A simple instrument, the cello has four strings stretched tight across a hollow wooden body extending to a long, thin neck. Pressing a finger against a string at different points along the fingerboard, a part of the neck, changes the highness or lowness of the sound when that string is plucked or, more customarily, bowed. The relationship in pitch between the first string and second is the same as that between the second and the third, and the third and the fourth. Such an elementary instrument would seem to be an unlikely vehicle for some of the world’s greatest music. But then, the six cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach are themselves an unlikely triumph, and how they became so popular is far from a simple story.

Here to tell that story in The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion is Steven Isserlis, the British cellist and...


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