Day 9: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Courante

Claudio Monteverdi. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

If the first two movements of the D minor suite are reminiscent of Marais and the French Baroque, I sometimes think the Courante and Menuets are rather more Italianate.

David Ledbetter points out the ciaccona feeling of the Courante’s implied bassline: (1)

This compares very closely with the implied bassline of Menuet I.

What virtually jumps off the page at me when I see basslines like this is the resemblance to the bassline in Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa, one of my absolute favourite pieces.

Over the stability of this descending tetrachord, which gets repeated over and over throughout the middle “lament” section of the piece, the distraught nymph of the title has the harmonic freedom to utter all sorts of despairing sighs and groans and text-painting madrigalisms, which is what you do if your lover has abandoned you and you’re in a madrigal. She’s supported by a chorus of three male voices, two tenors and a bass, who function both as narrators and sympathizers to her heartbroken plight. (For some reason, I always imagine them dressed in shepherd costumes.) They “frame” the lament part of the piece with an introduction and an epilogue, and they punctuate the nymphs’s outpourings with the occasional “Dicea” (“she said”) and with compassionate interjections of “Miserella!” (“poor girl!”). The Lamento is really one of the most extraordinary pieces of music, and one that almost always has the ability to move me to tears.

Here’s a YouTube video of the Lamento that’s particularly interesting, because the person who posted it has put a score up, so we can follow along and see the bassline “in action.”

What has this to do with the D minor Courante? Well, maybe a lot and maybe not a lot. It’s just something I keep in the back of my mind when I’m preparing it, because the Courante has a lot of notes and it’s hard not to get so caught up in them that you forget what ultimately underpins them. I also feel the need to avoid taking the Courante at the cracking pace so many interpreters do. It needs a bit more time to achieve nuance and contrast.

Notes from today’s recording:

Today was a bit of a struggle. I hadn’t realized just how audible any tiny fudging of the many string-crossing passages can be, and after the first take I stopped recording and practised for half an hour before doing the second and third takes. It’s passages like this:

that tend to trip both my fingers and my bow up. None of the takes was as clean as I wanted it to be, but I ended up choosing Take 2 as the least flawed of the three.

Today’s video.

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

(1) Ledbetter, David: Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 191.


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