Day 16: Suite No. 3 in C major, Sarabande

Deptford. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

The C major Sarabande has special sentimental meaning for me. I was hashing through it one day in my mid-teens when my much-loved great-aunt, who was visiting, came and sat down in the room where I was practising. When I stopped, she said quite casually “You can play that at my funeral.” I squirmed a bit, since I was uncomfortable talking about most serious subjects, but I didn’t forget the request.

When Dorothy died in 2000, I was at university in London, about as far away from New Zealand as you could get. I still have a perfectly crystalline memory of the phone call that came early in the morning of April 1st (she died on April Fool’s Day, a day I’ve never been able to find amusing since) when I was half-asleep in my hard little bed in the university halls of residence in south-east London. My mother told me, as gently as she could, that Dorothy had died of heart failure in the arms of her daughter. There was no money for me to fly home for the funeral.

I stumbled out of bed and into some clothes, and headed across the street to the university practice rooms, where I took out my cello and played the C major Sarabande again and again. Then I put away the cello and went for a long, long walk, down into shabby Deptford and along Greenwich High Street, across that spooky, leaky Victorian pedestrian tunnel that goes under the Thames, and up into the Isle of Dogs and the East End. Hopelessly lost, I went into a church to sit down away from the noisy din of the streets, rest my stinging feet, and figure out where I was with my London A-Z. I was crying so hard that a nun, alerted by the noise, came and sat beside me and asked if I was pregnant. I said I wasn’t, and ran out.

Since I was far away from home at the time of the funeral, I begged to be allowed to have a recording of the C major Sarabande played at the service, and for my brother to read out a eulogy I’d written. After I graduated and came back to New Zealand for a holiday, I gave a recital that I dedicated to Dorothy’s memory, in which the second half of the programme was, of course, the C major Suite.

Revisiting the Sarabande, it’s hard not to play it in the way I played it at 16, or 19. Back then, I took it at a preternaturally slow tempo, because I thought it was more “emotional” that way. I played large stretches of the movement extremely quietly, because I had a theory at the time that if the audience was straining to hear you, their hearts would be touched more. (I was young. I am slightly embarrassed about this now, although I plead that it was done with deep sincerity.) I arpeggiated the chords so slowly that they barely sounded like chords. I remember thinking the phrase at bars 13-14 was a moment of particular tragedy that should have a dramatic ritardando as the line went up, and a hushed fermata on the B flat.

It’s hard to get away from this kind of youthful interpretation. I now think an overtly slow tempo is a great deal more fun to play than it is to listen to. And not just in my own playing–I feel this way about the playing of some of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived. For example, I find Glenn Gould’s later recording of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations almost impossible to listen to. It’s so slow I find myself starting to “conduct” in mid-air, trying to make it go faster! I don’t know whether this is because of my current dislike of extremely slow tempi, or because my modern ears are more used to hearing the Goldbergs played much faster on the harpsichord. Either way, I don’t think it’s possible to “go back” to playing ultra-slowly any more.

Tempo aside, I also feel now that extremely varied rubato detracts from the dignity of the underlying pulse, and the harmonic plan of each of the halves in the binary structure. Take the first half, where the basic goal is to get from the tonic (C major) to the dominant (G major). We hardly have a moment to enjoy being in C major before we’re whisked away in the second bar to V7/IV. Bar 3 “negotiates” away from this implied tonicization of the F major chord, and bar 4 brings our first explicit appearance of the G major chord (which is still the dominant, since we haven’t modulated yet). The appearances of F sharps in the following bars indicates that a modulation is taking place, and in spite of a cadential pattern that appears to flirt with the notions of G minor, we can feel fairly confident that G major has been reached in the final bar, even taking into account the absence of a B natural. (Why am I so confident? Well, the second half starts on an unmistakable G major triad, and besides, things usually modulate to the dominant, not the parallel minor of the dominant, so…..)

My point in all this is theorizing is that I felt today that it would be a little self-indulgent to bring out micro-nuances by slowing them down tremendously. So today’s recording was a great deal “straighter” than I’d played the Sarabande in the past.

I used Take 3, as usual. The first take, which I’d thought went really well while I was playing it, turned out to be positively riddled with that scourge of the modern string player attempting any kind of stylishness–the banana tone. In other words, a scooping or surging crescendo-decrescendo on long (and even not-so-long) notes. Another thing that’s really fun to play, but not so much fun to listen to, not to mention irritating in its repetitiveness and distracting from the melodic line. The banana tone used to be a favoured technique among historically informed performance practitioners in, I suppose, the sixties and seventies, when use of period equipment was only just starting to become really widespread. Because the pre-Tourte bow didn’t have the same capacity for sustaining evenly from frog to tip as the modern bow, the thinking went that it was actually impossible to play in a sustained way, and that musicians in Baroque times not only played with constant bananas, they wanted them–perhaps on every note. Well, this notion is pretty old-fashioned now, and the poor banana tone is banana non grata.

Anyway, I hadn’t been the slightest bit conscious of my banana-ing, and this discovery provoked so much toe-curling mortification in me that I resolved not to play another banana tone ever in my life, and certainly not in Take 2. Of course, this meant that Take 2, while freakishly in tune (something I rarely think about my own playing), was too lacking in nuance to be thinkable for posting on YouTube. Take 3 was the best, although I never really figured out a satisfactory new interpretation to replace the old one.

Today’s video.

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


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