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Arguably they are made of two cycles -- 1007-9 and 10-12, the latter exploring further chordal writing, technique and scordatura. But my real reason for posting is to ask a couple of questions to the cello suite mavens here. First, what tradition do these suites belong to? Viol music? Or was there an existing repertoire of chordal solo cello music?

And second, is there something intrinsically "cellistic" about this music? Something important lost when played on viol or on viola or bass?
 

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There had been music for solo cello and violin before: Domenico Gabrielli for the cello and Heinrich Biber for the violin. Bach though...took it where it hadn't been.

I think the cello cycle is fairly consistent though and I don't see a clear dividing line between groups. It does seem to be more or less progressive in difficulty. Isserlis has hypothesized (maybe fancifully, but in ways it makes sense) that the whole cycle is meant to depict the life of Christ:
"Perhaps I should admit here that I too have a 'theory' about the story behind the suites, as I wrote in the sleeve-notes for my recording. I believe that they represent the life of Christ, with the 5th Suite portraying the Crucifixion, the 6th the Resurrection. I have absolutely no evidence for this - it is really a feeling, not a theory, in fact; but I do find it an inspiring vision."
The solo violin music which influenced Bach is very fine I think, not Biber but Johann Paul Westhoff. I'd be keen to explore the cello music, especially if it's chordal, I know some of the music for solo viol.

What's the earliest manuscript with all six together? I mean, I don't expect you to do the research - but someone here may just know the answer!
 

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He says


In this recording I consciously have skipped the repeats in order to preserve the clarity of the form and wishing to embrace the entire cycle of the Suites as one great story.

The form he’s talking about isn’t a form within a movement, neither is it the form of a whole suite. It’s the unspecified form of the set of six suites, which he thinks makes one single story - a complex and contentious claim he asserts with no justification.

Is it really one story? And if yes, how does playing the repeats make that less clear?
 
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