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Preface to Cotelle’s edition of JS Bach’s Cello Suites

April 11, 2014

This post consists of an introduction to the Cotelle edition of JS Bach’s cello suites, a reproduction of the Preface, a transcription of the Preface (the original not having reproduced that well) and a translation of it into English.  There is also an link to an excellent article by George Kennaway which provides detailed information about editions of JS Bach’s suites for solo cello.

The Janet et Cotelle edition of JS Bach’s suites for solo cello was published in 1824 and was the first nineteenth-century performing edition.  The M. Norblin mentioned in the Preface may have been the editor (1).

There can be no doubt that the Cotelle edition of JS Bach’s solo cello suites is historically important.  However, perhaps as would be expected, this edition is not perfect. There are some misprints and therefore wrong notes and in the Prelude of Suite 6 there are five bars missing (1).  The editor has added some dynamics and inconsistent slurring and Bach’s movement title Bourée  sometimes becomes Loure (1).  There are of course now editions available without these mistakes, even from as early the 1820s, for example, Julius Dotzauer’s 1826 edition (1).  For the purposes of this exercise historical interest and importance, availability, copyright issues and legibility make the Cotelle edition very useful and it is after all mostly accurate.  It is an interesting exercise to compare the edition with the Casals recording.




Un des compositeurs les plus célèbres dans toute L’Europe, dont la réputation fut le plus justenment méritée, est sans contredit Sébastien BACH.  Ses Fugues pour le piano et ses Etudes pour le violon ont toujours été mises au nombre des ouvrages classiques.  Dans la vue de completer un cours d’exercices pour les trois principaux instrumens de la music moderne, le même auteur avait composé des Etudes particulières pour le violoncelle; mais cet oeuvre n’a jamais été gravé, il etait même difficile de le découvrir.  Aprés beaucoup de recherches en Allemagne, M. NORBLIN, de la musique du Roi, premier violoncelle de L’Académie royale de Musique, a enfin recueilli le fruit de sa persévérance, en faisant la découverte de ce précieux manuscrit.

Ce recueil se compose de six suites, dont chacune est divisée en six morceaux.  La sixième suite est la seule qui ait pour object les sons élevés du violoncelle; le reste de l’ouvrage est destiné à exercer le bas du manche; et comme c’est dans les sons graves que consiste le véritable caractère de l’instrument, c’est aussi là que résident les difficultés les plus réelles.  Ainsi les Etudes de BACH pour le violoncelle ne seront pas moins classiques que ses autres ouvrages, et la publication de ce recueil ne peut manquer d’obtenir le plus grand succès.  En le faisant connaître nons croyons rendre service aux amateurs et professeurs de cet instrument, à tous les amis de la bonne musique, à l’art tout entier.


JS Bach is unquestionably one of Europe’s most famous composers.  His fugues for piano and his studies for violin have always been regarded as classics.  In order to complete a set of exercises for the three main instruments of modern music, the same composer had written ​​special studies for cello; but this work has never been engraved and was difficult to find. After a lot of research in Germany, M. Norblin, principal cellist of the Royal Academy of Music, has finally reaped the fruits of his perseverance by the discovery of this precious manuscript.

This collection consists of six suites, each of which is divided into six pieces. The sixth suite is the only one that has as its object the high register of the cello; the rest of the book is intended to exercise the lower register; and as it is in the bass that lies the true nature of the instrument, it is also where most real difficulties lie.  Thus these studies by BACH for the cello are no less important than his other works, and the publication of this book cannot fail to obtain the greatest success. Publication of this work is we believe a great service to both amateurs and teachers of this instrument, and to all friends of good music and of art.

Translation by Barry Mitchell 2014


My original idea was to use in this project a reproduction of the autograph manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach which forms the basis of all subsequent editions of the Bach solo cello suites. This would have been the idealistic solution but there were practical problems such as finding a facsimile edition that reproduces well.  There was also the issue of how many readers would feel comfortable about reading long stretches of dense eighteenth-century handwriting  and a score written using eighteenth-century conventions.


(1) Kennaway, George, Bach Solo Cello Suites: an overview of editions

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