Day 10: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Sarabande

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

If the Allemande reminds me of Marin Marais and the Courante and Menuets remind me of Claudio Monteverdi, I think the D minor Sarabande reminds me of John Dowland. Though Bach might well have known Marais’ and Monteverdi’s music, I can’t find anything in my various Bach biographies to suggest that he knew Dowland’s. Still, the Sarabande always irresistibly brings to my mind Dowland’s Lachrimae Antiquae (better known as “Flow, my teares,” its lute song form) for consort of viols.

How is it similar? I suppose it’s the downwards “weeping” motives, the jagged leaps, the pervasive atmosphere of mournful introversion relieved here and there by a tonicization of the relative major chord. I really want the cello to sound like a sorrowful viol when I play the Sarabande, but there’s a great temptation to wallow so much in the melancholy of it all that you lose all sense of the triple time signature. Lachrimae isn’t a stylized dance movement; the Sarabande is. So I feel compelled to rein in a bit of the lonely soliloquizing.

Notes from today’s recording:

I’m starting to realize that my initial goal of playing all of Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowings in these recordings is rather challenging. I was never going to be pedantically insistent upon doing every single thing she wrote and never doing anything she didn’t write, of course. The head-scratcher, however, is when to assume that she was implying a certain bowing even when any marking at all is omitted.

Take, for example, the first bar.

The minim/half note implies that the second and third beats of the bar should be played in one bow, so that we can keep the double stop going for the full length of the minim. Or does it? I played around with holding the double stop for the duration of a dotted crotchet/dotted quarter note and then playing the semiquavers/sixteenth notes with separate bows. I felt that this might have been more comfortable with a Baroque bow on gut strings (and when I got home and tried it out on my viola da gamba, it certainly did), but on my modern equipment, it just sounded a bit notey. So I ended up slurring it in the way most cellists on recordings seem to.

Then there are the places where Frau Bach puts in a slur in one measure, but doesn’t in the next even when it’s a sequential pattern, in which we might reasonably expect a consistent bowing. Does this mean that she (or J. S.) intended us to do the same thing? A classic example of this occurs a few bars before the end. (I have to take separate photographs, because there’s a line break.)

I ended up doing them the same partly because I thought a reasonable case could be made for an implied simile, and also because it seems less disruptive of the continuing resonance of the chord’s bass notes if you don’t have lots of bow changes right after you come off the chord.

Today’s recording was another struggle. The Sarabande is a tricky thing to tune, and in the take I chose (Take 3) there were a number of slips. (The others were even more problematic. This is starting to be a altogether bit wounding to my amour-propre.) I found that the chief problems, apart from intonation on the double stops, were phrasing in a way that didn’t sound “lumpy” and getting the chords to speak enough. And then I’d get what I thought was a great idea for micro-level voicing or macro-level structural planning, only to listen to the playback and realize that it sounded like (the horror!) an Idea with a capital I. It’s precisely because it’s so hard to make an expressive gesture sound unpremeditated that Ideas happen. And yet, how can we be spontaneous without risking messing up? I suppose the answer is a sort of premeditated spontaneity, a concept that reminds me rather of certain teachers I’ve had who would shout “RELAX!” while I quaked in fear and every muscle in my body went rigid. I eventually wished that I’d been a little less worried about being “correct” and had let in a little more of the Lachrimae feeling.

Today’s video.

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


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