MVCMS brings us Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites

Cellist Benjamin Swartz is part of the MVCMS classical music weekend. —Courtesy MVCMS

For classical music fans on Martha’s Vineyard, Columbus Day weekend will be a very special weekend. The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society will present a concert series, during which over the course of two evenings, Boston-based cellist Benjamin Swartz will play all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites.

Bach’s suites are among the most remarkable solo compositions ever written for the cello. From the opening notes that are nearly universally recognizable to the final cadences, it’s as if the music came out perfectly formed; the suites have long earned their place among the masterpieces of the era in which they were composed. Written during the period of 1717-1723, the suites are extraordinary in their ability to create the illusion of multi-voiced contrapuntal and polyphonic composition in a single musical line. As such, Bach’s fundamental genius when it came to manifesting the hidden secrets of melodies he created is without parallel in western music and so it is here with the Cello Suites. A detail one might add as well: each suite is structured in seven movements based on Baroque dance types, allowing for maximum compositional variety and, too, variety for us, the listeners. The music of the Cello Suites is so profoundly well-loved that the suites have been arranged and transcribed for many instruments. They are considered among Bach’s greatest musical achievements, but one must note that these compositions were little known and rarely performed until the great 20th-century cellist Pablo Casals took them up.

Here comes the special twist for those lucky enough to be on Martha’s Vineyard for this concert: we will be able to hear the suites on both a modern and Baroque cello as well as take in a lecture by Swartz, focusing on his in-depth research into the suites and their performance practice. Why? Unlike Bach’s solo violin sonatas, no autograph manuscripts of the Cello Suites have survived, creating a unique challenge for both scholars and performers. Swartz intends to unpack the details for us.

Swartz’s studies with his teacher, Anner Bylsma, focused on historically informed performance practice, and how the instrumental technologies of the Baroque era inform the interpretation of the Bach Suites at the time they were composed. He writes, “While it is impossible to truly know how this music sounded in Bach’s time, by focusing on technological differences such as catgut strings, the neck angle of the cello, the shorter fingerboard and the configuration of the Baroque bow, it is possible to gain significant insight into the sound world of their composition. On Martha’s Vineyard, the music will be played on both a modern cello and a recently commissioned 5-string Baroque cello by Katrien Vandermeersch so that audiences can experience first-hand the differences in sound and style between the two instrument technologies.” The concerts will also serve as a personal memorial to Swartz’s teacher, who died this July at the age of 85.

Swartz has long been interested in historically informed performance. As a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, on a program from his undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins University, he studied the historically informed performance practice of the Bach Cello Suites in Amsterdam, Holland. He later earned his postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he was awarded the Nancy Nuttall Early Music Prize. Since then, Mr. Swartz has concertized extensively in the United States and Europe, with a particular emphasis on historically informed performance practice, electroacoustic collaboration, and the exploration of neglected repertoire. Equally at home on the cello, Baroque cello, and the viola da gamba, he has gained increasing recognition for multi-instrumental virtuosity spanning the Arts Subtilior (a musical style characterized by rhythmic and notational complexity, centered on Paris, Avignon in southern France, and also in northern Spain at the end of the 14th century) to the present day. Currently a resident of Boston, he performs as cellist with Sound Energy, and teaches at Bridgewater State University, Endicott College, and the South Shore Conservatory. Highlights of his 2018-19 season included performances at Carnegie Hall, the Berliner Philharmonie, the Philharmonie de Paris, and the Lucerne Festival.

The concert of the first three suites on Saturday, Oct. 12, at 7 pm, and the second concert featuring the remaining three suites will be on Sunday, Oct. 13, at 7 pm. All three events will be at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Ticket prices for each of the two concerts is $20, or $30 for both concerts. Tickets may be purchased online at, or at the door. The Sunday lecture is open to the public free of charge and starts at 3 pm.