Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites are among the most beloved and renowned works of classical music. They have been transcribed for 19 different instruments and have appeared in ballet, theatre and film. But for almost two hundred years after they were composed they were largely unknown, until the 13-year-old Catalan cello prodigy Pablo Casals stumbled upon them in a second-hand music shop, fell in love with them and ultimately introduced them to the world. Since then they have acquired a magical aura which continues to attract and fascinate audiences. One could almost say that if the cello were to write music for itself, it would be the Bach cello suites. No other work for solo cello is as broadly expressive, as widely varied, or as native to the instrument itself as Bach’s suites. Through what are on the surface simple dance suites, Bach takes us on a spiritual journey like no other, leading us from joy to tragedy, concluding in jubilation, even triumph.
In December 2021, award-winning international cellist Steven Isserlis came to Intelligence Squared to take us deep into that emotional journey, bringing to bear all his many years’ experience of performing the suites. Drawing on the themes of his new book The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion, he offered his own very personal observations of the music, illustrating his points with extracts from his own recording of the works.