Day 3: Suite No. 1 in G major, Courante

When you have a dance whose title translates as “running,” it’s hard not to approach it at breakneck speed to prove the point. So I was interested to read in the Oxford Companion to Music that the seventeenth-century French courante was actually a much slower and statelier dance than its Italian analogue, the corrente. In fact, the authors of the OCTM entry describe it as “the slowest of all the court dances.” it was also, interestingly enough, a “courtship dance.” (1) This made a lot of sense to me. I’d never felt that the courantes in the cello suites should go particularly quickly. Many cellists take them at quite a clip, so it was fun to experiment with slowing them down a bit.

This said, the G major Courante is still in 3/4 time, like a corrente, as opposed to the more normal 3/2 of the French dance. Does this mean we should aim more for a corrente feeling? I’m not enough of a Bach scholar to answer this with authority, but I ended up choosing a tempo that compromised between the rapid tempo I’d previously thought I ought to be using, and something a bit more relaxed.

One of the wonderful features of Bach’s music for unaccompanied melodic instruments is his ability to make these instruments harmonically self-sufficient. No keyboard accompaniment is needed, because the solo instrument can generate its own linear counterpoint and its own harmonic accompaniment to go with the melodies. (Some musicians of the nineteenth century didn’t appreciate this. Schumann, for example, wrote some piano accompaniments for the cello suites, since he didn’t think they were suitable for public performance without them. Now that’s a moustache on the Mona Lisa!) Until relatively soon before Bach’s time, the cello was chiefly a continuo instrument, and in so many of these movements, including this Courante, you can really hear the “continuo roots” in the self-accompaniment. I’ve been trying to bring out the difference between the upper and lower voices with the frequent “pom pom!” commentary in the bass notes that so often follows a snippet of melody in the upper voice, as shown in the excerpt below.

Notes from the day’s recording

Unlike yesterday, I ended up with two takes I was pretty pleased with. Unfortunately, they were completely unusable. In the middle of Take 2, which was probably the best one, the ancient radiator in my office came on with many growls and hisses. Leaving aside the question of why the heating should be on in the middle of June, it was just so loud that it ruined the take, although I kept playing through it in the hopes that the microphone wouldn’t notice.

I waited for a while until starting Take 3, during which time the heating obligingly switched off. At the end of it, I was thinking to myself “Now, there’s a take I can use!” I put my cello in its case and skipped out to my car, feeling exceedingly pleased with myself.

It wasn’t until I got home and watched the takes that I realized to my horror that I couldn’t possibly put Take 3 up on YouTube, because of…a wardrobe malfunction. Nothing Janet Jackson-esque, but enough to make me look a bit slovenly. And the worst of it was that I was really happy with the take. Rats!

By default, I used Take 1. I’m not terribly pleased with it for a number of reasons, but at least the clothes stayed where they were meant to. The video is here.

Today’s practice list:

G major Courante, Sarabande, Menuets I & II; D major Sarabande.

(1) Thompson, Wendy, and Jane Bellingham. “Courante.” The Oxford Companion to Music. http://ida.lib.uidaho.edu:5688/subscriber/article/opr/t114/e1684?q=courante&search=quick&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit (accessed June 15, 2011).

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