Day 8: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Allemande

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Yesterday I wrote about how my teenage self conflated the D minor suite with the viola da gamba music of Marin Marais (1656-1728), so I was interested to read David Ledbetter’s claim in Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works that he found a marked similarity between Bach’s D minor Allemande and the Allemande and Double from the Premier Livre de Pièces de Viole of none other than M. Marais. (1) Well, it makes sense.

Bach purposely gave the movements of the cello suites French rather than Italian titles, and Marais was a very famous older contemporary who was, in fact, still alive at the time Bach was writing the suites in Cöthen. There’s no reason to suppose that he didn’t know Marais’ viola da gamba works. I must look this up further.

Notes from today’s recording:

I had to start early and spend less time practising and recording today, because my husband and puppy and I were planning a day trip to Saint Joe National Forest here in the Idaho Panhandle, and wanted to make a reasonably early start. Strangely enough, this requirement to spur myself into action a bit faster than I normally do coincided with my reading a very interesting article in the New York Times about a scientific study which proposed that elite athletes may be warming up too much before competition. Scientists at the University of Calgary discovered that skaters in the 2010 Winter Olympics had, by warming up for two hours before a 35-second event, tired their muscles out. In fact, the scientists haven’t even been able to conclude whether warming up before an event is even necessary.

I couldn’t help wondering if we could apply this way of thinking to playing the cello. Traditional wisdom has it that we must warm up every day with exercises and so on. My own warm-up takes approximately an hour and a half, and I’ve been doing it religiously every day since I was an undergraduate at the University of Canterbury. There are various shifting and bowing exercises, thumb position drills, scales galore, arpeggios, double stops (thirds, sixths and octaves–I’m too lazy to play tenths daily), chromatic scales, etudes (David Popper’s High School of Cello Playing and Alfredo Piatti’s 12 Caprices, mostly) and so on. During this project, I’ve followed this warm-up with the day’s Bach practice list: the piece of the day plus the two pieces following it, then a piece from the end of the cycle. Maybe I’ve been overdoing it. Naturally it’s good to keep in shape by playing difficult things like double stops and hard-to-tune etudes like Popper’s No. 9, but the length of this practice regime could explain why I have some trouble concentrating as my practice goes on, and why I’m usually half dead with fatigue at the end of a recording session of only three takes of one movement. So it was interesting to show up early to my office and play a drastically shortened warm-up consisting of a few scales and arpeggios, then go over the piece of the day, then record.

I didn’t entirely get the chance to figure out if it made a difference to my three takes of the day, because as it happened, I only got the chance to make two takes, and of those, only one was usable. That’s because in the final four bars of Take 2, some council workers in a digger came and started digging up chunks of the street outside my office window. The noise made Take 2 unusable, because it obscured the cello. I was pretty annoyed, although I told myself sternly that it was a very fine thing that the streets are being maintained, and that there is decently paid work for local people in this area, where incomes are modest and university professors are the richest people in town. (I know the thought of being the town fat cat may seem quite funny to any university professors reading this, but it’s true.) This said, I growled a few terrible oaths at the digger.

So, Take 1. Perhaps it suffers a little from my lack of warm-up time, since I did, after all, go cold turkey. In retrospect, I think it should be lighter and more dance-like. In spite of the melancholy key of D minor, it’s still a dance. I thought I had accomplished some of this by trying to make the two-note slurs in the first few lines “lilt” a little bit, rather than “playing them through” with legato, but I could have exaggerated this intention, I think.

Also, for the first time in this project, I experimented with some notes inégales in my second-repeat ornamentation. Dangerous thing, that. A bit like playing with dynamite. During my time as a master’s student in London, I wrote an assignment on notes inégales in performance practice for my musicology course. A massive controversy had raged for decades among scholars about whether it was right to add them to Bach’s music, which had only just died down with the (then) recent death of the musicologist Frederick Neumann. (I thought it was Henry Kissinger who once remarked that academic politics were so bitter because the stakes were so low, but Google has revealed to me that this attribution, too, is hotly debated). Anyway, I didn’t put in a lot of them, but I thought it was a fun way to vary the mostly ultra-regular rhythms.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D minor Allemande, Courante, Sarabande; C minor Gavottes I & II.

(1) Ledbetter, David. Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 189.


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