Day 13: Suite No. 3 in C major, Prelude

There are a lot of these in Bach. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Before I begin on the serious subject of the C major Prelude, I’m going to take a minute to feel mightily relieved that I’m now a third of the way through the Bach 36 project. I didn’t realize how much recording just one movement of Bach each day was going to kick my butt. I didn’t realize how much I was going to have to up my practice hours (this is undoubtedly a very fine thing) or just how long it would take to think up things to blog about and write them all down while waiting for the video to upload to YouTube.

Of course, it all took vastly longer than I thought it would, to the point where it consumes most of my non-exhausted hours in the day. And that was just the first two suites, which are supposedly the “easy” ones! Having now pre-practised my way through the D major and C minor suites and started on the E flat major today, I’m awed at and daunted by their difficulty. This will be interesting.

The C major suite, which I started recording today, is probably the suite I know the best and have played the most in adult life. There’s something rather lovely about the key of C on the cello, because you get to take advantage of the sympathetic resonances of all the strings.

The Prelude is another of Bach’s running-semiquavers/sixteenths preludes. It’s largely based around triadic chordal patterns, but starts with a sweeping downwards scale that rushes from middle C to the tremendous booming ring of the open C string. The challenge with the first twenty or so bars is not to allow it to sound like an exercise.

Preoccupied by this thought, I set about trying to find ways to shape the lines and inject some dynamics and rubato to make it interesting. I thought I was doing this very clearly, although the recording doesn’t show this half as explicitly as I’d thought it would.

Another big question in the C major Prelude is how to bow the central harmonic “event” in the structure, a long pedal that works through all the permutations of the pent-up dominant. In a manuscript whose bowings are characterized chiefly by ambiguity, we can find one of the few unequivocal bowing directions from Frau Bach: slur 3, separate one. (The dominant pedal begins a few bars before the beginning of this photographed excerpt; the reason I didn’t show them is because they’re on another page.)

It’s been my flexibly-conceived goal throughout this project to do Anna Magdalena Bach’s marked bowings, as I perceive them, wherever possible. So I tried extremely earnestly to find a way to do this bowing convincingly. The danger is always to spend too much bow on the 3-note slur, and then have to surge in an ungainly and inexpressive way on the single separate note to get back closer to the frog so you don’t end up backed up into the tip with nowhere to go. And yet, even when I saved bow like made on the 3-note slur and made the singleton as light and fast as I could without a surge or an accent, it simply didn’t sound reasonable.

There are various editorial solutions to this perennial problem, some of which I’ll present here.

First of all, the good old two-and-two compromise:

The advantage of doing it this way is that your chances of playing evenly and cleanly are greatly improved. The disadvantage is that it’s even easier to sound like you’re playing an exercise.

Another very common compromise is to go two-four-four-four-four across the groups of four semiquavers/sixteenths.

I used to like this a whole lot, because it’s easier to produce a good singing tone this way. However, I rejected it this time, because it seems to me now that to cut across the groups of four notes is to compromise the authority of the bass note, which after all is the dominant, and the dominant pedal is sort of the point here.

In times past, I sometimes bowed the entire thing separately:

but I didn’t this time, because for some reason I couldn’t stop it sounding a bit scrappy and scratchy.

I settled for a bowing I’d not done before, a four-note slurred one, because it seemed that this was the best compromise with the 3+1 bowing in Frau Bach’s manuscript.

I wasn’t too pleased to be violating such an explicit instruction from the Bachs, but I suspect that like so many other Baroque-era bowings, this one would be far more manageable on a Baroque bow on a cello with gut strings. The flexibility of the hair coupled with the more immediate possibilities of attack on the string would perhaps allow me to save myself from the dreaded surge on the last semiquaver/sixteenth note.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Prelude, Allemande, Courante; E flat major Gigue.


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