The D minor Menuets couldn’t be more different from each other. Menuet I, the minor-key one, has a densely chordal texture based partly on the harmonies that are spelled out in linear fashion in the Prelude. Menuet II, in the parallel major, is entirely free of double and triple stops, making it far more “horizontal” than its predecessor. Where Menuet I is austere and dignified, Menuet II appears to melt into a warm, graceful lyricism.
I don’t know why, but the D minor Menuets make me think of one of my favourite paintings,Two Nudes (Lovers) (1913) by Oskar Kokoschka. It’s a double portrait of the artist and Alma Mahler, widow of the composer, with whom Kokoschka had had a doomed love affair. In spite of their lack of clothing, the two figures appear to be in the middle of some kind of formal eighteenth-century dance, one of the ones where pairs of dancers come together and go apart again at certain times. A Bachian minuet? Why not? Kokoschka loved Bach, and made several Bach-inspired artworks, including O ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (1914).
There’s something about the expression of desperate yearning on Kokoschka’s face in contrast to the almost indifferent serenity on Alma’s that reminds me of the contrast between the D minor Menuets. It’s like those theatre masks with the smile on one side and the scowl on the other. They’re antithetical, they’re polar opposites, but they still dance together. The contrast between them is what makes them work.
Well, sometimes it helps to have a mental image when you’re grappling with these surprisingly hard little pieces.
When I was doing my practice run for this project, a 36-day series of audio recordings of the 36 movements in the Suites, the D minor Menuets gave me more difficulties than any other movement. This seemed strange at the time, given that they really aren’t as finger-twisting as some of the truly fiendish ones in the later suites, such as the E flat major Prelude, the C minor Allemande, or the D major Sarabande. I suppose there’s just something intensely tiring about trying to get all those chords and all those double stops into some semblance of good intonation while still making coherent sense of the melodies and the larger harmonic plan. The opening is a real stinker, as well, starting as it does with two very fiddly triple stops. The one in the second bar is pretty hard to play at all, even if you use your thumb, so I usually end up making the C a sort of grace note before double-stopping the E and B flat, which is a bit of a cheat, I suppose.
I did half an hour’s practice between each of the three takes today, because my fingers just wouldn’t play in tune. The tougher I tried to be on intonation, the more “slippy” my fingers got. Very frustrating. I ended up using Take 3, because it was the one that had the fewest fluffs and the most resemblance to what I was trying to say. The Menuet I da capo went much better than the first iteration of it. Why does this happen so much? Every time I record a piece with something that repeats, the second one is always better than the first. I sometimes wish I could chop the firsts altogether and have the seconds go twice instead. Sometimes people actually do this on commercially released recordings–edit out the first repeat and have two playings of the second–and you can really tell if you listen hard enough. It’s supposed to be something you get your hand smacked for, but I understand the temptation very well.
Today’s practice list: D minor Menuets I & II and Gigue; C major Prelude, C minor Allemande.