Day 7: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Prelude

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

I first learned the D minor suite when I was about fourteen. It coincided with being taken to see a French film about the composer and viola da gambist Marin Marais, Tous les matins du monde. I was enchanted by the film, which started me on my lifelong love of the viola da gamba.

(Just this year I achieved my dearly-held goal of buying one of my very own gamba and teaching myself to play it, though it’ll be a while before I can achieve my other big goal, which is getting good enough to play the solo from “Es ist vollbracht” in Bach’s St. John Passion.)

For some reason, these two experiences–learning the D minor and watching a film about Marais–became conflated in my mind. There was something about the innately (to my ears) melancholy tone of the viola da gamba, the darkly compelling tragedy of the drama, and the introverted intensity of the Marais and Sainte-Colombe compositions featured in the soundtrack (many of which were also in D minor), that appealed to my imagination as a cellist and an interpreter of Bach. I spent hours playing it in my dank little practice room in the downstairs part of our house, wearing my school uniform, dreaming of seventeenth-century France and the viola da gamba. Here’s a clip from the film that illustrates beautifully what was so inspiring to me: the young Marais is playing one of his compositions, a set of variations on Les folies d’Espagne (better known, I think, as La Folia, a pop song of the seventeenth century).

As I was revisiting the D minor suite this week, I had cause to reconsider my early, gamba-inspired renditions of Bach. At some point, I’d been intending to blog about the question of historically informed performance practice, otherwise known as HIPP: whether to use period instruments or reproductions of period instruments (complete with gut strings and the like), and whether to consult treatises from the time and/or modern scholarly research on playing techniques of the early eighteenth century. It might not be obvious in my playing, but I really am an enthusiast of HIPP–my two favourite recordings of the Bach suites are those of the Early Music cellists Phoebe Carrai and Jaap ter Linden. At the same time, I consider myself a post-HIPPie–that is, to paraphrase David Lodge on feminism, I’ve assimilated it, but I’m not obsessed with it. I admit I could use more HIPP-friendly techniques in my playing, such as reining in the vibrato and changing the bowing attacks. The main reason I don’t do this is for lack of the right equipment. I sometimes feel that minimal-vibrato playing works optimally on gut strings with a Baroque bow, with which you can much more easily change your entire technique to something with a purer, more gamba-like tone. One day I hope to acquire a cello and bow with a Baroque setup, and when that day comes, I expect I’ll play the Bach suites completely differently.

For now, I’m sticking to my goal of using Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowings wherever possible, and Kirsten Beisswenger’s suggested bowings wherever it isn’t, and that’s the extent of my HIPPness. But Frau Bach’s manuscript of the D minor Prelude raises some interesting questions about how to interpret the last five bars, and this is a topic I’d like to go into a little more before posting the video I came up with.

The Prelude, in contrast to the its counterpart in the G major suite, is primarily a melodic piece that does the usual prelude thing of “trying out” various different keys in largely semiquaver/sixteenth note configurations, building up to a dramatic climax followed by an equally dramatic pause, then working its way back to the home key in a slightly more improvisatory manner. The last five bars are a puzzle, however. After a long movement featuring (mostly) semiquavers, we’re suddenly faced with five chords, each an entire measure long.

The question is whether J. S. Bach wanted us to play the chords as written, or whether he (or Anna Magdalena Bach) ran out of time and wrote it like this as a kind of shorthand, where the player could improvise on the indicated harmonies in the style of the rest of the piece.

Phoebe Carrai (AVIE Records, AV0021) arpeggiates the chords out into a series of string crossings, which I’ve transcribed here. This is an approximation only, since she really plays in a much more rhythmically flexible way than I was able to write down.

I’ve heard various other ways of doing it too. My wonderful teacher when I was a teenager used to use one that she’d composed herself that went something like this:

After this lengthy discussion, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wimped out and played the chords as chords. It’s not that I was afraid to improvise, but nothing I came up with sounded in keeping with the style of the rest of the piece, so I opted for the simplicity of a literal reading.

Notes from today’s recording:

By and large, recording went uneventfully. Take 1 was unusable because without my registering it, my hair flopped further and further over my face throughout the video until I looked dismayingly like Cousin Itt. Take 3 was unusable because although it went quite well most of the way through, it ended with a crashing out-of-tune chord that would be unconscionable to post on the internet. That left me with Take 2. I think it gives a reasonable account of the harmonic and dynamic scheme I was trying to convey, although it was in most respects the weakest of the three takes. Oh well, another day, another douleur…

Today’s practice list: D minor Prelude, Allemande, Courante; C minor Gigue.


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