Day 1: Suite No. 1 in G major, Prelude

The G major suite tends to be the one people learn first. To be honest, I hadn’t played it a lot since I first tackled it at some point in my childhood, ca. 1990, I think. I’ve never performed it in entirety, and I suppose I was thinking of it, possibly sacrilegiously, as “the easy one”–at least, in comparison with the finger-twisting D major or C minor. After all, the Prelude is often compared to the C major Prelude in Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which is the sort of piece you play on the piano when you’re about 10, and which is kind of easy. (I shall prepare myself for a smack-down by my pianist mother now.)

What I’d forgotten was that the G major Prelude is really a very hard piece. Whether you think of it as primarily vertical or horizontal, you have to be able to bring out and shape the harmonies of the wave-like melodic lines, while still keeping the individual components–that is, the moto perpetuo of running semiquavers/sixteenth notes–even enough to sound coherent and non-lumpy. Conveying an overall shape to a piece like this is also rather difficult, though Bach makes it a little easier by dividing the movement into two parts: the first a running progression of chords which builds up to a stand-still in the dominant key; the second a more improvisatory section whose harmonic rhythm is less clear, and which appears to be wandering in search of a key before a clear dominant pedal takes us back to G major again. In short, recording this movement gave me quite a bit of grief.

There’s also the question of bowings. So many editions insist (arbitrarily?) on repeated eight-note slurs (as in the excerpt below), which to my mind irons out many possibilities for nuance.

But when you’re reading from the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript, as I am, you’re faced with slurs whose placement is not only inconsistent from measure to measure, but ambiguously written (see below: apologies for my poor-quality photograph of the facsimile).

The musicologist Kirsten Beisswenger, in the fascinating Afterword to her scholarly edition of the Suites (Breitkopf), is at pains to assert that Anna Magdalena Bach copied her husband’s music conscientiously, for the most part. Still, she describes (wonderfully) her articulation and slurring markings as “characterized by negligence and prodigality.” (I expect that sounded better in the original German.) What we can be sure of is that Frau Bach was copying music incredibly quickly, probably at the same time as cutting up vegetables with her left hand, with several of her children and step-children hanging on her legs and climbing up her skirts, demanding a Currywurst mit Pommes or whatever the German fast food of the day was. Really, it’s surprising that she had the time or energy to put any markings in at all.

What Beisswenger ultimately does in the printed edition is a compromise: the first three notes of each eight-note pattern are slurred, and the rest are bowed separately. After the first few bars of Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript “settle down,” this seems to be the bowing that’s implied most of the time. This, therefore, is the bowing I’ve used in my recording.

The challenge, of course, is keeping one’s contact point relatively close to the frog of the bow. The temptation is to spend too much bow on the slur and progressively back yourself into the tip, from whence it’s rather difficult to get back. Or to compensate for this problem by stabbing the up-bows in an attempt to use a lot of bow to regain ground. With this in mind, you have to save bow like mad on the slur so that you don’t get too far up, and play the separate bows lightly enough that you can somehow fluke your way back to a contact point in the lower half. I suspect this would be a lot easier with a Baroque bow, and with this in mind, I may work on it using one I’ve just acquired to see if it makes a difference (in fact, I’m slightly kicking myself that I didn’t think to do this before).

Notes from the day’s recording

I woke up with horrendous allergies, and it was raining. I rather wanted to call this a sick day (after all, the rules I made up for this project state that I don’t have to record if I’m sick), but if I were to be strictly honest, and I like to be strictly honest, I wasn’t sick enough to stay in bed. So I dragged myself off to my office at the university to start Day 1 of the Bach 36 project.

The three-takes rule was harder than I’d anticipated. Initially, I supposed I’d do three back-to-back and watch them all at once, but I got curious after the first one and watched it right after recording. This was lucky, because if they’d all turned out like that, I wouldn’t have had anything I could use. Aside from many problems I simply hadn’t noticed while I was playing (bumping other strings, intonation slips, notes that didn’t speak, rhythmic unevenness), I was chastened to observe how mobile my face was the entire time. As a child I was constantly getting in trouble with my teachers (both school and music) for pulling faces and staring wildly around the room, and I could see on Take 1 that I hadn’t changed much. It’s strange how different it was from videos I’ve seen of myself playing in concerts. Perhaps it’s something about the solemn atmosphere and highly concentrated energy of a concert situation that keeps my face still(er) in those situations. However, when all I’m doing is sitting in my office on a rainy day in front of a camera, I have trouble summoning up performance energy. In Take 1, I was contorting my face in ways that would make Rowan Atkinson jealous. My vanity wasn’t going to let me upload a video to YouTube that made me look like Mrs. Bean, or possibly the madwoman in the attic, so Take 1 was definitely out.

I eventually ended up using Take 3. In this video, I can see myself trying extremely hard to keep my face and head still and my eyes focused. This isn’t why I used it, though. Accuracy wasn’t the prime criterion either. This one was actually the least accurate of the takes in terms of correct notes, evenness and so on, and there are several embarrassing fluffs and intonation lapses. I suppose I used this take because it was the closest any of them came to expressing the harmonic changes the way I wanted to. It was one of those recordings that doesn’t start well, but which gets better as it goes through. If I were allowed to edit, or to make more than three takes, I could go for a really good beginning and then paste them together. I expect there will be a lot of days like this in this project!

You can view and hear the fruits of my labours here.

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