Does playing Bach's Cello Suite Prelude on a violin change its meaning?

August 21, 2020, 6:02 PM · I have a naive dilettante question about Bach’s Cello Suites and the famous prelude. I have watched the YouTube video where cellist Alisa Weilerstein deconstructed and explained how it works. She talks about the two main chords; the G being tonic which gives tension and the D being dominant and gives a release in tension.

So here is my question. I am learning to play it on the violin (the version from - transcribed by Fabrizio Ferarri). However, that is in the Key of D with the leading note being D. Does this still work? Will you have the same amount of tension as if it was in the key of G? I guess another way of stating my question is if the feeling of a chord being dominant and its tonic giving release is the same for all chords?

Generalizing my question, does a transcription, in a different key require a different interpretation of playing because the change in key changes the intention that Bach had by choosing the original key?

If my questions do not make sense Sorry! Like I said I am just an amateur stumbling but trying to learn ...

Replies (28)

August 21, 2020, 6:12 PM · Basic answer is: yes, it all works just the same. Bach transcribed other people's work and his pieces into different keys all the time.

Complex answer contains temperament, key affect, instrumental characterizations, all of which you can explore at your leisure in the future. Have fun with the Bach suites!

August 21, 2020, 8:06 PM · No, the dominant relation of D to G is uniquely holy and divine and transposing it to any other key destroys the magic and is spitting in the face of Bach himself!

There's nothing special about those two chords.

August 21, 2020, 8:41 PM · When Suzuki finally got around to issuing "his books" for viola and cello the same pieces were used in the early books, but transposed so what was on strings I, II and III for violin remained on strings I, II and III for viola and cello, just as it is with this Bach transposition.

August 21, 2020, 9:02 PM · I don’t think the key matter much. It lacks the timbre and depth of a cello so that will inherently make it a very different sounding piece. The Vivaldi 4 violin concerto sounds completely different in the 4 harpsichord arrangement by Bach. So, the same can deffintley be said here but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value it’s just different.
August 21, 2020, 9:10 PM · The D major Gavotte appears in Suzuki violin 5 in D major (although the chord harmonies did not all get transcribed exactly and are notated in parentheses so likely not all teachers do them). When I realized that, my first thought was about the cello technique required to play "all those E string notes".

Suzuki cello gets the G major Minuets in book 4 but no others before then. I assume that they were considered the most accessible to young players and that a cellist would eventually graduate to? celebrate? covet? the milestone of getting the entire proper collection. I don't know anything about intermediate cello.

August 21, 2020, 9:32 PM · If transposed to D, then the dominant will be A. So the harmonic relationship doesn't change.

However, you have a different timbre (violin E-string sounds a lot different from cello A string), and some with absolute pitch will hear a difference for that reason alone. Of course, they're the people who wouldn't recognize their house when they came home if you'd managed to re-paint it while they were at work.

August 21, 2020, 10:15 PM · The Bach cello suites are lovely on the violin. Szeryng (and others) have said you should learn them before doing the Bach solo sonatas for violin. That could explain why there are some movements of them in the Suzuki books as Andy mentioned.

I never miss this chance to plug Valerie Arsenault's wonderful edition of these pieces for violin. Everything about the edition is fantastic, you will love it.

Of course they are great on the viola too, where they are in the same key. But forget No. 5 and No. 6 on the viola. Even William Primrose said that was futile. Many transpositions for viola and violin just have the first four suites.

By the way "The Famous Prelude" in my opinion should be the one that is in D minor on the cello (A minor on the violin). Sounds much less like a Kreutzer study than the one you're asking about.

Edited: August 22, 2020, 12:47 AM · @Paul. I agree the sixth suite is brutal on viola but I wouldn't want to be without the fifth. However, after 40 years I finally noticed that in the original the cello A string is instructed to be tuned down to G and the score is written in scordatura. Maybe the viola version could lie more comfortably that way? IMSLP has it. And on the violin, why not? Just imagine you're playing a small viola.
August 22, 2020, 3:32 AM · It's many years since I played these, and I'm no musicologist.....
I understand that the 6th suite was originally written for a 'cello' with an additional (E) string. Which explains the 'pedal' E's in the prelude and some of the high double-stopping and chords. I imagine it's brutal to play in D on a cello or viola. For the violin a pragmatic solution would be to retain the key of D with octave transpositions for the low notes where necessary. For the cello/viola it should be possible to transpose into G with similar adjustments. I've no idea whether there are any editions which do this for violin or cello, or whether there are any recordings available.
Edited: August 24, 2020, 2:34 PM · I think Daniel is referring to the 1st suite in G.

The lowered A string is in the 5th suite in C minor. (Lowered E on violin, which will be in the key of the original(?) lute version.)

The 6th suite in D is for a 5-string insrument, maybe viola pomposa or cello da spalla. On the violin It is best to keep the key of D but "sacrifice" the lowest string by octave transpositions. The Suzuki Book 5 Gavotte is from this suite.
I have made a violin-viola duet of this gavotte..

Yes, Bach probably had private preferences for certain keys, but his Magnificat was written in E flat before being transposed to D, which is a radical change! But then organs, oboes etc varied in pitch from one town to another, which might account for the transposition.

Key "colours" can come from unequal tuning temperaments in organs, while harpsichords could be re-tuned for each piece.

August 22, 2020, 5:37 AM · Having given it a go I can't say Suite No.5 sounds or feels greatly different in scordatura, once you remember always to play the open "A" (now G) string rather than finger a fifth on the D string. And of course it takes a bit of getting used to that what you see on the stave isn't exactly what you get.
August 22, 2020, 6:24 AM · Hi Daniel.

It is a matter of interpretation whether transcribing the Bach Cello Suites for violin "works".

On the violin, it would be recognizable as the same piece of music and still sound great. The notes are all relationally in the same place, which preserves the chord progressions and harmonies. The tonic and dominant have the same effect as you described in the original. 

It gets complicated when you bring in Bach's original intention and players' interpretation of that intention. The piece was written in a different key more than an octave lower, for a cello with gut strings, played with a baroque bow, and most likely tuned lower than A=440. Given that's what Bach wrote, how close should we follow the original intention to make it "work"?

Each player has their own interpretation. Some players insist on being as close as possible to the original, using period instruments with gut strings, baroque bows, and playing in a baroque style. Most cellists play the Suites on modern bows and steel strings with vibrato. Violists play the Suites and octave higher. Some play it on the violin! 

So it's entirely up to your interpretation where whether it works on the violin. I would encourage you to experiment with different playing techniques (bowing, no vibrato, fingering etc.) to recreate the baroque cello sound. 

Edited: August 22, 2020, 11:45 AM · To the contrary, I think playing the music on a violin sometimes clarifies the music better, because the instrument is smaller and thus its parts easier to reach more fluidly. However it's an unfair advantage, and violinists have their own solo Bach repertoire, so I wouldn't suggest "stealing" the music from cellists (entirely :).

(On the other hand, cellists seem to overplay the suites themselves, at least how they're often portrayed on film. The character plays a cello, so of course they're heard playing the first prelude, and vice versa (prelude comes on - wow, the character is a cellist!). If they're so brilliant, why don't they play something else, like the Kodaly sonata for example? Well, I guess I should put in on..)

August 22, 2020, 10:37 AM · It has been said that Bach's 5th cello suite may have had its origin as a piece for the lute. If this is so then that would explain the desirability of a scordatura when transferred to the cello. Note that the lute's courses are tuned mainly in 4ths with a 3rd in there somewhere.
August 23, 2020, 1:04 PM · Wow… so much good information to think and learn about. has the most amazing, impressive expertise given freely, thoughtfully, and well-spoken. Thank you so much!! I am so glad that I am not spitting on old Bach’s face, Cotton !!! (;>) As soon as I log out I am ordering Valerie Arsenault's Edition of the suites. I think I am about several weeks away from finishing up on the prelude, and I want to pick the next easier one - this will help a great deal; thank you for the tip Paul.

Speaking of preludes, I now have other prelude challenges ahead of me - thank you Xuanyuan for suggesting the E major (isn’t that the most difficult in Cello?) Another thanks to Paul for recommending the D minor on the cello (A minor on the violin).

All such great information. Felix, I found your explanation especially understandable; I think you must a great violin teacher. I also always look forward to reading Andrew Victor’s posts - such an amazing life you’ve led.

I sometimes get so confused with what I think is wrong or badly explained information in books and especially the internet. It’s such a blessing to have and Laurie Niles to clear up things.

August 23, 2020, 2:55 PM · The Prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 is nice and all, but it's no Kreutzer No. 13!
August 23, 2020, 3:21 PM · I believe Xuanyuan was suggesting the E major prelude from the 3rd violin partita, not from the cello suites. It's much harder than the other things you have mentioned. I respectfully disagree with his suggestion; it's hard to imagine he was being serious.
August 24, 2020, 12:42 AM · There's another aspect to Daniel's question that hinges on the word "meaning". You might say Bach's suites are pure music with no meaning at all, but playing them in a higher register undoubtedly alters the impression they create on a listener, not to say the player. Bach surely had a certain sound atmosphere in mind; as I play them on the violin I find it hard to get a feeling of what you might call "authenticity", mainly because the sound is too shrill without sufficient weight in the bass. But I'm keen to work on them some more.
Edited: September 18, 2020, 2:34 AM · I saw Bashmet do the Bach S&P on the viola on TV maybe 25 or more years ago.
His opinion then was that on the violin Bach was dramatic: on the viola he was philosophical.
Does that help?
August 25, 2020, 12:41 PM · That's interesting. I do find the viola encourages a more reflective, maybe even nostalgic style, but can the same notes (albeit in different registers) do double duty?
August 25, 2020, 2:33 PM · Here the Prelude played in one viola made by me, violist Esther Apituley, Amsterdam.
Edited: September 16, 2020, 4:48 PM · Play the suites on violin, and viola. And, if you can, play the S&P on cello. It's remarkable how each instrument adds something special to the music.

Suite VI was written for a 5 string instrument and is particularly beautiful on the violin because it benefits from the brilliance and sweetness of a violin's E string. The Ferdinand David violin transcription (which you can download on IMSLP) is not a bad starting point.

I understand if cellists feel possessive about the suites, but if I had only one recording to take to a desert island, I might well choose a viola performance because the nimbleness of a viola adds so much clarity to the passage work.

Conversely, to see a cellist play some of the virtuoso passages of the Sonatas and Partitas -- say, the great C major fugue -- is exhilarating and incredibly beautiful if they have the skills to pull it off.

Edited: September 17, 2020, 12:38 AM · @Adrian Heath: re Bach's Magnificat transposed into D: I think this was necessary to allow him to add trumpets. Baroque trumpets were limited in the notes they could play, and D major was their 'best' key. Similarly, his selected key for the B minor Mass allowed him to modulate to the relative major for the joyous and triumphant movements. It ends in D major. Composers generally have strong feelings and associations for particular keys, but sometimes the choice is a practical one.

However, please take anything I say about trumpets with the proverbial pinch of salt, as I have only a very faint understanding of the instruments that sit behind the strings!

September 17, 2020, 7:03 AM · It's all about transposing to another key, and that's totally fine, same tension/release proportions apply.

HOWEVER, what we could talk about is the overall pitch, the note height of the piece. In other words, violins sound way higher than cellos. One could argue that some pieces only make sense if they are performed by a specific instrument. Even if we talk about the same family, like double bass, cello, viola and violin, which are the same but bigger or smaller, there are still so many pieces that don't really do well if played in other instrument.

As an example, take a violin concerto and imagine it being played in a double bass. All those celestial moments of high pitched notes would transform into low, heavy breathing notes, it would not make that much sense.

I've learnt that Bach piece in the violin too (just the first movement) and it sounds great, but that huge vibration of the low notes of the cello can't just be generated by a violin. There's certain magic in that. Some pieces will work fantastic in violin and cello, but others are really meant to be played only with one of those.

I'd like to say that a cello makes cakes, as in birthday cakes, and a violin makes pastry. When you transpose a violin piece, you are basically taking that high detailed pastry full of colors and nuances and making it huge as a cake. Some pastries would lose all their magic if you simply make them industrial sized. Same applies here. With the cello it's the same, it's like taking a nice carrot cake with this splendid icing and those nice portions that make you taste everything that's there, and making it tiny small. Some cakes will look and taste fantastic standard sized or pastry sized, but others will lose everything.

There you go :)

Edited: September 17, 2020, 10:30 PM · On the cello, the suites are intended to highlight the nearly universal damnation of all mankind to eternal torture in a subterranean inferno. On the violin, the suites portray a sunny field of spring flowers. So I think the answer to your question is definitely "Yes."
September 18, 2020, 12:00 AM · "Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it", so no.
September 18, 2020, 1:50 AM · To me some of the cello suite movements sound shrill and nervy when played on the violin. No music is pitch-independent and there comes a point when transposition up or down makes it sound ridiculous - remember the Chipmunks?
September 18, 2020, 2:26 AM · @Christian Lesniak

I guess both the cello suite prelude and Kreutzer 13 change their meanings when I play them on viola.

My teacher just assigned me the prelude last week and I have done Kreutzer 13 a few months back. I'm surprised by how much I like working on those two pieces and I don't care if they are originally composed for other instruments.

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