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From Tragedy to Transcendence: The Six Suites for ‘Cello Solo – J. Sebastian Bach – for Acoustic guitar

To have the passion to transcribe one piece of classical music for guitar is to be applauded, as it is more than a work of love, it is a work of passion, of understanding more than just the traditional aspects of the created piece. To have the desire to transcribe Bach’s Six Suites for ‘Cello is something more than just having a love and passion of the music contained within the Suites, it is a love affair coupled with a burning desire to share the magnificence of a Suite of music almost lost to mankind.

Steven Hancoff first heard the music of the ‘Cello Suites back in the 1980’s and fell in love, with not just the music, but also the story which accompanied the music; a story which Bach has used to create the music which weaves and entrances, as fresh today as it was when first written back in 1720. That the music survived at all was nothing short of a miracle. That it has been transcribed into modern format or metre suitable for acoustic guitar, thus reintroducing it to a wider audience, is indeed something very special, rare and beautiful.

Bach composed the Suites after the death of his beloved wife Maria Barbara Bach; whether the music was in honour of her life and her passing or was simply his way of coming to terms with the hand life had dealt him is unknown, but whatever the inspiration behind the music, it has been composed with a delicate hand, a reverence, a love of his wife and his passion, that of music. That Bach was an undoubted genius is legendary.

As Hancoff was drawn further and further in the transcription he realised he needed to be able to understand the man and his life in far more detail, in order to successfully transcribe the music. He soon discovered the more he learned about Bach, the more he listened to the Suites, the more and more ideas he came across to bring into the transcription.  This voyage of discovery just added to the challenge, the complexity and has eventually become the largest collection of Bach-analia in the world.

That ‘Cello is a ‘one-note-at-a –time’ instrument and the guitar is specifically designed to play chords, bass notes and melody, simply added that extra inspiration to each of the 36 movements which make up the Suites.

For those of you who may consider transcribing the ‘Cello Suites’ as sacrilege, first take a listen to this majestic work; it is anything but! The composition was created at a time in Bach’s life where he must truly have doubted so many things. It was never performed and was only found by chance in a second hand book store in Barcelona in 1920 by Pablo Casals. Casals practiced these works for more than twelve years on a daily basis, before he felt confident enough to be able to play the pieces in public.

This was the first time these works were played for more than 200 years and it is suggested this was the first time the works were performed since it was written.

The change of metre to guitar moves this glorious collection into the modern world making it far more accessible to the general public. The guitar also adds a dimension that was not possible back in 1720.

Delicate, soft and reverent the music touches the inner person in the manner it was created to be able to do; to play and be listened too when life got a little or a lot tough, to remind yourself that all things do pass, and music like a slow flowing river moves over you to help heal the sorrow, lighten the soul and lift the burden of daily existence.

As Hancoff discovered when he set out to transpose a Suite of classical music, a work that has moved on from simply the music to becoming what he now considers his life’s work, that this was a work that needed to be heard, played  and enjoyed.

He must have  often wondering if the ghost of Bach was not sitting on his shoulder inspiring him to try this, or try that with the harmonic creations that kept emerging from the written notes.

Hancoff refers to Bach as a ‘genius’; the great cellist Mischa Maisky called his music ‘dictation from God’, but whatever or however you choose to listen or play these Suites, you will be touched by the music, find yourself returning over and over again to one of the three discs which make up the set or simply letting the time old notes wash over you from beginning to end.

The end note though has to go to Steven Hancoff for his dedication to the project which has become an integral component of this life, and which has given the world a wonderful interpretation of what should be considered a timeless classic, whatever the metre.

ArtistsSteven Hancoff: J. Sebastian Bach