How to Play the Bach Suite No. 1 on Cello (Prelude)
The prelude of the first cello suite by Bach is probably the most famous piece for the cello written ever. Also famously was how the legendary Yo Yo Ma began learning cello right from the beginning – learning bar by bar one bar a day.
While this is not typical cello pedagogy technique (he started this piece before even scales!) the method of learning in chunking is definitely the right approach for this amazing piece. The Bach Cello Suites were originally not considered so great, more like etudes or technical studies for cello. Especially given that the six suites get progressively more challenging, a topical analysis might be to see it that way.
But there is so much musical depth in the suites, and such amazing use of implied multiple voices and harmonies though it is played on just one instrument, that when eventually vitalized by one of the greatest cellists ever, Pablo Casals, they became a staple of the cello repertoire, with many cellists being “Bach specialists” meaning studying the performance of the six suites.
The suites themselves consist of six movements each. A suite means a collection of dance pieces. In the case of the first suite, the other dances are called Bouree, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, and Gigue. Only the last one is still performed today (jig).
The prelude is meant to feel improvisatory, like an introduction to the dance movements to follow. As a result, they are all through-composed (no repeating sections or refrains).
The first suite is in G major – all of the movements are in G. The prelude itself can be thought of as split in two parts.
The first part is a repeating rhythmic and slur pattern that moves through different chords and harmonies. The second half is a series of scales that lead to a hocket buildup with drones of A and D – the chords that lead back to G major for the final resolution.
The meditative nature, sultry middle, and triumphant ending have made this piece stand out as one of the foremost classical compositions of all time, for any instrument.
Mastering the movement – though the notes are not too hard – is deceptively difficult. It is not easy to cross strings elegantly, to have the sense of time and phrasing to bring it to life.
But it is also a very rewarding piece to work on, which continually gives back pleasure to play through all the harmony changes.
If you are at a beginner stage of learning cello, there will be a few difficult things about this piece. The first is the string crossings being clean. It will help to practice only the bowing without the fingers.
Second, the notes have a lot of accidentals – sharps and flats – and you will want to take time away from cello to scrutinize what those notes mean – finding a version of the piece with fingerings may help.
Third, you cannot play this piece without shifting positions, so take some time with your sheet music to pencil in your fingers and shifts.
Doing this away from the cello is called mental practice and is incredibly useful for helping your physical practice be fruitful.
In this video we discuss a method of practicing this piece. Starting with working on a straightforward bow pattern, and going measure by measure (or chord change by chord change) and chunking the changes together.
As a little bit more of an intermediate piece, this one requires finger extensions, shifting, and clean bow changes, so give it patience as you work on it.
To get the phrasing right you have to live and breathe these technical elements.