The Unaccompanied String Works of Bach - Article 1steemCreated with Sketch.

in #classical-music2 months ago (edited)

Hello everyone! Today I had my very first college class. It was an analytical studies class which will be focusing on the Unaccompanied String Works of Johann Sebastian Bach. I hope to post my notes here whenever possible so that 1) I have a record of them on the blockchain, 2) I need to explain the information (The best way to learn is to teach), and 3) for your enjoyment! Today's article will be three sections:

Background of the unaccompanied string works of Bach
What is a baroque suite?
Analysis of Menuet 1 from the Cello suite in G Major

Background of the unaccompanied string works of Bach

It is suspected that Bach wrote all of his unaccompanied string works while employed in the Weimar court. The manuscripts in Bach's original handwriting still exist for all of the Violin sonatas, but have been lost for the Cello suites. Because of this, the most accurate manuscripts of the cello suites are considered to be those which were written by copyists who would have had access to the original manuscripts. We will be focusing on the Cello suites for the first half of the year.

Differences between baroque and modern cellos

We discussed the differences between baroque stringed instruments and modern stringed instruments. In regards to the cello, the bridge is smaller on baroque cellos, and the bow is shaped differently. This makes the sound of a baroque cello quieter than the sound of a modern cello, and the bow shape also makes playing lighter articulations easier on a baroque cello. The baroque cello uses gut strings as opposed to modern strings which are usually made of metal. Gut strings have less tension than modern strings, and therefore also produce less sound than modern strings. Baroque tuning is also different than modern tuning. In the baroque era, an A was tuned to the frequency of 415Hz. Now an A is tuned to the frequency of 440Hz. This means that a baroque A will sound almost a half step lower than a modern A, and an instrument using baroque tuning will sound almost a half step lower.

To see the difference, listen to these two performances of the prelude from Bach's first cello suite. The first is played by Ophélie Gaillard using a baroque cello (and bow) with baroque tuning. The second is by Yo Yo Ma and uses a modern cello (and bow) with modern tuning.

You might have also noticed that the modern cello has an end pin resting on the ground whereas the baroque cello does not and is being held by the player's legs.

Here is a bonus performance which my teacher included in which the cellist (who went to Julliard) also beat boxes. I thought it was quite impressive:

What is a baroque suite?

A baroque suite is a collection of between 4 and 6 specific dance movements (with the exception of the prelude) in the same key. In the case of the Bach cello suites, all 6 have 6 movements. Here is a list of the types of movements (each a different type of dance except for the prelude). The four in bold are what would be most likely used in a four movement suite. The prelude could be added to those four for a five movement suite.

1.) Prelude
2.) Allemande
3.) Courante
4.) Sarabande
5.) Galanteries:

  • Minuets (Cello Suites 1&2)
  • Bourrées (Cello Suites 3&4)
  • Gavottes (Celo Suites 5&6)

6.) Gigue

We have not yet discussed the details of any of these forms.

Analysis of Menuet 1 from Bach's Cello Suite no. 1 in G Major

Our homework was to try to analyze the harmony of the first Menuet from Bach's first cello suite. The first thing to notice is that the spelling of menuet is the French spelling. This is evidence that the form is the French version. The next thing to consider is that the harmony is more horizontal than vertical in the case of a piece like this. This means that chords will usually not be directly played, but will instead be implied by the melodic line(s). I also would just like to point out that the first 3 notes are the same as the first three notes of the prelude prelude. Here is my harmonic analysis of this menuet. Please note that I tried my best to copy the hand written manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach:




The way I was taught to analyze music like this, is to take the harmony with a grain of salt. Sometimes there are several bars that consist of many confusing tones, and it is just best to look at the overall phrase and determine what the overall harmonic function is. For instance, in measures 5 - 8, I considered everything to just be an expansion on dominant harmony.

I also try to take notice of how tones may be a part of a harmony even if they are not played. For instance, in measure 13, you can see that there is no A in the measure, and yet I analyzed the harmony as a V4/2 of vi. The reason I did this is because the next measure has a G in it, and the measure before had an A in it. My thinking was that Bach still considers the A to be a part of the harmony even though he did not have time to play it. I think the ear hears it as a V4/2, and I labeled it as such as a result.

I tried my best to highlight any other instances like this with colors. Even though there is only 1 instrument, I consider these highlighted notes to be separate voices with their own trajectory. Please keep in mind that this might not be the case. This is just my analysis of these instances. Here is a recording of both menuets though my analysis is only of Menuet no. 1.


Thank you for reading this! I will be trying to post as much of my work from school (which you may find interesting) as I can here (if I have the professor's permission to post). I think the work from Analytical studies will be especially interesting. I also hope that my classmates might consider doing the same here on Steem! Have a great day everyone!


too interesting! I have always loved classical music, and Bach seems to me to be one of the best musicians in history, although Mozart and Beethoven are more preferred but among those who dedicate their entire lives to music, Bach is unrivaled.

I have to say I prefer the sound of the gut strings and baroque tuning. It's a gentler and smoother sort of sound. Or at least it sounds that way as rendered through my computer's speakers... Of course, it might seem different in person.

are you also learning...!
seems like you are a to much into music.
do you like classical music over the modern one.

nice , classical music is very soulful.

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