In Pursuit of the Bach Urtext

By Peter Lo | Nov 2017

                        The six suites for solo cello of Johann Sebastian Bach are now part of the standard cello repertoire. They are believed to have been composed during Bach’s Köthen period 1717-23. There was no publication by Bach, and a performing edition by J.F. Dotzauer did not appear until 1826. There is no extant manuscript in Bach’s hand. A number of manuscript copies preceded the 1826 publication. The most well-known of these copies is that of Anna Magdalena Bach, whom Johann Sebastian married en secondes noces in 1721.

                        Since then numerous editions have appeared. In 1996 Dimitry Markevitch, a scholar and cellist, counted a total of 93 editions, including his own.

                        For these suites there could be no Urtext in the strict sense because there is no Bach manuscript. The Anna Magdalena manuscript is taken by most editors as the primary source. Some have preferred another manuscript as being the work of a more reliable copyist, but in terms of personal circumstances Anna Magdalena was closest to Johann Sebastian. The other manuscripts might have originated from musicians working with the composer, but we don’t really know. The latest Barenreiter edition contains facsimiles of all known 18th century manuscripts. With this material conveniently in hand, it is at least theoretically possible for anybody who so wished to prepare a personal “Urtext”.

                        The idea is not as wild as it sounds. There is substantial agreement on the notes of the suites. There are variants but they could be identified without difficulty from available material. An informed choice could be made by the performer to constitute a personal Urtext.

                        A much more difficult question is how the notes should be played. The suites consist of dance movements preceded by a prelude. There are some slurs over the notes. The character of the dances should be observed, but how are the slurs to be regarded in performing the music? Are they to be religiously followed or should the performer follow the musical sense of the notes as they appear to him?

                       Some editors reproduce the slurs as they appear in the manuscripts, others ignore them and set out their preferred bowing and fingering.

                        These are two radically different approaches. Is there a “correct” answer?

                        It must be accepted that in turning symbols on a page into sound, a degree of interpretation is inevitably required. Even if the music were to be produced by mechanical or electronic means, the device has to be manipulated in a particular way to produce a particular sound effect. When a musician performs a piece of music, his entire personality is brought into play: his taste, his musical training, his response to sound, his apprehension of the musical structure, and so forth.

                        It follows that there is no such thing as absolute correctness, because the realization of the sound must vary from musician to musician, and because if there could be no variety in the performance of the music, the effect would be deadening. But then is there any common standard by which interpretations may be judged? Similarly, is there a common standard by which musical compositions may be judged?

                        Samuel Johnson suggested an empirical test in his Preface to Shakespeare.

He wrote:

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared: and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour.

                        The Bach cello suites are still healthily holding their own 300 years after they were composed, and are now commonly accepted as “classic”.

                        There is however a healthy diversity in the manner of their performance. Some play them on period instruments and follow Anna Magdalena to the letter, some consider they could freely interpret and employ all the resources of the technique and instruments of a later period. Some adopt a middle course, such as holding a Torurte style bow like a baroque bow some distance away from the frog while playing on a “modern” cello. This free-for-all produces some interesting, but not always convincing results, and audiences and performers have had to make up their own minds as to how they would like to hear or play the music.

                        This causes a peculiar difficulty for young cellists entering competitions. There is no commonly accepted right or wrong regarding performance practice, and opinions one way or another are often strongly held. It is believed that if a jury member considers that a competitor is playing the music the “wrong” way it would jeopardize his chances in the competition. It is already hard enough for a musician to achieve an interpretation that he personally finds convincing; how much more difficult and frustrating it must be to seek to accommodate the uncertain tastes and prejudices of those who sit in judgment over his performance! Béla Bartók said that competition was for horses and not musicians. The horses have an easier time because at least the object of the competition is clear: the fastest one will win!

                        But even for those who do not enter competitions, the interpretation of the suites is a monumental task.

                        As counted by Dimitry Markevitch, there were 93 editions of the Bach cello suites in 1996. Facsimile copies of 18th century manuscripts are readily available. What is a cellist to do? Ideally he should form his own independent judgment from available materials, but this is more easily said than done.

                        A musician who did that with revolutionary effect was Pablo Casals. Born in 1875, he is believed to have found an old copy of the suites in a second hand bookstore while still a young man. He studied them for a number of years and in 1909 “a startled London audience” heard for the first time the entire C major suite performed by him.

                        According to Casals up to that time the suites were played like an exercise, without any real musical meaning. What he did was to apply a then “modern” cello technique to articulate the sounds inherent in the notes. People had never imagined that the suites contained the musical effects that he produced. When he first started he generated much controversy, but successive generations of cellists up to the present day were convinced to follow his approach.

                        Within the confines of the musical notation there is room for infinite variety, and this is the fascination of great music. Casals did not publish an edition of the suites. Until late in life he was continually having new ideas about their performance. Probably he did not wish to prescribe a formula to be rigidly followed.

                        There are ways and ways of playing the notes on the page. For most people aspiring to play the music, some kind of guidance would be helpful and probably necessary. Music of this depth and complexity could not be learnt and understood purely by instinct. What in practice happens is that a pupil will follow the teacher. Eventually he might find his own way, sometimes changing teachers along the way. Sometimes people think that with an Urtext it is possible to start with a clean sheet. This is not really possible. A musician is constantly absorbing experiences, for better or for worse. By the time a cello student gets to the Bach suites, he would have ingrained habits and preferences. What one could best hope for is that an intelligent and open mind is still retained, ready to rethink and renew.

                        The advent of the Urtext has made positive contributions to the performance of the music. In times past printed editions were accepted without much question. But on a closer study of the sources many readings become open to question. In the older editions the editors, often musicians of note themselves, did not hesitate to present the text as they thought it should be played, and effected additions and alterations in accordance with their own judgment. Wanda Landowska made this observation on Hans von Bulow’s edition of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue:

“he added several bars to the Chromatic Fantasy, changed the answer of the Fugue, and doubled the basses; thus he impregnated this work with an emphatic and theatrical character.”

                        This and other similar editions presented interpretations which are considered questionable. We are free to accept or reject them, though they are of at least historical interest. The trouble was that previously there was no easy access to the original text, and the available editions often became accepted as the norm without critical examination. Independent thinking musicians such as Wanda Landowska found this unacceptable. Over time certain styles favoured by pedagogues became the “tradition”, which prompted Toscanini to declare: “tradition is the last bad performance!”

                        There were also problems at a more mundane level. For one reason or another errors would creep into scores and parts and stayed there. At a first rehearsal with an orchestra the conductor Victor de Sabata was said to have corrected a wrong note in the bass part which had been played for years. When Riccardo Muti recorded the Schubert symphonies he asked a member of the Vienna Philharmonic to check the orchestral parts against the manuscripts. Many differences were discovered, some significant.

                        Publishers and scholars have made efforts to present true musical texts by scrupulous reference to the best sources and the “Urtext” has become the badge of respectability. Even so, Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch in their recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise said that in certain places they preferred to follow the manuscript rather than the Urtext!

                        A reliable text free from unspecified editorial encrustations must certainly be a desirable end. However, it should not be supposed that a good text is everything. The presentation of original sources has given rise to a sort of fundamentalism in performance. To play the notes “as written” and on instruments from or approximating those of the period of the composition was thought to result in an “authentic” and definitive performance. This cannot be true as it assumes that a good musical effect could be mechanically produced and ignores the human and artistic elements in music.

                        Notwithstanding the improvements in the presentation of musical texts, some questions remain unanswered.

The Anna Magdalena manuscript indicated that the Sixth Suite is to be played on an instrument with an additional E string above the four strings of the cello. Philipp Spitta said the intended instrument was a viola pomposa which Bach invented. Some question the statement that Bach invented such an instrument, and no such instrument from Bach’s days has survived. Some say the intended instrument was a violoncello piccolo with an additional E string. Uncertainly still surrounds the subject.

                        Notwithstanding the historical uncertainties, the Sixth Suite contains music of overwhelming impact, and has been called the Ninth Symphony of the cello. Succeeding generations of cellists have therefore worked to master the extraordinary technical difficulties created by the one string handicap, and to make it sound on the four string cello as if originally written for this instrument.

                        The conclusion to be drawn is that ultimately it is the music that matters. The professional musician has to resolve numerous issues of style, taste, scholarship and technique, with a view to producing on his instrument sounds which, in the lively language of John Dryden, achieve philosophical significance and explain the mystery of creation:

                        “From harmony, from heavenly harmony
                                               This universal frame began:
                                               When Nature underneath a heap
                                                                      Of jarring atoms lay,
                                               And could not heave her head,
                        The tuneful voice was heard from high:
                                               ‘Arise, ye more than dead.’
                        Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
                        In order to their station leap,
                                               And Music’s power obey.
                        From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
                                               This universal frame began:
                                               From harmony to harmony
                        Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
                        The diapason closing full in Man.”

Music is an affirmation of faith in humanity!


                        William Shakespeare died in 1616. In 1623 the players’ company to which he belonged published a volume of 37 of his plays. The volume is now known as the First Folio.

                        The First Folio may be regarded as an early attempt to establish an “Urtext” in respect of the plays.

                        In their address “To the great variety of readers” the publishers made the following observation regarding the publication of Shakespeare’s plays prior to the First Folio: 

“where, before, you were abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors that exposed them, even those are now offered to your view cured and perfect of their limbs, and all the rest absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them.”

                        Hopefully, we will find in Urtext publications of music the works of a great composer “absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them”.