Zum Spielen und zum Tantzen
A kinaesthetic exploration of the Bach cello suites through
studies in Baroque choreography
J. S. Bach’s cello suites enjoy an unparalleled status as the most iconic works in the cello repertoire. Most cellists have practised, performed, and admired this music from an early age: I am no exception to this rule. I still vividly remember the grey winter day when my cello teacher solemnly handed me his copy and asked me to prepare the first prelude for the following week.
Like so many cello students, I found the dance titles in the Bach suites puzzling, not knowing quite what to make of them. I was told that eighteenth-century composers used the titles and structures of old-fashioned court dances as a matter of convention, although my teachers and peers did not generally favour ‘dance-like’ playing. A major goal of the interpretative work seemed, on the contrary, to be to escape the alleged rigidity of dance music. Later, when I discovered that the practice of French-style court dance was widespread in Bach’s time, it seemed obvious that this must have affected the performance of his cello suites.
To understand how this would have affected performances, it became important to me to gain extensive first-hand experience of the dance styles current in Bach’s world. In 2009 I was given the opportunity to embark on a thorough examination of the subject, in the form of a three-year fellowship at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the Norwegian Artistic Research Fellowship Program, with a critical reflection submitted in May 2013. The unabridged report can be consulted here.