There were precedents for Johann Sebastian Bach‘s works for solo violin, especially in the works of Biber and Schmelzer, and there also had been solo works for lower instruments, especially the viola da gamba, for Bach to draw upon as models for his cello suites. But writing specifically for solo cello, an instrument whose role up to Bach’s time had been rather proletarian, may have been unprecedented. The matter of exactly why Bach chose to write this way for the cello is not possible to address, given the paucity of firsthand source material about him. However, it seems possible that some part of Bach’s desire (insofar as it may ever have been identifiable) was to build solo pieces which retained the architectural strength of works with continuo by extending the role of what had heretofore been a continuo instrument. Whatever his motives, the sense of completeness and solidity in the six suites for cello defies their fuel-efficient instrumentation. At any moment in any of the six, any note or pattern may be making any number of musical references and inferences, creating an extraordinary sense of sonic, emotional, and intellectual resonance.
The C Major suite, for its part, resonates extraordinarily well, being in the fundamental key of the instrument itself. The opening sounds in each of the first three movements sound like an introduction of the cello from top to bottom (from C on the A string down to low open C) in contrasting rhythms. The slow fourth movement begins by covering the same span, but arced upward in a chord; the last two movements remain fairly elevated both in mood and in register. Altogether the movements can seem to come in two waves, moving from thoughtful prelude to running courante, then from graceful sarabande to heavier-footed gigue — though they need not be thought of in this manner (patterns abound).
All of Bach’s six suites for cello follow the same sequence: 1) Prélude; 2) Allemande; 3) Courante; 4) Sarabande; 5) two-part dance (Menuet, Bourée or Gavotte); and 6) Gigue. The extent to which these movements actually reflect their eponymous dance forms is somewhat debatable, but there is no doubt that the basic rhythms follow the steps of dance to at least some degree — the movements are aptly named, even if not manifestly danceable. Given their dancing roots, their orderly presentation, and the earthy, warm sound of the cello, there may be no more pithy introduction to the spirit and matter of Bach’s works than the suites for solo cello.