Bach Unaccompanied Suites for Tuba

It was in 1954 when I first encountered the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites but they had been around a long time before that! My teacher gave me a volume of all six of them and told me to start looking them over; I did and I still am! When the day came that I determined they would never work well for tuba, it was very difficult for me; in those days I thought nothing was impossible and compromise was not a part of my tuba nature.

Now finally we have a new volume of these suites transcribed by Ralph Sauer, principal trombonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra that take into consideration all the string idioms that did not translate well to brass instruments and did so in an idiomatic way for brass and for this review particularly tuba.

Ralph's premise in these transcriptions was deciding what Bach would have done if he were writing for a wind instrument and specifically tuba. He did a wonderful job, particularly dealing with tessitura, multiple stops and where to breathe. I have, as has Ralph, always thought that if a great master composer like Bach had known what was available in tuba or other post Bach instruments today, it would have not been difficult for him to make the modifications that would have functioned fluidly and musically.

In fact Ralph has transcribed these suites for all the brass instruments and he has proven his in depth knowledge by treating them all individually so that the idiosyncrasies of each instrument were fully considered.

For tuba the tonality of all the suites has been changed in all but one, down a 4th; Suite #6, because of its higher tessitura, was changed down a major 6th. (The sixth suite was written for a five stringed cello making it the highest register of the sixsuites). These changes of tonality put all the suites in reasonable registers let the player think more of musicality than high chops!

Breathing has been very well thought through and although not rigid in their places, guide the player to at least a good choice for a breath. Ralph recommends the breaths usually by leaving I note out, such as a passing tone or creation a rubato and allowing enough time for a breath at the slowest point.

The multiple stops are very logically and tastefully calculated as grace notes, sometimes all the notes in the arpeggio and sometimes only one note. Bach himself uses this technique in his unaccompanied works for flute and oboe. I want to personally say that I can remember many hearing many tries at performing these cello suites where the performer tried to play all the notes in every multiple stop and cross string arpeggio; quite simply it never worked.

Still the freedom for individualism is abundant and the treatments suggested by Ralph are given only as suggestions. In the forward in this volume Ralph quotes Pablo Casals in the following: “where interpreting Bach's music is concerned, there are no hard and fast rules… The best thing to do is to discard all preconceived ideas and try to approach in our performance whatever the music conveys to us…”

I admire and respect Ralph enormously for the work and excellence that went into this project, we needed it, it's done extremely well and I will use it frequently in my teaching. Further, I predict that these transcriptions will soon be required material for future international competitions.

Thanks and Bravo!

Manchester, January 2005

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