Day 4: Suite No. 1 in G major, Sarabande

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

When I was a first-year university student doing some research for an essay in my music history class, I read something that filled me with unreasonable amounts of glee. The sarabande, I learned (probably from Grove’s Dictionary), had at one point been banned in Spain for its obscenity. Now that  put a different perspective on Early Music Ensemble rehearsals!

Indeed, the Oxford Companion to Music has just confirmed for me that one Father Mariana (1536-1624), who seems to have been no fun at all in spite of having a girl’s name, railed in his discouragingly-titled Treatise Against Public Amusements that the sarabande was “a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people.” Philip II of Spain was moved to suppress the sarabande, but people kept dancing it anyway. (1)

Naturally, I was eager to see some of these dreadful dance moves, if only to make sure, you understand, that I possessed sufficient decency to resist bad emotions. There weren’t many YouTube videos of dancers doing the sarabande, and I suspect most of them were just doing some different type of made-up dance to music with that title. Still, I rather liked this one by a Canadian dance company, if only because I coveted the dancers’ darling little pink shoes with bows on them.

This said, I don’t think Bach can have intended any of his cello sarabandes to suggest lasciviousness. They simply aren’t that kind of music. The D minor sarabande sounds (to me) dark and despairing, the C major and E flat major rather more peaceful and reposed. The C minor sarabande, with its amazingly economical resources, is perhaps the most tragic of all. The D major, by contrast, is just…heavenly. The main question in my mind today was how much of the feeling of dance should remain in an interpretation.

Notes on today’s recording

The biggest challenge I had with the G major sarabande today was finding a way to retain the feeling of being broadly in three, while still making the phrases breathe in and out. Where exactly do the phrases begin and end? Should we aim for expansive four-bar phrases, or should the tempo be slow enough that we can feel them in two-bar sections?

I ultimately decided on making two-bar phrases, because I felt that the tension and resolution of chord progressions seemed to arch over two bars rather than four. (Especially, I think, in the first two bars, where the second beat, whose harmony is IV 6/4, seems to “overtake” the tonic chord almost before the key has been established, culminating in an implied V 6/5 in bar 2 and resolving–almost weakly–to the tonic in the last beat of the bar.) What I was going for was a sense of inhalation and exhalation in two-bar groups. What gave me the most trouble was figuring out a way to run the first phrase into the second. Should one “taper” the G and start afresh with a stronger attack on the D that begins the third bar, at the risk of sounding disjointed and incoherent? Or try to run one seamlessly into the other, at the risk of obscuring one’s phrasing intentions?

I tried several different versions in today’s three takes, and ended up liking Take 2 the best. Regrettably, I seem to have bumped my camera’s tripod as I was pressing Record, with the result that there’s rather less of me and rather more of the Chinese fan hanging on my office wall than I’d intended. Well, it’s a very nice fan, a gift from my late great-aunt, of whom I was very fond. I think she’d approve.

Another thing I did today was to hazard some improvised ornaments. Some worked better than others. What I felt was lacking was a sense of spontaneity in them (ironically enough, since most of them were ones I dreamed up on the spot). I think I can play around more with the timing on ornaments, and perhaps a bit less at other times. Although this was the best take, I felt that sometimes I lost the overall triple pulse. It’s hard to keep it up, because although the piece is in 3/4, the harmonic rhythm wanders about in such a way that this isn’t always clear. Oh well, at least my clothes cooperated today.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list:

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

(1) Bellingham, Jane. “Sarabande.” The Oxford Companion to Music. (accessed June 15, 2011).


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