Many cellists who decide to explore baroque style and performance practice aren’t sure where to turn for repertoire. Here are a few of my suggestions and resources to get you started.
Before we talk specifics on pieces and composers, make sure that you get a good edition. For performance practice that means something in the hand of the composer, or if not his hand, a copyist from the same time period. We want to avoid modern print editions that have editors weighing in on musical decisions. Most 20th century editors aren’t referring to the historical treatises that we use in performance practice, so their editorial markings (dynamics, bowings, etc.) are usually more to a 20th century aesthetic. Between your own knowledge and research of performance practice and what the composer gave you, you should have more than enough information to get you started. [If you want to learn more about playing the baroque style, you can browse some of my instructional videos here.]
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) – Six Cello Suites for Unaccompanied Cello
This is an obvious first step as many cellists play these pieces on modern cello. I suggest choosing a suite or movement that you haven’t studied heavily on modern cello, just to avoid your muscle memory taking over your technique. You’ll be working with gut strings instead of steel strings and also adjusting to new musical concepts, so it’s best to start with a clean slate to avoid too many modern habits creeping in.
The Cello Suites are great pieces to work on many technical elements. You’ll often be playing chords and double stops which will be helpful for building your baroque bow technique. The Suites also make you play multiple voices at once which is good practice for understanding counterpoint and harmony.
I suggest the Bärenreiter Urtext edition which includes 5 manuscript sources for the suites. Unfortunately we do not have a surviving manuscript in Bach’s hand, so we have to look at a few different sources and make our own decisions from there. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Bärenreiter’s Urtext, they have a condensed version here. Watch performances of Bach’s Cello Suites on baroque cello here.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Six Sonatas for Cello and Basso Continuo
Another set of works popular on modern cello, the sonatas by Vivaldi are quintessential cello pieces that are great for getting used to playing with continuo. Vivaldi (and many other 18th century Italian composers) had a great understanding of the violin family instruments, so his music is particularly idiomatic. Because these pieces are not very dense musically, they’re great for implementing stylistic elements and getting comfortable with a baroque set-up. If you can, ask another cellist, bassist, or keyboard player to play the continuo part with you so you can get practice hearing the harmony. Baroque music is harmonically-driven, so it’s essential for the soloist to understand what’s going on harmonically and not just in the solo part.
Domenico Gabrielli (1659-1690) – Ricercari for Violoncello Solo
Considered to be some of the first pieces written for solo cello, the ricercars by Gabrielli are a great introduction to 17th century style. In the 17th century the cello was predominantly a bass line instrument, and even the solo repertoire typically stayed in the bass range. As a baroque cellist, you’ll mostly find yourself playing continuo and bass lines, so it’s great to practice shaping these kinds of lines in your solo repertoire. These pieces by Gabrielli are unaccompanied. Some manuscript copies are available on IMSLP.org.
Joseph Marie Clément Dall’Abaco (1675-1742) – Capricci for Violoncello Solo
Dall’Abaco is a fairly unknown composer, but he was a cellist and wrote this collection of pieces for solo cello. These 18th century pieces are not nearly as dense as Bach’s Cello Suites, but they offer sweet and charming melodies and more playability. Editions of this music have been hard to track down; I have a great Urtext from White Prince Publishers that seems to be out of print. This edition seems decent, and the manuscript is available here.
Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) – Six Sonatas for Cello and Basso Continuo
Geminiani is somewhat of an authority on string playing in the 18th century. He wrote a number of works for violin, string orchestra, and also the treatise The Art of Playing the Violin. He was also known for being wild and rhythmically unstable and his music definitely captures that. His sonatas for cello are a step up from Vivaldi, capturing the Italian style but with more erratic tendencies and the occasional French element. His facsimile is available on IMSLP.org.
Jean-Baptiste Barrière (1707-1747) – Cello Sonatas, Books 1-4
Barrière was a French composer who wanted to prove the cello could do everything the viola da gamba could do. The gamba was a much more popular solo instrument in France, so Barrière traveled to Italy to learn about violin family string writing. The result is 4 large books of sonatas for cello and continuo combining both French and Italian style. The sonatas range from very playable to quite difficult, and the continuo part gets active at times, almost like a duet. The music is available on IMSLP.org.
This should be enough to get you started! Feel free to leave your questions or other suggestions for baroque cello repertoire. For more on performance practice and baroque cello, subscribe to my YouTube channel, or if you find these resources helpful, consider supporting my videos and blog posts through Patreon.