories. There is, of course, some overlap, but broadly speaking we can sort editions into eight groups:

(1) Eighteenth-century sources, (2) modern scholarly editions without “practical” performance suggestions, (3) modern scholarly editions with suggestions, (4) unmarked editions, (5) analytical editions, (6) performance editions by cellists, (7) “pedagogical” editions, (8) curiosities that don’t fit neatly into any category but are interesting to know about.

(1) Eighteenth-century sources

Since Bach’s autograph manuscript is lost, we have to rely on five related manuscript sources. The one used most often by editors is the copy by his wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, known as Source A. The copy by Johann Peter Kellner known as Source B is the earliest of the manuscripts, and many editors use it in a “supplementary” way when ambiguities in Source A raise questions about pitches, note values, and other markings.

Source C (Johann Nikolaus Schober and another copyist whose name we don’t know) and Source D (anonymous copyist) date to later in the eighteenth century. Just as Sources A and B are somewhat similar to each other, Sources C and D are somewhat similar. Bach may have made revisions to the original manuscript(s) in the intervening time, which is a giant topic in itself. (Check out Zoltán Szabó’s PhD dissertation, and also the introduction to Andrew Talle’s edition.)

The so-called Source H is a manuscript in Bach’s own hand of Suite No. 5…. in a later version for the lute. It’s in G minor instead of C minor, and has some additional pitches in chords etc that are idiomatic for the different instrument. Comparing this with the cello version is (to me, anyway) as fascinating as reading an extremely thrilling detective novel. I highly recommend it.

When I’m working on Bach, I principally work from Source A (and Anner Bylsma’s book about it, Bach the Fencing Master). This is not for the faint-hearted, but I think professional cellists interested in historically-informed performance practice should at least try it.

(2) Modern scholarly editions without fingerings, etc.

These editions are best for advanced performers such as professionals, or profession-bound college music majors and graduate students. These players are confident about figuring out their own fingerings and bowings, possibly under the guidance of a teacher. Scholarly editions are made by musicologists (who are likely good cellists or at least very familiar with string instruments) in consultation with early sources. Many places in Source A and the other sources are ambiguous re: pitches, rhythms, articulations, ornamentation and so on (and in their defense, you should try writing with a quill pen while your 20 children are running around screaming!), so musicologists do their brilliant detective work of analyzing and comparing handwriting and other amazing things to give us their best guess. Thank you, musicologists!

Bärenreiter have several exceptional editions available. (Why so many editions from the same publishing house? Find out here!) Hans Eppstein’s edition for the Neue-Bach Ausgabe has two versions, one based on Sources A&B, the other on Sources C&D, which I find intriguing to compare. A later edition by Bettina Schwemer and Douglas Woodfull-Harris offers us the chance to make comparative readings of the Cello Suites based on the Sources. The newest, by Andrew Talle, offers a second volume with a synoptic (side-by-side) comparison of all the Sources (plus Source E, the first printed edition by Louis Norblin, 1824) as part of a second volume…and while at 400 euros it sure ain’t cheap, it is literally the most fascinating thing I have ever looked at and I look at it for literally hours every day because, well, right now it’s my job. (Can’t afford Talle’s synoptic edition? There’s another, by David Starkweather, that you can download.)

Other scholarly editions include the Henle edition by Egon Voss, and I also like the Breitkopf edition by Kirsten Beisswenger. I often recommend Beisswenger’s edition to my college students because it’s very reasonably priced.

(3) Modern scholarly editions with performance suggestions

There are several, but the classic is of course August Wenzinger‘s. This edition is perfect for a good high school-age student playing Bach for the first time, an undergraduate who is not ready for a less “edited” edition, or a mature learner who is ready to approach Bach. After half a century, it’s still the gold standard for learners. Wenzinger was one of the earliest exponents of HIPP (historically informed performance practice), and while scholarly editions have evolved since his time, it stands up pretty well. The big plus is that his bowings are sensitive and thoughtful, and they work. If you’re unsure what to buy and you can only afford one edition, get this one.

(4) Unmarked editions

Editors driving you crazy? Want to make your own bowings? Try one of the unmarked editions. The classic is the one by Daniel Vandersall. I seldom use an edition, but if I ever need an unmarked one I go straight to the 2017 edition by Shin-Itchiro Yokoyama (at the unbeatable price of free, via IMSLP). I’m a big fan of Yokoyama’s blog, too — he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Cello Suites and Sources.

(5) Analytical editions

By which I mean ones that show how the voices of Bach’s linear counterpoint work. The most famous is the one by Diran Alexanian, protégé of Pablo Casals. There are also two by Enrico Mainardi, which I learned about very young because my first teacher studied with Mainardi. These editions are really good if you already know the Cello Suites well but are seeking greater understanding of how they work. I wouldn’t use any of Mainardi’s bowings (they’re very personal to his own playing style) but the analysis of the voices is pure genius and I learn so much every time I look at his edition. Alexanian is not the easiest to read because of the non-standard notation style, but it’s still good to know about.

(6) Performance editions by cellists

There are dozens of these, so I won’t attempt to list them all. These are editions with suggested bowings and fingerings by great cellists. For many years, the Pierre Fournier edition was the go-to after he made his famous recording. No one played the cello like Fournier, and I have to admit that I do love listening to his recording for his unbelievably sweet tone and nuanced phrasing. But it’s also an older style of playing and one that I don’t want to even attempt to replicate (not that I could!). Editions like Fournier’s are very heavily edited and tend to have a lot of slurs and other markings that aren’t necessarily true to the Sources.

Other editions worth a look are those by Paul Tortelier, Jacqueline du Pré, Janos Starker, and many others. The practical suggestions can be valuable, but they also might not hold up to modern scholarly scrutiny. To be honest, the “performer” edition I’ve liked the most is the one by Tim Hugh. It’s both sensitive (to style) and sensible (for learners, especially in terms of practical fingering suggestions).

Another fun thing to do is to go on IMSLP and look up some of the nineteenth-century editions by the top players of the time. J. J. F. Dotzauer (he of the etudes that you love so much) made one based on Source B, the Kellner copy, though scholars aren’t quite sure how he got his hands on it. Hugo Becker and Julius Klengel, the top teachers of their day, both have editions. And then there are the two editions by Friedrich Grützmacher…of which more later.

(7) Pedagogical editions

The most widely-used of these is probably the versions of selected movements of the Cello Suites that you get in the Suzuki books. I’m not a big fan of the fingerings, bowings, or…anything, really, in them. I know why the editors made their suggestions — they’re making the repertoire playable for first-timers with small hands. But — and I stress that this is a personal opinion and I’m not attempting to proclaim a universal truth here — I don’t give Bach to students until they’ve mastered material well beyond any of its physical challenges. Yes, I’m that meanypants teacher who drills students on Lee, Kummer, Dotzauer, scales, arpeggios, the whole nine yards, before they’re even allowed to approach even thinking about possibly considering whether they might one day learn the Bach Suites. I believe that Bach is not the place to be learning hard techniques for the first time. So much of the etude repertoire (Dotzauer, Feuillard, Piatti, Popper, etc) was conceived to prepare students for Bach that I think we should use it extensively to build the student’s fundamentals and musicianship first. This is the end of my personal opinion. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

(8) Curiosities

I might as well subtitle this category “Slightly odd things Miranda thinks are cool.” So, speaking of the much-maligned Grützmacher, he made two editions. One is the “conservative” one (scare quotes because nothing Grützmacher did could be truly conservative). The other is a “performance edition” that might better be termed an arrangement, because it’s …. a little wild. In it, Grützmacher chops out large sections, changes notes, writes weird ornaments and improvisations, and even changes the key of the Sixth Suite from D major to G major (which actually isn’t a terrible idea for those who don’t own a five-string cello, but…). In case you can’t tell, I kind of have a soft spot for Grützmacher, who has become an unfashionable figure these days.

Other odd things that happened in the nineteenth century: several editors added piano accompaniments, which seems strange these days, but was their way of making the music of the past palatable to the audiences of their time. Check out Friedrich Wilhelm Stade’s and Carl Georg Peter Grädener’s versions on IMSLP, and for super geeky fun, Robert Schumann’s attempt at a piano part for the Third Suite. If you’re curious to know what the Schumann version sounds like, check out this recording.

I also want to mention the very interesting edition by Dimitry Markevitch (another early adopter of period instruments and HIPP), specifically the “alternative” version of the Fifth Suite in which he combines material pulled from Sources A, B, and C with the additional notes and ornamentation from Source H, Bach’s version for the lute. It’s highly idiosyncratic and not always practical, but well work a look.

As I mentioned above, the “edition” I use the most isn’t even really an edition, it’s more a commentary on Source A by Anner Bylsma — the book Bach the Fencing Master. Though I consider myself a “post-HIPPie” (i.e. I’ve learned about and assimilated historically informed performance practice, but I’m not obsessed with it for its own sake and I draw inspiration from a large number of varying playing styles), Bylsma’s playing has been a huge influence. I have some quite reverential feelings about his book because few people have lived with and thought about the Cello Suites more than he did. His central point is that we should at least take Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowing markings seriously and not immediately discount them as haphazard. Does he take this viewpoint to extremes? Well, maybe, but I think it’s still worth giving them a chance.

What are your favourite editions of Bach’s Cello Suites, and why? Post your answer in the comments, or head on over to my Facebook page and join in the conversation!

© Miranda Wilson, 2020. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

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