J.S. Bach Cello Suites – Online lectures

The idea behind these lectures is to guide performers through the six cello suites by J.S. Bach. As a performing cellist myself I was frustrated during my early studies with these suites as I did not know how to embark on my interpretation, how to technically execute them, or how I should understand them. Every instrumentalist I asked had their own opinion and tried to share with me their own intuition. It did not seem to be any specific “rules” to what you could or couldn’t do with the choice of articulation, how one should phrase, or an easy way to grasp the works of Bach that stands so central in cellists’ repertoire. 

In order to better understand the music, I began to study 18th century and contemporary writings on performance practice and characteristics of the suite form and the dance movements. This helped me to get a deeper understanding of what the music is about. I also turned to music theory. Music of the baroque period follows quite strict rules, or rather, careful analysis of baroque music in later periods has allowed us to set rules and to build up a rather concise music theory and analytical methods for this music. I am not the first person to see the cello suites from a theorist’s perspective, but those sources I am aware of seem to be aimed at advanced music theorists. Most performers do not possess that deep knowledge or interest in music theory so that they can actively use this in their interpretation. I am looking at the suites with an interpreter’s eyes, informed by music theory and historical background.

My aim is to use simple music theory, analysis, and historical background to help performers with relevant information in their search towards a better understanding of Bach’s music and its interpretative possibilities.

Who are these lectures for?

I am aiming these lectures for instrumentalists who have the suites in their repertoire. They are aimed for those who would like to start on their Bach journey, those who have worked on it for a while but are challenged by them, and for those of you who have played Bach for years but would like a new approach to the music.

You do not have to be a cellist to take part, and you do not need to have any prior knowledge of music theory and harmony either.

Everyone is welcome!

Topic 1: "Harmony & form" in Suite No 1, BWV 1007

The choice of starting with “Harmony and form” is not random. We tend to naturally decide our interpretations and shaping of the music based on the melodic features and structures, just like the music of the romantic period is composed. In the baroque period however, the harmonic progression stands stronger than the melodic structure, so we need to focus on the harmonies and their functions to understand how to phrase and shape the music. Then later we can concentrate on what the melodic gestures are telling us, which is the topic for the next set of lectures.

You will learn very simple harmonic functional analysis: namely Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant. These three main groups of chords are those needed for a performer to understand the underlying phrasing and movement. We are not staying in G major throughout each movement, so we will go through the different tonal regions Bach is moving between and see what that does to the music. We will then go through bar for bar and section for section to see what the harmonic functions do within the context of the music. With this, we can easily mark out the phrasing and suitable dynamics.

There are different options of phrasing at times, and we will consider a few of those options. Occasionally, going against the natural phrasing given by the harmonies is a way to create some exciting effects, but this is on a more advanced Bach level, and I will advise you to follow the more basic rules in the first instance.

Contents of the lectures

  • Characteristics of the movements
  • Simple functional analysis
  • Different sets of hierarchical rules:
    • Importance of notes
    • Trills and chords
    • Level of motion/energy
  • How to choose tempo
  • Dynamics

You will receive the functional analysis we will use in advance so that you can print out and annotate on them during the lectures.

The lectures are open for asking any questions that you might have on the topic.

Lecture 1

Monday Feb. 8th, 2021
5-7pm GMT on Zoom

  • Prélude
  • Allemande
  • Courante
Deadline: Friday Feb. 5th, 5pm GMT

Lecture 2

Wednesday Feb. 17th, 2021
5-7pm GMT on Zoom

  • Sarabande
  • Menuet I & II
  • Gigue
Deadline: Sunday Feb. 14th, 5pm GMT


£30 for one lecture and the handout
£50 for both lectures and both handouts

For Norwegians:
Du kan også betale i NOK:
350,- for ett foredrag og analyse
600,- for begge foredrag og begge analysene

I look forward to seeing you on Zoom!

Stay tuned for information about the next topic, "Articulation and bowings."

Stay tuned for information about lectures on the remaining 5 suites