Day 14: Suite No. 3 in C major, Allemande

Herr und Frau Bach. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

I find myself suffering from a bit of writer’s block about the C major Allemande, so I will permit myself to digress a little bit by recounting some interesting facts about the Bach family which I have read in Christoph Wolff’s biography. Did you know that when J. S. Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke in 1721, he bought 264 quarts of Rhine wine to celebrate? (Assuming that the 18th-century German quart was anything like the modern American one, that’s a tremendous amount of wine.)

He got a discount from the Cöthen Ratskeller, so it cost 84 talers and 16 groschen. This, by the way, was more than 20% of what he earned in a year (1).

I was also interested to read that Anna Magdalena Bach gave birth 13 times in 19 years (2). That’s an awful lot of your life to spend pregnant, particularly when you have two full time jobs–musician/copyist and manager of a large household, albeit one that was crammed into an 802-square-foot apartment (3).

I find these stories fascinating because they alter one’s perception of Bach, the stolid-looking Kapellmeister from the famous portrait.

I suppose we tend to assume that Bach was above all an exceptionally pious, churchy sort of man, so I find it rather humanizing to think of him also as a “passionate Protestant” who fathered 20 children. And I rather like the thought of the good Cantor kicking up his heels at his second wedding, egging the guests on to have another goblet of his expensive booze. I’m sure it can’t always have been easy to be married to J. S., but for some reason I imagine the Bachs as a happy family. I picture the three brainy boys, W. F., C. P. E., and little J. C., sitting around a scrubbed oak dinner table with their manuscript books and quill pens, while Anna Magdalena bustles in and out, occasionally leaning over and checking their four-part harmony exercises. “Parallel fifths!” I imagine her tutting at C. P. E., cuffing him affectionately on the back of the head. “Ooh, just you wait till your father gets home.” C. P. E. scowls a bit, but tells himself that one day he’ll invent the empfindsamer Stil, and that’ll show everyone.

I’ve digressed terribly. So. The C major Allemande. Today’s dilemma was mostly about tempo. So many people take this particular allemande at a very jolly, bouncing tempo. This probably has something to do with a bowing commonly found in a lot of editions. Derived, i think, from one of the eighteenth-century copies of the manuscript, it has the player take the last two notes of each gesture and make them into staccatos on up-bows.

However, if we take the bowing specified by Frau Bach, at least as it’s perceived by Kirsten Beisswenger in her scholarly edition of the Suites (4), there are fewer possibilities for “bouncing.”

Although I, like most people, I expect, was brought up with the bouncy bowing, I decided to give the A. M. Bach/Beisswenger bowing a go. The result was that I ended up choosing a tempo that was a bit slower than my usual one. I tried to achieve quite a lot of “lift” on each of the separate semiquavers/sixteenth notes immediately after the slurs, so that I wouldn’t get the dreaded surging sound as I tried to get back to the lower half of the bow for the next slur. I thought I was getting more resonance out of them than the recordings show I did; I took a note of this for next time I play this movement.

Another challenge of this movement is the chain of ascending thirds in the first half. This isn’t, strictly speaking, the most hard-to-tune thing in the world, but in combination with the punctuating open C and G strings, it’s altogether rather tricky. To my chagrin, I couldn’t use Take 2, which in most other respects was free from major flaws, simply because the thirds were mortifyingly out of tune.

I ended up using Take 3, which is what quite often seems to happen in this project. I seem to have fallen into a routine where I do my first take, using the bowings and fingerings and ideas from the last few days’ practice sessions, then listen to it, shudder at all the inaccuracies and the crackpot ideas that seemed so clever before, and resolve to play much better on Take 2. Then I practise for a while, taking account of all the places that weren’t in tune or otherwise didn’t sound good in Take 1. Then I make my Take 2, determined to be wonderfully accurate. Then I listen to Take 2, and it usually sounds rather careful and dull. So I make Take 3, by now paranoid about the intonation, but trying to relax and let some expression take over, in the hopes that it won’t be written on my tombstone that I played accurately but dully. Today’s Take 3 had a few problems, but on the whole was less problematic than the others.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Allemande, Courante, Sarabande; E flat major Bourrées I & II.

(1) Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000, 218.

(2) ibid., 396.

(3) ibid., 406.

(4) Also known as “the new Breitkopf.”


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