Following his success composing for more unconventional tuning with his fifth ‘cello suite, Bach moved on to writing for much stranger variations with his sixth, in D major. It’s possible he composed for instruments such as a cello da spalla, a small hand-held cello, or even the viola equivalent of a viola pomposa, tuned an octave higher and played on the shoulder, like a modern violin or viola. However, even though the majority of performances given since are played on regular, four-string ‘cellos, it’s most likely Bach wrote for a slightly smaller five-string ‘cello, equipped with a top E string, making higher notes much easier to play, and allowing much more complicated multiple stops to be pulled off.
This does mean that playing the suite on a regular four-string cello is a little more difficult, since many of the higher notes need to be played further up the fingerboard, meaning lots more awkward shifts for the performer – Viola players reading regular violin parts often run into these problems!
This is also why some less-common clefs are used in this video – I’ve taken the original score, which is still used by many today, but most modern prints swap bach’s alto and soprano clefs for tenor and treble, which most cellists are taught from an intermediate level. If you would like to read the simpler (but still what Bach wrote) edition in more modern clefs, try this edition, kindly typeset and uploaded for free reuse by Shin-Itchiro Yokoyama. (link to imslp.org)
Generally, each player has their own style, when transcribing five-string music for four-strings. Virtuosi like Yo-Yo Ma practice extremely difficult double-stop shifts to play the near-impossible chords; some have even transposed the entire suite into a different key to allow the left hand to sit more comfortably in lower positions, while omitting one or two extra notes in chords. The extremely talented Colin Carr, in this recording, goes all out and manages to completely eliminate the need for a fifth string with quick shifts, and skillful jumps.
Hope you found this interesting! The score and performance audio used in my video was downloaded from the public domain at imslp.org, an amazing website filled with thousands of non-copyrighted documents and audio files. If you’d like to see more of Bach’s music, several more of his ‘cello suites played on both ‘cello and viola are available on my YouTube channel, along with many more of his compositions. Thank you! 🙂