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Bach Bass

In the past 30-40 years, the upright bass has evolved and advanced in leaps and bounds due to the technical advances made on the physical characteristics of the bass: High, unwieldy gut strings were replaced with steel strings.  Soon after came realizations by both player and tradesman, that steel strings demanded less clearance and could be played with a much lower string height.  This allowed the player to play things that only just a few years before, he could only dream of ever playing.

If Bach heard and saw us (bass players) now, we would have surely written a lot of music for the bass.  He loved the cello and that is obvious to anyone when they hear one of his suites performed. Playing, working on and performing a movement from of one of the cello suites does several things for a bassist:
  1. By keeping a Bach piece in your practice schedule, you will be including a study of musical phrasing, a technical etude, bowing practice all wrapped into one!   If you have ever been to a cello or bass masterclass when players are asked to play similar movements, it's amazing how differently they can be thought of.  Phrases sometimes start on different notes, the highs and lows (of the musical expressions can vary incredibly) and the different tempos chosen by the player can give the entire movement a different mood and feel.
  2. Technically, studying the Bach Cello Suites will 'force' the player to play and choose new fingerings in order to play the suite fluidly and smoothly that he/she might not ordinarily think of in other music.

With all the different editions, which Bass Bach to choose?

If you want to make a movement of a Bach Cello Suite part of your practice study, or recital, I would start with at least a couple of different copies of music.  The best example of this is Bach's 1st Cello Suite in G Major.  (Everyone, knows what the first suite Prelude sounds like...even if you didn't know it's name!)

I would start with the Peters Edition Cello Suites (the Becker edition)  where you get all six suites in one book.  Not only do you get a lot for the money (all six!), this is the book that so many serious cello players use.  A lot of the same phrasing and bowing commonly used is in this edition.  Thinking 'out of the box' a little will push you and make you learn and pickup things that you won't ordinarily see when only using a bass edition.

Some of Bach's Cello Suites 'fall' extremely well on the bass.  The first and second suites are commonly performed at the same pitch.  That is, the suite is played up an octave, mostly in thumb positioning.  Whether you are just a beginning bass player or more accomplished, playing the Bach Suites will always expand your musical awareness of phrasing.  Some prefer to to play the originally written suite on the bass, up a major 5th.  So for instance, the 3rd Suite in C Major, can then be played up in G Major.  (The Bourrees I and II from the 3rd Suite are currently the most asked for solos for symphony auditions.) Orchestras may actually ask for the 'Sterling' edition.  By asking for the Sterling edition, the audition committee is primarily telling the player (play it in G Major.) 

After spending many, many hours learning Bach, it's often so enlightening to see what other players do with the same piece.  For me, just getting a new fingering for one particular tricky spot can open up the doors to a whole different world of thinking. 

A good example of this again (for the First Suite in G Major).  I would purposely start with my own fingerings at least for the first week or two, then open up the Rabbath edition to see his fingerings or bowings.  By then, you can have a 'dialog' with another idea of how to play that movement. Back to Bach!