Day 18: Suite No. 3 in C major, Gigue

I’m now halfway through the Bach 36 Project. I am slightly tempted to quote the beginning of Dante’s Inferno where he documents his arrival at the midway point of his life, but that would imply that I considered the E flat, C minor, and D major suites the inner circles of hell. Which I don’t (much).

Now that I’ve reached this point, however, I think it’s appropriate to pause and reflect on how things are going, and on some of the things I wish I’d done differently. These are, in no particular order:

1) I wish I’d arranged for a better acoustic space, better recording conditions, and better recording equipment. My initial idea was that this was going to be a homespun sort of a project, a snapshot in time of how I played any given Bach movement on any given day, which I could keep as a marker of how I played at a certain point in my life–though I’m not as old as Dante is in the Inferno, I hasten to add. The fact is, however, that I’m a professional musician and should expect to be judged as such. Making videos in my office results in a product that isn’t representative of my work. (Because of this, I’ve decided to take all the videos down from the internet as soon as this project is finished.) Plus, all those trucks, motorcycles, cement mixers, old bombs of cars with souped-up engines, clock tower bells, school buses, road workers and particularly shriekish birds aren’t helping.

2) I wish I could be doing this on a good cello. I’m terribly fond of my old cello, but it isn’t a great instrument. When I was playing in my quartet, I had a couple of wonderful loaned instruments to play on. It was never quite the same when I had to go back to my own cello. Since then, I’ve been seeking a sponsor or an instrument bank that might lend me a professional-calibre cello, but in this economy, it’s discouragingly hard. Plus, most organizations that loan cellos to musicians focus on the ones who are still students, and rightly so. Still, it’s pretty hard when you’re in the early stages of your career and really don’t have a good fiddle to play on. In the meantime, I’ve been considering the only decent-sounding cello that would fall anywhere within my price range, the Luis & Clark carbon fibre cello. I got to play one once several years ago when the inventor visited the University of Texas, where I was then a graduate student. I loved it. It had a fast response, a big and clear tone, and best of all, looked sort of space-age. What’s not to like? Well, I’ll continue saving madly for one, and maybe if I repeat this project it’ll be on carbon fibre.

This said, I’ve made it to the end of the C major suite pretty much intact. I’m daunted by the prospect of starting the E flat major, which I’ve always thought was the hardest suite written for a four-string cello. (The D major, originally written for a five-stringer, is in a difficulty category of its own.) I’ve been practising different systems for tuning the E flats, no easy matter on an instrument like the cello that doesn’t, after all, have an E flat string that we can tune to. So I enjoyed my last day of the relatively uncomplicated sound-world of the C major scale.

That’s not to say that the Gigue is uncomplicated. The long chains of string crossings can be easily scrambled, particularly when the direction of the string crossing changes.

In addition to this, since it’s a gigue, one wants a tempo that’s both light-hearted and robust. This was what I struggled with today. In my mind’s ear, a dashing tempo seemed like a great idea for Take 1, but the notes ended up sounding so garbled and strangled that I had to take it back a “click” on the metronome. Take 2 was much clearer and better articulated in both hands, but the tempo was sedate to the point of politeness. I think most of us would agree that there is no polite gigue. I used Take 3, because the tempo worked the best. Take 2 was more accurate, but I’ve come to accept that my most accurate take is seldom going to be the one I end up choosing. Maybe there are more important things in life than accuracy?

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Gigue; E flat major Prelude, Allemande.

Day 17: Suite No. 3 in C major, Bourrées I & II

The C major Bourrées may be the most famous Bach cello movement. Or maybe it’s a tie with the G major Prelude. In any case, they’re the first Bach cello movements I ever played–only I played them on the violin, age 7. I was a violinist before I was a cellist (this is quite common among professional cellists, but it never seems to happen the other way around. Funny, that) and I encountered the Bourrées in an arrangement for violin and piano in G major in Suzuki Book 2. Or maybe it was Book 3, I can’t remember. So they’ve been with me for a long, long time now. And I’ve had to do a lot of de-Suzuki-izing. I should reiterate that I’m a tremendous fan of the Suzuki method and trained as a Suzuki teacher myself some years ago (although I don’t advertise myself as one). The principal problem I have with Suzuki is the repertoire books, which are often compiled from awful, old-fashioned editions that do sacrilegious things like put piano accompaniments with solo Bach movements. It took a lot to try and debrief my brain so it wouldn’t automatically hear this nineteenth-century fabrication in my mind’s ear.

When you can approach the Bourrées on their own terms, their charm just increases. I see them as a sort of “rounding-up” of the conflicting styles that have already taken playing the C major suite: the contrast between the scalar style of the opening of the Prelude and the the arpeggiated style of the Courante, for example. In the Bourrées, we get both. The first Bourrée jumps about merrily between stepwise and skipwise motion, whereas the second Bourrée is almost exclusively stepwise. Bearing this in mind, it’s up the performer to decide how much to differentiate between affects in the two Bourrées. This is where I’m going to confess to a pet hate: the common practice of playing the second Bourrée in a hushed pianissimo up the D string and slurring the you-know-what out of it. You get to hear this a lot on recordings and in performance, and it’s driving me up a tree. I believe it originated in the frightful edition of the Suites by Pierre Fournier (1), which you still find all sorts of students and professionals using, people who in my always intemperate opinion should know better. Here’s what the Bourrées look like in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript. There are relatively few slurs, but (perhaps unusually) rather few ambiguities. I think this gives us a pretty good idea of how to approach it, at least from a bowings point of view.

A word about Bach editions. As I’ve said, I’m basing the bowings (and sometimes the notes themselves) that I use in this project on a facsimile of Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of the Suites, made some time in the 1720s. Now, this method isn’t for everyone. I have my undergraduate students buy the facsimile for reference, but they need an edition they can write pencil markings on, and they need it to be easy to read. Usually I have them use August Wenzinger’s classic scholarly edition (2), or the Kirsten Beisswenger one that I’ve been using recently for day-to-day Bach playing. (There are some discrepancies between the two, but I think Wenzinger’s edition is reliable enough.)

There are also times when students of Bach, often the ones who are learning the Suites for the first time, need a little extra help. In this case, I think it’s perfectly sensible to use an edition that provides conservative fingering and bowing suggestions, but which takes into account the work of scholarly editors and the eighteenth-century copies. A great example of this is Maurice Gendron’s thoughtful, historically-minded edition from 1982 (3). It has everything that a student would look for in Fournier’s edition (bowings, fingerings) but Baroque style is always considered. Nothing is done capriciously. Whereas Fournier…well, he’s sort of my bête noire. I love his playing in nineteenth-century salon pieces, because there’s really no one finer for that sort of thing, but I can’t stand his edition of Bach and I can’t stand his recordings of Bach. I seldom hear a recording of the Suites that I really can’t bear to listen to, but his is one. And yet so many modern cellists and students of the cello are taking Fournier’s ultra-Romantic renditions as a desideratum. When I meet one, I suppress a disdainful shudder and hand them a CD of, say, either Anner Bylsma’s recordings. Once you’ve listened to a historically informed performance practitioner–or even someone who doesn’t claim to be HIPP but still plays in a convincingly Bachian style, such as Steven Isserlis–you can’t go back to the overblown romanticism of mid-twentieth-century playing. I mean no disrespect to the musicians of that time, but their era is over.

Today’s video. I used Take I, which is unprecedented in this project. For some reason my concentration was off this morning, and I improvised some ornaments that were so way-out I feared Bach would come back and haunt me. I decided to stick with the least ornamented version.

Today’s practice list: C major Bourrées I & II, Gigue; E flat major Prelude, Allemande.

(1) New York: International Music Company, 1972.

(2) Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1950.

(3) Tokyo: Zen-On Music Company Ltd., 1982.

Day 16: Suite No. 3 in C major, Sarabande

The C major Sarabande has special sentimental meaning for me. I was hashing through it one day in my mid-teens when my much-loved great-aunt, who was visiting, came and sat down in the room where I was practising. When I stopped, she said quite casually “You can play that at my funeral.” I squirmed a bit, since I was uncomfortable talking about most serious subjects, but I didn’t forget the request.

When Dorothy died in 2000, I was at university in London, about as far away from New Zealand as you could get. I still have a perfectly crystalline memory of the phone call that came early in the morning of April 1st (she died on April Fool’s Day, a day I’ve never been able to find amusing since) when I was half-asleep in my hard little bed in the university halls of residence in south-east London. My mother told me, as gently as she could, that Dorothy had died of heart failure in the arms of her daughter. There was no money for me to fly home for the funeral.

I stumbled out of bed and into some clothes, and headed across the street to the university practice rooms, where I took out my cello and played the C major Sarabande again and again. Then I put away the cello and went for a long, long walk, down into shabby Deptford and along Greenwich High Street, across that spooky, leaky Victorian pedestrian tunnel that goes under the Thames, and up into the Isle of Dogs and the East End. Hopelessly lost, I went into a church to sit down away from the noisy din of the streets, rest my stinging feet, and figure out where I was with my London A-Z. I was crying so hard that a nun, alerted by the noise, came and sat beside me and asked if I was pregnant. I said I wasn’t, and ran out.

Since I was far away from home at the time of the funeral, I begged to be allowed to have a recording of the C major Sarabande played at the service, and for my brother to read out a eulogy I’d written. After I graduated and came back to New Zealand for a holiday, I gave a recital that I dedicated to Dorothy’s memory, in which the second half of the programme was, of course, the C major Suite.

Revisiting the Sarabande, it’s hard not to play it in the way I played it at 16, or 19. Back then, I took it at a preternaturally slow tempo, because I thought it was more “emotional” that way. I played large stretches of the movement extremely quietly, because I had a theory at the time that if the audience was straining to hear you, their hearts would be touched more. (I was young. I am slightly embarrassed about this now, although I plead that it was done with deep sincerity.) I arpeggiated the chords so slowly that they barely sounded like chords. I remember thinking the phrase at bars 13-14 was a moment of particular tragedy that should have a dramatic ritardando as the line went up, and a hushed fermata on the B flat.

It’s hard to get away from this kind of youthful interpretation. I now think an overtly slow tempo is a great deal more fun to play than it is to listen to. And not just in my own playing–I feel this way about the playing of some of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived. For example, I find Glenn Gould’s later recording of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations almost impossible to listen to. It’s so slow I find myself starting to “conduct” in mid-air, trying to make it go faster! I don’t know whether this is because of my current dislike of extremely slow tempi, or because my modern ears are more used to hearing the Goldbergs played much faster on the harpsichord. Either way, I don’t think it’s possible to “go back” to playing ultra-slowly any more.

Tempo aside, I also feel now that extremely varied rubato detracts from the dignity of the underlying pulse, and the harmonic plan of each of the halves in the binary structure. Take the first half, where the basic goal is to get from the tonic (C major) to the dominant (G major). We hardly have a moment to enjoy being in C major before we’re whisked away in the second bar to V7/IV. Bar 3 “negotiates” away from this implied tonicization of the F major chord, and bar 4 brings our first explicit appearance of the G major chord (which is still the dominant, since we haven’t modulated yet). The appearances of F sharps in the following bars indicates that a modulation is taking place, and in spite of a cadential pattern that appears to flirt with the notions of G minor, we can feel fairly confident that G major has been reached in the final bar, even taking into account the absence of a B natural. (Why am I so confident? Well, the second half starts on an unmistakable G major triad, and besides, things usually modulate to the dominant, not the parallel minor of the dominant, so…..)

My point in all this is theorizing is that I felt today that it would be a little self-indulgent to bring out micro-nuances by slowing them down tremendously. So today’s recording was a great deal “straighter” than I’d played the Sarabande in the past.

I used Take 3, as usual. The first take, which I’d thought went really well while I was playing it, turned out to be positively riddled with that scourge of the modern string player attempting any kind of stylishness–the banana tone. In other words, a scooping or surging crescendo-decrescendo on long (and even not-so-long) notes. Another thing that’s really fun to play, but not so much fun to listen to, not to mention irritating in its repetitiveness and distracting from the melodic line. The banana tone used to be a favoured technique among historically informed performance practitioners in, I suppose, the sixties and seventies, when use of period equipment was only just starting to become really widespread. Because the pre-Tourte bow didn’t have the same capacity for sustaining evenly from frog to tip as the modern bow, the thinking went that it was actually impossible to play in a sustained way, and that musicians in Baroque times not only played with constant bananas, they wanted them–perhaps on every note. Well, this notion is pretty old-fashioned now, and the poor banana tone is banana non grata.

Anyway, I hadn’t been the slightest bit conscious of my banana-ing, and this discovery provoked so much toe-curling mortification in me that I resolved not to play another banana tone ever in my life, and certainly not in Take 2. Of course, this meant that Take 2, while freakishly in tune (something I rarely think about my own playing), was too lacking in nuance to be thinkable for posting on YouTube. Take 3 was the best, although I never really figured out a satisfactory new interpretation to replace the old one.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Sarabande, Bourrées I & II, Gigue; E flat major Courante.

Day 15: Suite No. 3 in C major, Courante

Owing to a dream featuring both an octopus and a crocodile, I woke up with a start at two in the morning and couldn’t sleep for another two hours. This caused me not to wake up until half past nine. Although I am temperamentally rather lazy, I dislike sleeping in, because I do my best work in the morning and I feel as if I’ve lost half the day if I don’t get up until ten. To add to this frustrating inconvenience, I woke up with a tension headache and a fierce case of the don’t-wannas. When I made up the rules to this project, I decided I could take days off if I were ill, and this would have been a perfect out. But when I asked myself sternly if I were so incapacitated that I couldn’t play the cello, I had to answer truthfully that I was not. I took a Tylenol with my muesli and strawberries, and drove off to the university with a very bad grace to make my daily video.

The Courante is one of those pieces that looks simple on the page, but takes quite a lot of thinking about. Constructed almost exclusively from quavers/eighth notes, it would be easy to play it exercise-style. Sometimes I wonder if the reason Schumann and other nineteenth-century musicians thought the Suites weren’t suitable for public performance without a piano part was that the cellists of the time possibly were playing them like exercises, rather than trying to distinguish between the different voices that are at play within the single lines.

We often hear the first two bars, for example, played neatly and evenly with controlled spiccato bowstrokes.

But to my mind, there are two distinct voices at play here. I’m going to write them on two lines to illustrate what I mean:

With this in mind, I tried to play the Courante with a variety of different bowstrokes: controlled spiccatodétaché, slurs where specified, etc. The idea was to find as many different shapes and different voices as possible within the very simple rhythmic context of this movement.

Somewhat unusually for me, I ended up using Take 2 today. This was because I was experimenting in all the takes with different tempi. I took Take 1 relatively slowly, because I wanted to try out the idea of the dignified, not-too-fast French-style courante rather than the dashing Italian corrente. It wasn’t bad, but I felt that it ultimately sounded a bit dull. I took Take 2 a bit faster, and Take 3 really fast, just to see if that would work. Take 3 ended up sounding more rushed than I’d hoped, so I settled for Take 2.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Courante, Sarabande, Bourrées I & II; E flat major Bourrées I & II.

Day 14: Suite No. 3 in C major, Allemande

I find myself suffering from a bit of writer’s block about the C major Allemande, so I will permit myself to digress a little bit by recounting some interesting facts about the Bach family which I have read in Christoph Wolff’s biography. Did you know that when J. S. Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke in 1721, he bought 264 quarts of Rhine wine to celebrate? (Assuming that the 18th-century German quart was anything like the modern American one, that’s a tremendous amount of wine.) He got a discount from the Cöthen Ratskeller, so it cost 84 talers and 16 groschen. This, by the way, was more than 20% of what he earned in a year (1).

I was also interested to read that Anna Magdalena Bach gave birth 13 times in 19 years (2). That’s an awful lot of your life to spend pregnant, particularly when you have two full time jobs–musician/copyist and manager of a large household, albeit one that was crammed into an 802-square-foot apartment (3).

I find these stories fascinating because they alter one’s perception of Bach, the stolid-looking Kapellmeister from the famous portrait.

I suppose we tend to assume that Bach was above all an exceptionally pious, churchy sort of man, so I find it rather humanizing to think of him also as a “passionate Protestant” who fathered 20 children. And I rather like the thought of the good Cantor kicking up his heels at his second wedding, egging the guests on to have another goblet of his expensive booze. I’m sure it can’t always have been easy to be married to J. S., but for some reason I imagine the Bachs as a happy family. I picture the three brainy boys, W. F., C. P. E., and little J. C., sitting around a scrubbed oak dinner table with their manuscript books and quill pens, while Anna Magdalena bustles in and out, occasionally leaning over and checking their four-part harmony exercises. “Parallel fifths!” I imagine her tutting at C. P. E., cuffing him affectionately on the back of the head. “Ooh, just you wait till your father gets home.” C. P. E. scowls a bit, but tells himself that one day he’ll invent the empfindsamer Stil, and that’ll show everyone.

I’ve digressed terribly. So. The C major Allemande. Today’s dilemma was mostly about tempo. So many people take this particular allemande at a very jolly, bouncing tempo. This probably has something to do with a bowing commonly found in a lot of editions. Derived, i think, from one of the eighteenth-century copies of the manuscript, it has the player take the last two notes of each gesture and make them into staccatos on up-bows.

However, if we take the bowing specified by Frau Bach, at least as it’s perceived by Kirsten Beisswenger in her scholarly edition of the Suites (4), there are fewer possibilities for “bouncing.”

Although I, like most people, I expect, was brought up with the bouncy bowing, I decided to give the A. M. Bach/Beisswenger bowing a go. The result was that I ended up choosing a tempo that was a bit slower than my usual one. I tried to achieve quite a lot of “lift” on each of the separate semiquavers/sixteenth notes immediately after the slurs, so that I wouldn’t get the dreaded surging sound as I tried to get back to the lower half of the bow for the next slur. I thought I was getting more resonance out of them than the recordings show I did; I took a note of this for next time I play this movement.

Another challenge of this movement is the chain of ascending thirds in the first half. This isn’t, strictly speaking, the most hard-to-tune thing in the world, but in combination with the punctuating open C and G strings, it’s altogether rather tricky. To my chagrin, I couldn’t use Take 2, which in most other respects was free from major flaws, simply because the thirds were mortifyingly out of tune.

I ended up using Take 3, which is what quite often seems to happen in this project. I seem to have fallen into a routine where I do my first take, using the bowings and fingerings and ideas from the last few days’ practice sessions, then listen to it, shudder at all the inaccuracies and the crackpot ideas that seemed so clever before, and resolve to play much better on Take 2. Then I practise for a while, taking account of all the places that weren’t in tune or otherwise didn’t sound good in Take 1. Then I make my Take 2, determined to be wonderfully accurate. Then I listen to Take 2, and it usually sounds rather careful and dull. So I make Take 3, by now paranoid about the intonation, but trying to relax and let some expression take over, in the hopes that it won’t be written on my tombstone that I played accurately but dully. Today’s Take 3 had a few problems, but on the whole was less problematic than the others.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Allemande, Courante, Sarabande; E flat major Bourrées I & II.

(1) Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000, 218.

(2) ibid., 396.

(3) ibid., 406.

(4) Also known as “the new Breitkopf.”

Day 13: Suite No. 3 in C major, Prelude

Before I begin on the serious subject of the C major Prelude, I’m going to take a minute to feel mightily relieved that I’m now a third of the way through the Bach 36 project. I didn’t realize how much recording just one movement of Bach each day was going to kick my butt. I didn’t realize how much I was going to have to up my practice hours (this is undoubtedly a very fine thing) or just how long it would take to think up things to blog about and write them all down while waiting for the video to upload to YouTube. Of course, it all took vastly longer than I thought it would, to the point where it consumes most of my non-exhausted hours in the day. And that was just the first two suites, which are supposedly the “easy” ones! Having now pre-practised my way through the D major and C minor suites and started on the E flat major today, I’m awed at and daunted by their difficulty. This will be interesting.

The C major suite, which I started recording today, is probably the suite I know the best and have played the most in adult life. There’s something rather lovely about the key of C on the cello, because you get to take advantage of the sympathetic resonances of all the strings.

The Prelude is another of Bach’s running-semiquavers/sixteenths preludes. It’s largely based around triadic chordal patterns, but starts with a sweeping downwards scale that rushes from middle C to the tremendous booming ring of the open C string. The challenge with the first twenty or so bars is not to allow it to sound like an exercise.

Preoccupied by this thought, I set about trying to find ways to shape the lines and inject some dynamics and rubato to make it interesting. I thought I was doing this very clearly, although the recording doesn’t show this half as explicitly as I’d thought it would.

Another big question in the C major Prelude is how to bow the central harmonic “event” in the structure, a long pedal that works through all the permutations of the pent-up dominant. In a manuscript whose bowings are characterized chiefly by ambiguity, we can find one of the few unequivocal bowing directions from Frau Bach: slur 3, separate one. (The dominant pedal begins a few bars before the beginning of this photographed excerpt; the reason I didn’t show them is because they’re on another page.)

It’s been my flexibly-conceived goal throughout this project to do Anna Magdalena Bach’s marked bowings, as I perceive them, wherever possible. So I tried extremely earnestly to find a way to do this bowing convincingly. The danger is always to spend too much bow on the 3-note slur, and then have to surge in an ungainly and inexpressive way on the single separate note to get back closer to the frog so you don’t end up backed up into the tip with nowhere to go. And yet, even when I saved bow like made on the 3-note slur and made the singleton as light and fast as I could without a surge or an accent, it simply didn’t sound reasonable.

There are various editorial solutions to this perennial problem, some of which I’ll present here.

First of all, the good old two-and-two compromise:

The advantage of doing it this way is that your chances of playing evenly and cleanly are greatly improved. The disadvantage is that it’s even easier to sound like you’re playing an exercise.

Another very common compromise is to go two-four-four-four-four across the groups of four semiquavers/sixteenths.

I used to like this a whole lot, because it’s easier to produce a good singing tone this way. However, I rejected it this time, because it seems to me now that to cut across the groups of four notes is to compromise the authority of the bass note, which after all is the dominant, and the dominant pedal is sort of the point here.

In times past, I sometimes bowed the entire thing separately:

but I didn’t this time, because for some reason I couldn’t stop it sounding a bit scrappy and scratchy.

I settled for a bowing I’d not done before, a four-note slurred one, because it seemed that this was the best compromise with the 3+1 bowing in Frau Bach’s manuscript.

I wasn’t too pleased to be violating such an explicit instruction from the Bachs, but I suspect that like so many other Baroque-era bowings, this one would be far more manageable on a Baroque bow on a cello with gut strings. The flexibility of the hair coupled with the more immediate possibilities of attack on the string would perhaps allow me to save myself from the dreaded surge on the last semiquaver/sixteenth note.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Prelude, Allemande, Courante; E flat major Gigue.

Day 12: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Gigue

Today I was eager to inspire my playing with some more dance videos. The best video of a danced Baroque gigue that I could find on YouTube was this example from a music video by Il Giardino Armonico, where two ladies in period costume jump energetically about the room with sly expressions on their faces. Normally I try never to read the comments underneath YouTube videos, because in general they’re idiotic, but I couldn’t suppress a smile at the one about “pirate wenches.” For reasons I don’t understand, a dour gentleman in an antique chair looks on disapprovingly. (The dancing master? The world-weary pirate king?)

This YouTube search for danced gigues led me ineluctably onwards into the murky underworld of the Irish dancing competition, of which there are many videos posted. I watched video after fuzzy home video of grim-faced pre-teen girls in dresses that would look quite good on Little Bo-Peep, hairstyles sprayed into the consistency of concrete, and tremendously well-applied fake tan, going after the prizes with the ruthless determination of…well, serial killers sprang to mind.

I suppose this is a convenient segue into the fact that I felt a little grim-faced myself in today’s recording. After yesterday’s experience of a frustrating intonation battle in the Menuets, I think I was feeling altogether a bit too careful in today’s recording of the Gigue. The fact is that it too is a very fiddly little piece. What with so much dashing all over the neck position at breakneck speed, not to mention the long pedal points that also use double stops ( every one of which has to be clearly enunciated), you don’t really have a minute to kick back and relax and pretend to be a pirate wench or whatever. I chose Take 3, mostly because Take 1 featured me looking remarkably like a funeral director, and Take 2 (the one I’d tried to make the “fun” one after watching Take 1) was too messy.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D minor Gigue; C major Prelude and Allemande; C minor Prelude.

Day 11: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Menuets I & II

The D minor Menuets couldn’t be more different from each other. Menuet I, the minor-key one, has a densely chordal texture based partly on the harmonies that are spelled out in linear fashion in the Prelude. Menuet II, in the parallel major, is entirely free of double and triple stops, making it far more “horizontal” than its predecessor. Where Menuet I is austere and dignified, Menuet II appears to melt into a warm, graceful lyricism.

I don’t know why, but the D minor Menuets make me think of one of my favourite paintings,Two Nudes (Lovers) (1913) by Oskar Kokoschka. It’s a double portrait of the artist and Alma Mahler, widow of the composer, with whom Kokoschka had had a doomed love affair. In spite of their lack of clothing, the two figures appear to be in the middle of some kind of formal eighteenth-century dance, one of the ones where pairs of dancers come together and go apart again at certain times. A Bachian minuet? Why not? Kokoschka loved Bach, and made several Bach-inspired artworks, including O ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (1914).

There’s something about the expression of desperate yearning on Kokoschka’s face in contrast to the almost indifferent serenity on Alma’s that reminds me of the contrast between the D minor Menuets. It’s like those theatre masks with the smile on one side and the scowl on the other. They’re antithetical, they’re polar opposites, but they still dance together. The contrast between them is what makes them work.

Well, sometimes it helps to have a mental image when you’re grappling with these surprisingly hard little pieces.

When I was doing my practice run for this project, a 36-day series of audio recordings of the 36 movements in the Suites, the D minor Menuets gave me more difficulties than any other movement. This seemed strange at the time, given that they really aren’t as finger-twisting as some of the truly fiendish ones in the later suites, such as the E flat major Prelude, the C minor Allemande, or the D major Sarabande. I suppose there’s just something intensely tiring about trying to get all those chords and all those double stops into some semblance of good intonation while still making coherent sense of the melodies and the larger harmonic plan. The opening is a real stinker, as well, starting as it does with two very fiddly triple stops. The one in the second bar is pretty hard to play at all, even if you use your thumb, so I usually end up making the C a sort of grace note before double-stopping the E and B flat, which is a bit of a cheat, I suppose.

I did half an hour’s practice between each of the three takes today, because my fingers just wouldn’t play in tune. The tougher I tried to be on intonation, the more “slippy” my fingers got. Very frustrating. I ended up using Take 3, because it was the one that had the fewest fluffs and the most resemblance to what I was trying to say. The Menuet I da capo went much better than the first iteration of it. Why does this happen so much? Every time I record a piece with something that repeats, the second one is always better than the first. I sometimes wish I could chop the firsts altogether and have the seconds go twice instead. Sometimes people actually do this on commercially released recordings–edit out the first repeat and have two playings of the second–and you can really tell if you listen hard enough. It’s supposed to be something you get your hand smacked for, but I understand the temptation very well.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D minor Menuets I & II and Gigue; C major Prelude, C minor Allemande.

Day 10: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Sarabande

If the Allemande reminds me of Marin Marais and the Courante and Menuets remind me of Claudio Monteverdi, I think the D minor Sarabande reminds me of John Dowland. Though Bach might well have known Marais’ and Monteverdi’s music, I can’t find anything in my various Bach biographies to suggest that he knew Dowland’s. Still, the Sarabande always irresistibly brings to my mind Dowland’s Lachrimae Antiquae (better known as “Flow, my teares,” its lute song form) for consort of viols.

How is it similar? I suppose it’s the downwards “weeping” motives, the jagged leaps, the pervasive atmosphere of mournful introversion relieved here and there by a tonicization of the relative major chord. I really want the cello to sound like a sorrowful viol when I play the Sarabande, but there’s a great temptation to wallow so much in the melancholy of it all that you lose all sense of the triple time signature. Lachrimae isn’t a stylized dance movement; the Sarabande is. So I feel compelled to rein in a bit of the lonely soliloquizing.

Notes from today’s recording:

I’m starting to realize that my initial goal of playing all of Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowings in these recordings is rather challenging. I was never going to be pedantically insistent upon doing every single thing she wrote and never doing anything she didn’t write, of course. The head-scratcher, however, is when to assume that she was implying a certain bowing even when any marking at all is omitted.

Take, for example, the first bar.

The minim/half note implies that the second and third beats of the bar should be played in one bow, so that we can keep the double stop going for the full length of the minim. Or does it? I played around with holding the double stop for the duration of a dotted crotchet/dotted quarter note and then playing the semiquavers/sixteenth notes with separate bows. I felt that this might have been more comfortable with a Baroque bow on gut strings (and when I got home and tried it out on my viola da gamba, it certainly did), but on my modern equipment, it just sounded a bit notey. So I ended up slurring it in the way most cellists on recordings seem to.

Then there are the places where Frau Bach puts in a slur in one measure, but doesn’t in the next even when it’s a sequential pattern, in which we might reasonably expect a consistent bowing. Does this mean that she (or J. S.) intended us to do the same thing? A classic example of this occurs a few bars before the end. (I have to take separate photographs, because there’s a line break.)

I ended up doing them the same partly because I thought a reasonable case could be made for an implied simile, and also because it seems less disruptive of the continuing resonance of the chord’s bass notes if you don’t have lots of bow changes right after you come off the chord.

Today’s recording was another struggle. The Sarabande is a tricky thing to tune, and in the take I chose (Take 3) there were a number of slips. (The others were even more problematic. This is starting to be a altogether bit wounding to my amour-propre.) I found that the chief problems, apart from intonation on the double stops, were phrasing in a way that didn’t sound “lumpy” and getting the chords to speak enough. And then I’d get what I thought was a great idea for micro-level voicing or macro-level structural planning, only to listen to the playback and realize that it sounded like (the horror!) an Idea with a capital I. It’s precisely because it’s so hard to make an expressive gesture sound unpremeditated that Ideas happen. And yet, how can we be spontaneous without risking messing up? I suppose the answer is a sort of premeditated spontaneity, a concept that reminds me rather of certain teachers I’ve had who would shout “RELAX!” while I quaked in fear and every muscle in my body went rigid. I eventually wished that I’d been a little less worried about being “correct” and had let in a little more of the Lachrimae feeling.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D minor Sarabande, Menuets I & II, Gigue; C minor Courante.

Day 9: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Courante

If the first two movements of the D minor suite are reminiscent of Marais and the French Baroque, I sometimes think the Courante and Menuets are rather more Italianate. David Ledbetter points out the ciaccona feeling of the Courante’s implied bassline: (1)

This compares very closely with the implied bassline of Menuet I.

What virtually jumps off the page at me when I see basslines like this is the resemblance to the bassline in Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa, one of my absolute favourite pieces.

Over the stability of this descending tetrachord, which gets repeated over and over throughout the middle “lament” section of the piece, the distraught nymph of the title has the harmonic freedom to utter all sorts of despairing sighs and groans and text-painting madrigalisms, which is what you do if your lover has abandoned you and you’re in a madrigal. She’s supported by a chorus of three male voices, two tenors and a bass, who function both as narrators and sympathizers to her heartbroken plight. (For some reason, I always imagine them dressed in shepherd costumes.) They “frame” the lament part of the piece with an introduction and an epilogue, and they punctuate the nymphs’s outpourings with the occasional “Dicea” (“she said”) and with compassionate interjections of “Miserella!” (“poor girl!”). The Lamento is really one of the most extraordinary pieces of music, and one that almost always has the ability to move me to tears.

Here’s a YouTube video of the Lamento that’s particularly interesting, because the person who posted it has put a score up, so we can follow along and see the bassline “in action.”

What has this to do with the D minor Courante? Well, maybe a lot and maybe not a lot. It’s just something I keep in the back of my mind when I’m preparing it, because the Courante has a lot of notes and it’s hard not to get so caught up in them that you forget what ultimately underpins them. I also feel the need to avoid taking the Courante at the cracking pace so many interpreters do. It needs a bit more time to achieve nuance and contrast.

Notes from today’s recording:

Today was a bit of a struggle. I hadn’t realized just how audible any tiny fudging of the many string-crossing passages can be, and after the first take I stopped recording and practised for half an hour before doing the second and third takes. It’s passages like this:

that tend to trip both my fingers and my bow up. None of the takes was as clean as I wanted it to be, but I ended up choosing Take 2 as the least flawed of the three.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D minor Courante, Sarabande, Menuets I & II; C minor Sarabande.

(1) Ledbetter, David: Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 191.