Day 2: Suite No. 1 in G major, Allemande

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Bach didn’t write his cello suites as music for dancing, but apart from the Preludes, all the movements are stylized dance movements, intended perhaps to suggest the lightness and fun of dancing, if not actually to incite the audience to leap to their feet and grab a partner. Allemande is the French word for a German dance.

Bach used all French titles for the dance movements of the cello suites, though not, interestingly, for the violin partitas. I’m not going to paraphrase a music dictionary here by writing at length about the history of the dance types, but I still think it’s interesting to read what a danced Allemande actually looked like. In Grove Music Online, the authors of the Allemande entry describe it as

“…a couple dance with the man and woman side by side; the dancers proceed in a line of couples from one end of a hall to the other, each turning his partner around in such a way as to reverse the line and go back to the original place.” (1)

I trawled YouTube for videos of a danced Allemande, and the best one I could find was the clip below. It doesn’t show a roomful of couples proceeding down a line and back again, but you can get some idea of the grace, elegance and dignity of the steps from this pair of dancers in eighteenth-century costume. I particularly liked the care they took of each other’s headgear: every time one of them twirled the other, they were very cautious not to knock the lady’s powdered wig or the gentleman’s rather piratical-looking hat off.

With this delightful spectacle in mind, I tackled the Allemande this morning. Uppermost in my mind was how I was going to differentiate between the first and second repeats of each half. (All the dance movements in the cello suites are in various kinds of binary forms, with repeat signs at the end of each “half.”) The usual thing to do is to play the first half relatively “straight” and then improvise (or pretend to improvise) some ornaments in the second half.

What ultimately happened was that I didn’t just improvise ornaments in the second half, I also improvised bowings. The problem with my lofty goal of using all-Anna Magdalena Bach bowings was that I’d need to memorize them, and it is my personal failing that I am not much good at memorizing bowings. Notes, yes: I can memorize large swathes of them after rehearsing a piece once or twice. But for some reason, I need to have the score in front of me if I’m going to observe the written bowings with any degree of scrupulousness. In these video recordings, I do keep my facsimile copy of Frau Bach’s manuscript on a stand situated unobtrusively to the right of the camera (I didn’t want to have it cluttering up the picture), but I don’t like to keep looking at it all the time, since I’ve found that I play better when I’m not reading. I decided to compromise by glancing at the page at the points when I’m likely to forget the bowing during the first repeat, but to allow myself the freedom of not looking during the second repeat. I made a few errors, but I hope Frau Bach, wherever she is, didn’t mind.

Notes from the day’s recording

I’ve already had to break my rule about no more than three takes, but it wasn’t really my fault. I knew, going into this, that if you make a recording in an office without soundproofing under decidedly un-studio-like conditions, there’s going to be background noise. In the “proper” recordings I made when I was in the Tasman String Quartet, we went to huge lengths to turn off buzzing electric lights, locate non-squeaking chairs, remove our shoes in case we unthinkingly started tapping our feet, and so on. I did none of these things today, but I had to delay starting recording until the grounds staff stopped mowing lawns outside my window. I could whine about this, but the fact is that I’m still bursting with gratitude that my colleagues chose me for this job a year ago, and immoderately gleeful about the office they allocated me, which is large and light and airy, with eight windows that look out over towering trees and greenery and grass. Given these blessings, it seems churlish to complain about lawnmowers, particularly since the nice people who operate them work so hard to keep our splendid mock-Tudor campus looking so good. Still, it took an hour and a half for the dreadful din to stop, so I used the time for more practice. Today’s material was, of course, the G major Allemande, and also the Courante and Sarabande, since I’m recording those tomorrow and the day after. Working backwards from the end of the 36, I went through some of the nastier spots from the D major Gavottes, the first of which I’ve always found hard for intonation. Then I got cracking on my video.

Except that the first take had to stop after a minute or so, because my office phone rang, something it seldom does during the summer, and it was a wretched wrong number. Why is it that wrong number people only ever call me at 2 a.m. or when I’m trying to record something? I yanked the phone cord out of the jack with particular viciousness.

The second take was uninterrupted, but it was really wasn’t usable, because I fluffed so many things–and easy bits, too, not even the ones I normally find awkward. The other problem was that by the time I got to the second half, my A string had slipped flat, and there’s really no covering that up when you have to play a passage like this (it’s in bass clef, although you can’t see that here) where there’s clearly no effective way to do it without the open strings:

The third take, which should have been my last chance, went pretty decently, except that someone started playing the tuba in a nearby room, and this was distractingly audible in the recording. I know I said I was reconciled to some background noise, but this was a lot of noise.

So I decided, on the grounds that the first take hadn’t been complete, that I was allowed a Take 4. This ended up being the one I used. There are intonation slips, which I’m not happy about, and I also observed that it sounds kind of “played through” and rushed, which I hadn’t realized while I was doing it. Places where I thought I’d really exaggerated the expression of the phrasing, made a lot of dynamic contrasts, and taken a lot of time didn’t sound at all as I’d thought they would. In fact, a lot of the time my intentions in phrasing and dynamics weren’t clear at all. I suppose this is a lesson to me to exaggerate my exaggerations.

Another thing I want to do more is to be a bit bolder with my ornaments. I once attended a Manchester Cello Festival masterclass where a revered elder statesman of the cello (I actually can’t remember who it was) upbraided a student who was doing a lot of flowery ornaments in Bach with the deathless remark that he was “putting moustaches on the Mona Lisa,” that is, needlessly adding flourishes for flourishment’s sake, and in poor taste at that. I didn’t want to do this, so I reined the ornaments in a bit, but now I’m concerned it all sounds a bit plain and tame. Obviously, there are certain moments that pretty much beg for a trill, such as

which you can change to

without any trouble in the second repeat. I did a lot of that sort of thing. But I think this is a topic that I need to research better, so as soon as I finish writing this, I’m off to our wonderful library to get some books and articles on the subject.

Just one more gripe for the day. When I uploaded the video to YouTube, it came out fuzzy. The video I took wasn’t fuzzy when I played it on my computer, so I’m not sure why this happened. Yesterday’s upload came out much better. I wonder if it’s the length of the clip that makes it do this, since my Allemande comes out rather longer than my Prelude.

The finished product.

(1) Ellis Little, Meredith, and Suzanne G. Cusick. “Allemande.” Grove Music Online.  (accessed June 14, 2011).


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