Day 5: Suite No. 1 in G major, Menuets I & II

The challenge of Galanterien

Each of Bach’s six cello suites contains a pair of Galanterien, dances that fall outside the usual scheme of prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In all of them, these dances are placed between the sarabande and the gigue. In Suites No. 1 and No. 2, there are minuets. (For the purposes of this project, I’ll spell this word the French way, because that’s how Anna Magdalena Bach spelled it in her manuscript.) In Suites No. 3 and No. 4, there are bourrées. In Suites No. 5 and No. 6, there are gavottes.

The formal plan of how Bach directs us to play the Galanterien is A–B–A; in other words, Dance I, followed by Dance II, followed by Dance I again, this time played with no repeats. Because each of the dances is composed in the usual binary form with repeats of each half, this effectively means that the reprise of Dance I is actually the third time we’ve heard it. The challenge is how to keep it interesting the third time around. After all, it’s hard enough for us to attract audiences to classical music without driving them to sleep! Usually, when a section is repeated, performers try to vary it in some way, such as with ornamentation or different dynamics and phrasing, but the challenge is finding a third way at the end. And then sorting out in your head how you’re going to remember three different versions.

Several years ago, when I was still playing in the Tasman String Quartet, we spent a summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where we had the privilege of studying with five or six of the world’s greatest quartets. We learned a huge amount of music that summer, including Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet op. 76 no. 3. The third movement is a minuet and trio along very much the same lines as Bach’s minuets: the first minuetto section is played with repeats, then the Trio section, then the minuetto da capo without repeats. My colleagues and I came up with what we thought was a great idea. Why not do the most ornate version for the second repeats in the first minuetto, and then play the final, repeat-less version of it as simply as possible, just to turn the notion of the ultra-flashy final reprise on its head? We set about composing some virtuoso ornaments for all four instruments to use on the second repeats.

We didn’t get very far with this idea, because our coach for our first lesson interrupted us somewhere in mid-swoop in a repeat during the first minuetto. “What,” he inquired with heavy irony, “are you planning to do for the encore?”

I kept this lesson in mind today when I was figuring out what to do with the reprise of Menuet I. I wanted the second repeat of the first hearing to have some ornaments–the odd trill here and there–but not to go crazy with them. Then on the reprise I would, I hoped, go a little crazy.

Notes on today’s recording

Today the honeymoon feeling I’d had for this project wore off. I started getting rather frustrated with my seeming inability to conjure up performance-style energy in my recordings. There’s something about being in front of an audience, even a small one, that puts a bit of fire in my blood. I always, always play better in performance than I do in practice and rehearsals. The trouble is that I really want some fire in these recordings, and yet, it’s hard to fake the adrenaline rush of being on a stage in a concert hall with that little tinge of abject terror pushing you onwards. I’ve never felt the urge to do physically dangerous things for fun, such as white water rafting and bungee jumping (both popular pursuits in my country). Instead, I do psychologically dangerous things, such as exposing myself to possible public humiliation and ridicule by doing a thing many people consider utterly terrifying. I once read that the two commonest fears are spiders and public speaking. This surprised me a bit, because I’d have thought most people’s worst fear would be the death of their loved ones, or their own death, or severe pain of some kind. But then, I can kind of see how public speaking might feature among the worst fears. It’s not that different from playing the cello in public.

I tried to conjure up a little fear today in the hopes of improving the energy of my playing. “Spiders!” I told myself firmly. “Giant, hairy spiders with poisonous fangs! Giving a speech in a foreign language that I don’t understand at my high school assembly while everyone jeers and throws things at me! And then I look down and realize I’m in my underwear! And there are spiders everywhere!” My adrenaline disobligingly refused to kick in. At one point, a real live wasp appeared in the office, but even that didn’t scare me. I swatted it lovingly out the window with my dog-eared copy of Popper’s High School of Cello Playing (which you can see on the piano behind me in the video). For some reason, I felt completely, unshakably calm. This is clearly something I have to work on.

I ended up using Take 2. Take 1 had too many intonation problems and little slips, whereas Take 3, which I’d thought would be the best one, was pretty dull. Which was a surprise, because that was the one in which I’d really been trying to give the feeling of the Menuets as dances, and had upped the tempo accordingly.

I was quite pleased with some of the ornaments I dreamed up, but any more would be, I think, excessive.

Today’s video.

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

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