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Out of the Box: Shirley Hunt Plays Bach - on Four, Five, and Six Strings!

Cellist Shirley Hunt is seating looking straight into the camera, wearing a black dress, with her cello across her lap and her left hand wresting on its curve
Robert Torres
Baroque cellist and viola da gambist Shirley Hunt

Find out how the Boston-based cellist keeps three instruments straight and centers women in her vibrant third and final album of J.S. Bach's Cello Suites and Viola da Gamba Sonatas.

 (Transcript below) 

I always like to think of this week, the week between the 21st and the 31st of March, as J.S. Bach’s Birthday Week. Every year there is a bit of a debate as to whether we should celebrate Bach’s birthday on the day he was born, March 21 1685, or the day he was born when you adjust for the ten days added during the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. I think, let’s not debate; let’s celebrate Bach all week long. Or, to quote the Taco Bell commercial: por qué no los dos?

This year, I want to celebrate the Bach Birthday Week by bringing you a recent conversation with Boston-based baroque cellist and viola da gambist Shirley Hunt, about her newest album, J.S. Bach: Suites and Sonatas, Volume III.

[This album] resonates at the intersection of historical performance practice... the study of musical instruments, the celebration of women in the arts, and the cultural history of my own musical community in Boston. - Shirley Hunt

Shirley Hunt is an Oregon native but has been a staple in the early music scene here in Boston - and indeed around the world - for several years now, playing with the Handel and Haydn Society, with Boston Baroque, and even with some cool new ventures, like Ruckus. She is also a founding member of a period instrument string quartet called the Cramer Quartet, which focuses on historically informed performances of Classical and Romantic music, and even runs her own record label, Letterbox Arts.

This newest album is a testament not only to Shirley Hunt's musicality and finesse in the world of period instrument performance, but also how to make that world relevant to today’s. It is also a culmination of eight years of hard work -- eight years that make Shirley the first woman to record the complete Bach Cello Suites and Viola da Gamba Sonatas.

But that's not the only thing that makes this album cool.

To my mind, what makes this album particularly special is that it features Shirley Hunt playing three different instruments: her 18th century baroque four-string cello, her modern replica of an 18th century six-string viola da gamba, and a very rare 18th century five-string cello that is part of the Musical Instrument collection at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts - the type of instrument for which Bach wrote his sixth and final cello suite.

Shirley Hunt playing the Museum of Fine Arts's 1720 Snoeck five string cello, featured on her latest album

In our converation, Shirley Hunt and I discuss how she keeps all those instruments straight in her head, what the differences between them actually are and how Bach wrote to each of their strengths, and how women, from Anna Magdalena Bach to the namesake of the MFA's collection, Leslie Lindsey Mason, represent the backbone of this album of music by J.S. Bach.


Chris Voss (CV): I'm Chris Voss, and welcome to another edition of Out of the Box from 99.5 WCRB. Shirley Hunt is a Boston-based cellist and viola da gambist who has just recently released her third album of Bach's Cello Suites and Viola da Gamba Sonatas, finishing up an eight year project recording all of the cello suites and the viola da gamba sonatas. This most recent album is out now, and she's here to talk to me about it. Shirley, thanks for taking a moment to chat with me.

Shirley Hunt (SH): Hey, Chris, thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

CV: So one of the great things about this album, really the headline of this album is the instruments that you play. You play three different instruments, which is which is pretty cool. I was wondering if you could talk to me about that a little bit.

SH: Sure. This is actually the only album in the three part cycle that has three different bowed bass instruments being played. So there's my own cello, which is a beautiful 18th century instrument by William Forster, Sr. There's also my viola da gamba, which is a more contemporary replica of an older instrument. And then there's this beautiful, rare 18th century five stringed cello from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

And I was so lucky to be given the opportunity to play this cello for Bach's epic sixth suite, which calls for specifically for a five stringed instrument. There are very few existing examples of this kind of instrument today that have survived and that have been preserved in a manner that they are still playable and that we can still enjoy kind of the sound world of what one of these instruments might have sounded like. So it's just amazing that one of these happens to be in the collection at the MFA and that a performer like me was given permission to practice and rehearse and spend a significant amount of time with the instrument, resulting in a recording that is not only a wonderful contribution to my own project, but also an archival recording that the museum can now have in its library to help people not just appreciate the aesthetic of the visual of an instrument, you know, but can also enjoy the sound and imagine what it might have sounded like in Bach's day as well.

CV: How do you keep these instruments straight in your head? I mean, there's the regular cello which you've played your whole life. There is the five string cello, which I think you first played in 2017, and also the viola da gamba in there, which is completely different as an instrument. How do you keep all of that straight?

SH: Well, I try my best, Chris. [Laughs] It's a lot of strings to keep track of, that's true. On this album, you'll hear instruments that have four, five, and six strings. I think it's really a matter of kind of a muscle memory. It's a very physical kinesthetic kind of intelligence, I think, that one has to develop. And rather than having a, like a list of rules or items in my head, it's I think it's very much a learning by feeling process, learning to discern and switch back and forth between those  different instruments. I think of it a little bit like someone who might be playing sports with a ball of some kind, like there are many different kinds of games you could play, like baseball or tennis or something like that. And when you're using the different kinds of equipment to do these different activities, there are sort of like a lot of similar types of movement at play. But you're just having to sort of change that a little bit, modify it for the the shape and the size of the equipment that you might be using. So the fingers of my left hand, for example, are constantly having to adapt, when I move from a four string cello to the viola da gamba, which has frets, for example, and that kind of memory of where the notes are and whatnot, I think that probably more than I even realize I'm exercising to some kind of muscle awareness or muscle memory that kind of goes beyond the kind of conscious thoughts that happen in the brain.

CV: Yeah. What is a viola da gamba? Do you mind just talking about that first?

SH: Of course. So viola da gamba is a name that literally means "instrument of the leg." So viola, being kind of a general term for a string instrument, and "da gamba," meaning of the leg. And the viola da gamba is a wonderful, fascinating instrument that predates the cello. So it predates the violin family and existed, coexisted alongside the cello, the violin, violin family for quite a long time. So it's the viola da gamba is not the predecessor of the cello. It's actually a different instrument from a totally different instrument family. The viola da gamba is kind of a unicorn of an instrument, it's a unicorn in that it's a hybrid. It has these different qualities of bowed stringed instruments with plucked string instruments. So if you think about it, a guitar, a lute, a theorbo, all of these kinds of plucked instruments have frets. They have many strings. They have the ability to play chords. And we see this kind of writing in lots of viola da gamba repertoire, especially in the hundred years or so leading up to Bach's time. We see a lot of these techniques being used and bringing these worlds together, of the plucked instrument.

And the kind of the bow tradition, I think, is what makes the viola da gamba such an interesting and special instrument. And it's also an instrument that would have been played by people who played other instruments. And this is a practice, a historical practice that really fascinates me, because I think it was much more prevalent in centuries past for professional musicians to play multiple instruments, and that just to be a part of their profession and their expertise and what they learned in their education. So for me, doing this project where I'm playing cello, several different kinds of cellos and gamba and having those expressed as an equal part of my musicianship is kind of a study for me, a bit of a historical study in sort of what that may have been like to be a member of Bach's circle, or a member of his orchestra, switching seamlessly from one instrument to another.

CV: Is the history of these instruments something that draws you to doing period instrument work with the gut strings and the bows, versus doing or playing music on a modern instrument?

SH: I think for me, the playing of gut strings and the period instruments is a way of exploring the past in a very tactile, physical sense. And you have this feeling of you're touching something and moving along with an instrument that has been touched. It's been used to make music by so many people in the past and that it's... Your instrument has been in the room sounding with many, many others. And it's a real honor and a privilege to play an old instrument. The sound world of gut strings, I think is so interesting. That sound, I think as a performer, it takes so much sensitivity and finesse to create a beautiful sound.

It gives me a real appreciation for how much nuance was required of a musician who was playing one hundred percent of the time on this, because that was the most current technology at the time. I really feel that it takes so much more care and attention to produce a beautiful sound, to shape a beautiful phrase on this kind of equipment, but that the result is something that's really evocative and has this kind of time machine effect for us where it transports us beyond the limitations or the expectation of the present day.

You know, I think when one more thing that might be interesting to touch upon is that the viola da gamba and the harpsichord instruments that are used in this album are modern replicas of old instruments. So the use of those instruments kind of represents a kind of another facet of where we are now with historical performances, that there are people in the world that we can call up and say, "Hi, will you make me a replica of such and such instrument that's in a museum somewhere?" And that person will say, like, "Why, yes, and I already have the plans, and like, that's a thing that I do." So there's kind of a mixture on this recording of old instruments, my cello from the 18th century, the museum's cello from the 18th century, and more contemporary replicas of of older instruments.


CV: Well, we talked about old and now new, the Bach cello suites. They're sort of like this Everest and also milk and potatoes for cellists. Cellists have to play them, but they are also this sort of like peak. Can you talk to me a little bit as a cellist who plays on period instruments, how your relationship has changed to the suites in particular with this last album?

SH: Absolutely. I think it's interesting, Chris, that you describe this very accurately as a kind of Everest for cellists. But as I hear you describe that, I also find myself thinking that it's also like a giant room. These pieces are like a, they're like a big container. And as a young cellist, I remember thinking, "Wow," like, "How will I ever explore everything that there possibly is or how will I ever turn over every stone that there is to kind of wonder and to kind of unlock the secrets?" For me, I really always have felt that the sixth suite, the one that I got to record on the five string cello from the MFA, as a young cellist, I remember thinking, "Oh, my gosh, this is the hardest thing I've ever going to learn or do."

And in truth, spending that time to learn to play that piece on a five stringed cello was definitely one of the most challenging things that I've ever, ever done as a cellist. But going back to what you said about the study and performance of Bach being like this pinnacle for cellists, it's a project that I've always wanted to do. I've always wanted to really spend the time practicing and recording all of the Bach suites, and just trying to see what I found there, and share with others what I see.


SH: Everyone, I think who approaches these pieces is going to see and find something different, and the beauty of that is that we can hear performances of this over and over again and be showed something new every time.


CV: Talk to me about the viola da gamba sonatas and how they are different from the cello suites,.

SH: The viola da gamba sonatas of Bach are very different from the cello suites. They speak an entirely different musical language, and one of the things I thought would be interesting in the format of the presentation of this CD is to juxtapose those styles, so that the listener has a chance to kind of appreciate, both from near and far, the qualities of these pieces. They are much more like Bach's writing for violin. And the Sonata in D Major, which is in the middle of the CD -- it's sort of flanked by two cello suites -- is my favorite of the three sonatas for viola and harpsichord. It begins with this beautiful Adagio.


SH: And then it bursts into this very, very joyous movement with interplay with the harpsichord.


SH: The sonatas really push the limits of what the viola da gamba can do, and I really see Bach, the keyboard player, the composer, sitting down with all of his ingenious capabilities of keyboard in the way the music is written. So it's often said that Bach kind of disregards the limitations of an instrument and just puts the music out there and you just have to deal with it and go there and whatnot. And I think it's very exciting for the performer and for the listener to really hear that happening. And this is definitely the case.


SH: And in a way, I think that the album almost shows a more experimental side of Bach, and I think this is not always something that we think of when we think of Bach. I think often when we think of Bach, we think of like, "Oh, Bach. He's like a part of the canon and it's kind of like regular, even Steven, Baroque music." And I like the idea that this is kind of a more experimental disc where we can hear this work for the five string cello, we can hear the viola da gamba being really pushed to its limits and some of the more exciting parts of the D Major sonata. And there's an improvisatory quality, I think, in some of the cello-- in the solo cello music that isn't really present in the in the viola da gamba sonatas. So I really wanted to kind of set up the scenario where those two different composition types could be in dialog with one another.

CV: Well, you talk about this beautifully in your program notes or your liner notes of the album. You have this wonderful paragraph. If you don't mind, I'm going to read it. You say, "With this third volume, I began to see how my catalog style project resonated at the intersection of historical performance practice, embodied musicology, past and present, organology (the study of musical instruments), the celebration of women in the arts and the cultural history of my own music community in Boston." I wonder if you wouldn't talk in particular about the women in the arts and how it relates to this album and how it relates to the music that's on the album.

SH: Sure. So I am the first woman to produce a recording like this of the complete cello suites and viola da gamba sonatas of J.S. Bach. Furthermore, the instrument, the five stringed instrument that I was able to use for this recording from the MFA is part of a woman's story that's actually very important to the city of Boston. And this woman's name is Leslie Lindsey Mason. She tragically perished on the Lusitania in 1915. And her father, William Lindsey, was actually a trustee of the MFA. And after William Lindsey's daughter Leslie passed away, he made some important gifts around the city, including a gift of 560 musical instruments to the Museum of Fine Arts. And this cello, this five stringed cello that I had the chance to play, eighteenth century instrument by Marcus Snoeck, and a very rare example of a playable five string cello from that era today, was one of those instruments that was donated in this woman's memory, Leslie Lindsey Mason.

Leslie Lindsey loved music. She was a singer. She participated in musical productions. She loved dancing. And her father really wanted to remember her love of the arts with this gift. Her father also gave the money to create Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church, which is a beautiful space for music and for worship. And the altar screen features all of these carvings of female saints. And it's kind of like this amazing space that celebrates womanhood and the fine arts and women. And I actually had the chance to play this five stringed cello in a concert in that space, which was this incredible synergy of bringing together these different parts of the legacy. And it kind of planted a seed in my head. I thought, "Wow, here's this remarkable cello. It's got five strings. It's perfect for Bach's Sixth Suite. I'm working on this project. I'm in need of an instrument, a five string instrument to record Bach because I don't have one." And it's kind of a specialty instrument that's sort of rare. And I approached the museum asking them if they might want to partner with me on this project, and they said yes. So I was visiting the museum every day for about six weeks, practicing on this cello. And I was so grateful that they let me spend the time with it, the time that I needed to to really learn the piece and prepare it for a recording.

CV: But then there's also the the manuscripts that you play from on this album are the Anna Magdalena manuscripts of the Bach Cello Suites, correct?

SH: That's right. I'm looking at a facsimile of Anna Magdalena Bach's handwriting, her copy of Bach's six cello suites. Now, the reason that we're looking at her copy in the first place is because Bach's original copy of the six cello suites is lost. So performers who are wanting to look at the actual manuscript in a kind of historically accurate or historically informed way will be looking at a series of copies that were made by people who were close to Bach, including Anna Magdalena. So there's a very strong a kind of historical academic reason to look at her manuscripts. But I think there's also another reason to look at her manuscript in that I think that we learn something of her and we have the chance to celebrate and make visible a very important woman who had much to do with Bach's success as his partner, as a breadwinner in the family, as the person who was responsible for the education and rearing of his sons. And it's so much a part of our task now to make visible those women or those persons who were not so visible because of the times that they were living in. But our times are different now. So it's time for Anna Magdalena to shine.

CV: Absolutely. What do you hope people get from it when they listen to this album, and listen and read through your beautiful liner notes? What do you hope they take away from it?

SH: I want the listener to experience a peek into a world where objects and people and history and stories and life and death and birth and interconnected relationships all hover like a halo around some essential truth about life, or about some kind of discovery that can be made everywhere we go. I'm imagining a listener hearing this and being grabbed by the sound world of these instruments, especially the five string cello. I think it really sounds quite different than most things that you hear. You hear it and you think, "Oh, it's not a cello, but is it a gamba, or a cello or could it even be a viola? I'm not sure!" I want the listener to hear it and have questions about it and want to find out more.

CV: Well, they can definitely find out more by getting the album, which is available now. It's the third album of J.S. Bach's Cello Suites and Viola da Gamba Sonatas by cellist and viola da gambist Shirley Hunt. Shirley, thank you so much for taking a moment to chat with me about your new album. Appreciate it.

SH: Thank you, Chris.