Bach’s sixth suite for unaccompanied cello

The cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Distant echoes, the vast roof overhead - I feel a slight chill and sense of awe when I walk into a cathedral. I get the same feeling of immensity when I listen to Bach’s sixth cello suite, a work the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich called “a symphony for solo cello.”

Eliana Razzino Yang

Each of Bach’s six suites has a defining character: innocence (Suite No.1 in G Major), mournfulness (Suite No.2 in D minor), elation (Suite No.3 in C Major), urbanity (Suite No.4 in Eb Major), angst (Suite No.5 in C Minor) and, for No. 6, majesty and a kind of terrible joy.

People climb this?

This suite is the largest and most difficult of the six by an order of magnitude. Considered the Everest of cello playing, Bach's tuning instructions indicate it was actually composed for a 5-stringed instrument (perhaps the violoncello piccolo) which makes playing it on four strings a Herculean task.

Cellists will note Bach’s unusual tuning instructions
at the top of the manuscript to the sixth suite

Bach’s own advice to a student was notable in how unhelpful it was. “Playing....” he said “is nothing remarkable... all one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself."

Greatest composer of all time or worst music teacher ever?

Eliana Razzino Yang will perform Bach’s sixth suite on the NCMF Winter Baroque concert (streamed). The program includes a world premiere by composer Ania Vu based on themes from the sixth suite and also music by Veracini for violin and cello with Nurit Pacht on violin. (You can find more on Ania Vu, her work, and a conversation with me on the post from last week here.)

As for the actual concert, it will be streamed on Sunday, 20 December at 3:00 PM. Check out for details. In place of tickets, we are asking for voluntary donations in tiers - $10, $20, $30, or more – pay what you can afford. Consider enjoying this holiday event with friends or family - no matter where they are – by forwarding the link to them.

In the meantime, everyone please stay safe and warm,

David Yang, Artistic Director

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