Works For Solo Cello Volume 2: Album Program Notes

Works for Solo Cello Volume 2  

J.S. Bach Suite No. 2 in d minor  for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1008

Suite No. 2 in d minor by J.S. Bach is the second of his Six Suites for solo cello.  The BWV number, or Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue), is 1008, which while a higher number than the Partita No. 2 for solo violin’s listing of 1004, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was composed in that order.  The works were grouped by genre and not by date written.  These suites were composed between 1717-1723 in Köthen, Germany, during which time Bach also composed the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, the Brandenburg Concertos, and the Well-Tempered Klavier.  

There is no surviving manuscript of the Six Suites for Solo Cello in the hand of J.S. Bach, but rather a few manuscripts that were in the hands of Anna Magdalena Bach (Bach’s second wife), J. Peter Kellner, and three other unknown authors.  The suites’ form is standard throughout.  Each begins with a Prelude followed by the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuets I & II (though this movement is interchanged with Gavottes and Bourées in later suites), and the Gigue.  

This Suite stands alongside other great works in d minor by the composer such as the Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in d minor, and the Partita No. 2 in d minor for solo violin.

J.S. Bach Partita No. 2 in d minor for solo violin, BWV 1004 (arr. Laszlo Varga)

Bach’s Partita No. 2 in d minor BWV 1004 for solo violin is one of the most regarded works for the violin.  It includes the famous Chaconne which as a stand-alone work remains one of the most important works ever written for a solo instrument.  The Chaconne has been transcribed many times for the piano, guitar, and organ, as well as the orchestra.  There have been a few transcriptions and arrangements of the Bach Chaconne for solo cello, and even one for two cellos.

 The arrangement heard on this CD is by Hungarian-born American cellist Laszlo Varga, who in addition to being known as a soloist and chamber musician, served as the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic for 11 years.  In this arrangement Varga preserves all of the original notes and the only change was to transpose the work an octave lower.  This presents even greater technical challenges for the cellist, as the top E string of a violin is absent from the cello.  In the Chaconne, Laszlo Varga even adds a few notes to some chords “because of the availability of the cello C string.”  

My own personal history with this work goes back to the late 1990’s, when Laszlo Varga presented me a copy of his transcription after hearing me play the Prelude of the Sixth Suite of J.S. Bach.   I did not know who he was at the time; I only saw this man lean forward in interest as I began to play a cello for sale at a booth during the Texas Music Educators Convention in San Antonio.  He excused himself after I was done and came back with this music as a gift.  Since that moment it has been an important part of my life.  I first performed the Chaconne   that following year for a local competition, for which I received the top prize.  The next performance was some years later at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas.  Since then I have performed the Chaconne in recital at Southwestern University in Georgetown, and in 2011, I gave my first and second performance of the entire Partita for the Salon Concerts Series in Austin, Texas.  This is the only available recording of the full Partita in d minor - arranged for cello which also includes the Bach Chaconne performed on cello.

Ross Lee Finney Chromatic Fantasy in E for solo cello

Ross Lee Finney was an American composer from Minnesota who lived from 1906-1997 and studied with Nadia Boulanger, Edward Burlingame Hill, Alban Berg, and Roger Sessions.  He taught at the University of Michigan and Smith College.  George Crumb was one of his most known students.  He won a Pulitzer scholarship and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for his First String Quartet.  He also received a Purple Heart for serving during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services.  You may wonder what Ross Lee Finney has to do with Bach.  I have decided to include the Chromatic Fantasy in E by Ross Lee Finney on this CD for a few reasons.  I felt, what better to follow the monumental Chaconne in d minor, than this work with a grand name and the letter E following it.  After all “E” does come after “D”. The name, Chromatic Fantasy, makes me think of Bach.  There is the famous Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for piano by Bach – also a version by Busoni for cello and piano that I performed at my Carnegie Hall debut solo recital.

This work, Chromatic Fantasy in E, was also a gift to me, like the Bach Partita, though from my main teacher and mentor, Paul Olefsky.  He inscribed it, “To Douglas – A fine composition for your fine career! Paul Olefsky  Austin 2/5/07”.  Just under that inscription was the hand of Ross Lee Finney “to Paul Olefsky.”  Below the hand drawn title and name of the composer is also written “Jan 25 1957, 345 S Michigan Ave, Pasadena Calif.”

 This is a serial work, which uses the 12 tone row.   In total, there are 278 measures in the manuscript - (129 in the published copy which interestingly omits many time signatures and bar lines) - compared to the Chaconne’s 258 total measures. The runtime of the work is just 10 minutes compared to the 16 minutes of the Bach Chaconne.

The work starts out lyrically, with just some passing dissonant chords that resolve before short outbursts of an agitated accented motive.  The second section, following a peaceful clearing of the sound by a single harmonic tone, is where you might find some distant relationship to Bach. The music just moves where it is tonally supposed to go with ease – though in the case of Finney, it moves into more agitation and aggressive bow strokes.  We have another clearing of the sound and after that a, beautiful lyric build to a new vertical, pesante, or “heavy”, and quite relentless section.  There is another slow, yet softer, build to the works concluding march-like romp.