The cello suites by J.S. Bach have now become standard repertoire for the double bass and almost a right of passage for many aspiring young bassists. Once the preserve of the few is now home to the many, but who would have thought it? Previous generations would play the suites, usually transposed into different keys, but nowadays bassists are able to play them, not only at pitch but also magnificently.
I’m not sure that cellists and violinists are completely convinced when we plunder some of their greatest repertoire, but I am convinced that transcriptions have done more to further the progress of the solo double bass over the last fifty years than anything else. Who would have dreamt that the Elgar and Dvořák cello concertos could ever be played on the double bass, or the Franck Violin Sonata and Cello Sonata No. 2 by Brahms?
Bach is still the pinnacle of musical perfection for musicians, especially string players. There are numerous editions of the cello suites for double bass — Sterling, Pelczar, Novosel, Bernat — and I have enormous respect for each editor and edition, which has truly a labour of love when transcribing for an instrument tuned in fifths for an instrument tuned in fourths. H. Samuel Sterling was a pioneer, and how many hours must it have taken him? Not only that, he then persuaded a major publishing company to publish all of them, which remain in print from 1957 to the present day. He was obviously one of those tenacious bassists who had a passion for the instrument and to increase its repertoire, and it would have taken him hundreds of hours to complete — selecting the best keys, adapting the double stops and ornaments, adding bowings and fingerings, which takes a vast amount of dedication. This, at a time when the double bass was primarily an orchestral instrument in the UK, and the vast majority of bassists were not interested in solo playing. Thankfully there are always a few who swam against the prevailing tide, and H. Samuel Sterling appears to have been one of these.
Since the editions of Sterling were published, there have been many other editions, some transposed and others played at pitch. Each publication has its own merits, and the number of new editions over the years is a testament to the continuing fascination and dedication to this wonderful music and a determined tenacity of each new generation to bring something new to the mix. There was also a fascination with Bach’s unaccompanied music in the 19th-century, and a number of composers created piano accompaniments for many works at a time when the solo violin or cello was almost unknown. Each generation has had a different attitude and approach to Bach’s music, and, almost three centuries after his death, the music is as alive and vibrant as the day it was composed.
Not everyone agrees that bassists should play unaccompanied Bach on the double bass, and often fellow bassists are our fiercest critics. My attitude is that everyone should study the cello suites, in whichever edition or key they prefer. The opportunity to develop and increase your musical and technical skills from this music is astounding, and the challenges are a perfect opportunity to question traditional fingering patterns and approaches. The need to discover new ways to solve the technical issues is an excellent way to extend your advanced technical knowledge of the double bass and to create new skills for the future.
Not only have bassists purloined the cello suites, but many of Bach’s solo violin works have also been appropriated, each adding to the sum total of where the double bass is today and how much has been achieved over the past few decades. The pioneering spirit of bassists knows no limits, thankfully, and the solo double bass and technical advancement continue apace.
If J.S. Bach were alike today, I am certain he would be at the forefront of composers writing for the double bass. He would have borrowed an instrument and studied what was possible and what wasn’t and would have written amazingly for the instrument. Sadly we don’t have any original works for the double bass by him. Cellists and violinists have such a vast repertoire of some of the best music ever written and, if we “borrow” a few, the world won’t end, or a new Ice Age won’t occur. Although Bach died 271 years ago, he is still helping bassists to push the boundaries even further and inspires new generations to challenge themselves and the potential of the double bass.