They’re one of the greatest glories of classical music but the Cello Suites took many decades to be appreciated and understood. Steven Isserlis tells the story of ‘one of the pillars of western civilisation’
Much of Bach’s music was forgotten after his death in 1750. A few works – mainly for keyboard – had been published during his lifetime, mostly at his own expense; and a few unpublished works somehow became known, too. His first biographer, Forkel, tells us that “for a long series of years the violin solos were universally considered by the greatest performers on the violin to be the best means to make an ambitious student a perfect master of his instrument”. Meanwhile, in late 18th-century Vienna, Mozart was introduced to several of Bach’s works by Baron van Swieten, a fanatic for baroque music, to whom Forkel’s Bach biography is dedicated (as is Beethoven’s first symphony). Later, Mozart got the chance to hear more of Bach’s choral works in Leipzig. An eyewitness reported: “As soon as the choir had sung a few bars, Mozart started; after a few more he exclaimed: ‘What is that?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be centred in his ears. When the song was ended, he cried out with delight: ‘Now, here is something from which one can learn!’” Just a few years earlier, the first-ever review of Beethoven, when he was 11 years old, tells us that: “He plays chiefly The Well-Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe [Beethoven’s teacher] put into his hands.”
So Bach was not completely forgotten – but his cello suites were. There is no record of a performance for at least 100 years after they came into being. It was not until cellist Louis-Pierre Norblin published his edition in 1824 – presumably based on the manuscript copy acquired by CPE Bach (Bach’s second son) – that they began to be more widely disseminated. Three more editions appeared in as many years and then another in 1831, possibly prompted by Mendelssohn’s famous Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. After that, things went a bit quiet; but by now, the suites were starting to be appreciated.