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Bach's cello suites

A Minute with Miles

A word today about the solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. The melodies to which we’re most accustomed in the music of such composers as Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, usually feature easily identifiable beginnings, middles, and ends. We recognize them as melodies, and we often have no trouble humming or whistling them. 

Bach’s music, on the other hand, is rarely built on such melodies, and in fact much of his music – and much of the music in the solo cello suites, in particular – is built on patterns that are hard to identify as melodies at all.  “I expect you have noticed how you never hear people whistling [Bach],” wrote Claude Debussy, who once referred to Bach’s music as “pure musical arabesque.” Or to put it another way: in Bach’s music we must abandon the idea of always knowing where we are. The journey is the thing.  And even without obvious guideposts, if we let ourselves be carried along, by the end of the journey we know that we’ve come a very long way.  

A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.