Day 8: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Allemande

Yesterday I wrote about how my teenage self conflated the D minor suite with the viola da gamba music of Marin Marais (1656-1728), so I was interested to read David Ledbetter’s claim in Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works that he found a marked similarity between Bach’s D minor Allemande and the Allemande and Double from the Premier Livre de Pièces de Viole of none other than M. Marais. (1) Well, it makes sense. Bach purposely gave the movements of the cello suites French rather than Italian titles, and Marais was a very famous older contemporary who was, in fact, still alive at the time Bach was writing the suites in Cöthen. There’s no reason to suppose that he didn’t know Marais’ viola da gamba works. I must look this up further.

Notes from today’s recording:

I had to start early and spend less time practising and recording today, because my husband and puppy and I were planning a day trip to Saint Joe National Forest here in the Idaho Panhandle, and wanted to make a reasonably early start. Strangely enough, this requirement to spur myself into action a bit faster than I normally do coincided with my reading a very interesting article in the New York Times about a scientific study which proposed that elite athletes may be warming up too much before competition. Scientists at the University of Calgary discovered that skaters in the 2010 Winter Olympics had, by warming up for two hours before a 35-second event, tired their muscles out. In fact, the scientists haven’t even been able to conclude whether warming up before an event is even necessary.

I couldn’t help wondering if we could apply this way of thinking to playing the cello. Traditional wisdom has it that we must warm up every day with exercises and so on. My own warm-up takes approximately an hour and a half, and I’ve been doing it religiously every day since I was an undergraduate at the University of Canterbury. There are various shifting and bowing exercises, thumb position drills, scales galore, arpeggios, double stops (thirds, sixths and octaves–I’m too lazy to play tenths daily), chromatic scales, etudes (David Popper’s High School of Cello Playing and Alfredo Piatti’s 12 Caprices, mostly) and so on. During this project, I’ve followed this warm-up with the day’s Bach practice list: the piece of the day plus the two pieces following it, then a piece from the end of the cycle. Maybe I’ve been overdoing it. Naturally it’s good to keep in shape by playing difficult things like double stops and hard-to-tune etudes like Popper’s No. 9, but the length of this practice regime could explain why I have some trouble concentrating as my practice goes on, and why I’m usually half dead with fatigue at the end of a recording session of only three takes of one movement. So it was interesting to show up early to my office and play a drastically shortened warm-up consisting of a few scales and arpeggios, then go over the piece of the day, then record.

I didn’t entirely get the chance to figure out if it made a difference to my three takes of the day, because as it happened, I only got the chance to make two takes, and of those, only one was usable. That’s because in the final four bars of Take 2, some council workers in a digger came and started digging up chunks of the street outside my office window. The noise made Take 2 unusable, because it obscured the cello. I was pretty annoyed, although I told myself sternly that it was a very fine thing that the streets are being maintained, and that there is decently paid work for local people in this area, where incomes are modest and university professors are the richest people in town. (I know the thought of being the town fat cat may seem quite funny to any university professors reading this, but it’s true.) This said, I growled a few terrible oaths at the digger.

So, Take 1. Perhaps it suffers a little from my lack of warm-up time, since I did, after all, go cold turkey. In retrospect, I think it should be lighter and more dance-like. In spite of the melancholy key of D minor, it’s still a dance. I thought I had accomplished some of this by trying to make the two-note slurs in the first few lines “lilt” a little bit, rather than “playing them through” with legato, but I could have exaggerated this intention, I think.

Also, for the first time in this project, I experimented with some notes inégales in my second-repeat ornamentation. Dangerous thing, that. A bit like playing with dynamite. During my time as a master’s student in London, I wrote an assignment on notes inégales in performance practice for my musicology course. A massive controversy had raged for decades among scholars about whether it was right to add them to Bach’s music, which had only just died down with the (then) recent death of the musicologist Frederick Neumann. (I thought it was Henry Kissinger who once remarked that academic politics were so bitter because the stakes were so low, but Google has revealed to me that this attribution, too, is hotly debated). Anyway, I didn’t put in a lot of them, but I thought it was a fun way to vary the mostly ultra-regular rhythms.

Today’s video.

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

(1) Ledbetter, David. Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 189.


Day 7: Suite No. 2 in D minor, Prelude

I first learned the D minor suite when I was about fourteen. It coincided with being taken to see a French film about the composer and viola da gambist Marin Marais, Tous les matins du monde. I was enchanted by the film, which started me on my lifelong love of the viola da gamba. (Just this year I achieved my dearly-held goal of buying one of my very own gamba and teaching myself to play it, though it’ll be a while before I can achieve my other big goal, which is getting good enough to play the solo from “Es ist vollbracht” in Bach’s St. John Passion.)

For some reason, these two experiences–learning the D minor and watching a film about Marais–became conflated in my mind. There was something about the innately (to my ears) melancholy tone of the viola da gamba, the darkly compelling tragedy of the drama, and the introverted intensity of the Marais and Sainte-Colombe compositions featured in the soundtrack (many of which were also in D minor), that appealed to my imagination as a cellist and an interpreter of Bach. I spent hours playing it in my dank little practice room in the downstairs part of our house, wearing my school uniform, dreaming of seventeenth-century France and the viola da gamba. Here’s a clip from the film that illustrates beautifully what was so inspiring to me: the young Marais is playing one of his compositions, a set of variations on Les folies d’Espagne (better known, I think, as La Folia, a pop song of the seventeenth century).

As I was revisiting the D minor suite this week, I had cause to reconsider my early, gamba-inspired renditions of Bach. At some point, I’d been intending to blog about the question of historically informed performance practice, otherwise known as HIPP: whether to use period instruments or reproductions of period instruments (complete with gut strings and the like), and whether to consult treatises from the time and/or modern scholarly research on playing techniques of the early eighteenth century. It might not be obvious in my playing, but I really am an enthusiast of HIPP–my two favourite recordings of the Bach suites are those of the Early Music cellists Phoebe Carrai and Jaap ter Linden. At the same time, I consider myself a post-HIPPie–that is, to paraphrase David Lodge on feminism, I’ve assimilated it, but I’m not obsessed with it. I admit I could use more HIPP-friendly techniques in my playing, such as reining in the vibrato and changing the bowing attacks. The main reason I don’t do this is for lack of the right equipment. I sometimes feel that minimal-vibrato playing works optimally on gut strings with a Baroque bow, with which you can much more easily change your entire technique to something with a purer, more gamba-like tone. One day I hope to acquire a cello and bow with a Baroque setup, and when that day comes, I expect I’ll play the Bach suites completely differently.

For now, I’m sticking to my goal of using Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowings wherever possible, and Kirsten Beisswenger’s suggested bowings wherever it isn’t, and that’s the extent of my HIPPness. But Frau Bach’s manuscript of the D minor Prelude raises some interesting questions about how to interpret the last five bars, and this is a topic I’d like to go into a little more before posting the video I came up with.

The Prelude, in contrast to the its counterpart in the G major suite, is primarily a melodic piece that does the usual prelude thing of “trying out” various different keys in largely semiquaver/sixteenth note configurations, building up to a dramatic climax followed by an equally dramatic pause, then working its way back to the home key in a slightly more improvisatory manner. The last five bars are a puzzle, however. After a long movement featuring (mostly) semiquavers, we’re suddenly faced with five chords, each an entire measure long.

The question is whether J. S. Bach wanted us to play the chords as written, or whether he (or Anna Magdalena Bach) ran out of time and wrote it like this as a kind of shorthand, where the player could improvise on the indicated harmonies in the style of the rest of the piece.

Phoebe Carrai (AVIE Records, AV0021) arpeggiates the chords out into a series of string crossings, which I’ve transcribed here. This is an approximation only, since she really plays in a much more rhythmically flexible way than I was able to write down.

I’ve heard various other ways of doing it too. My wonderful teacher when I was a teenager used to use one that she’d composed herself that went something like this:

After this lengthy discussion, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wimped out and played the chords as chords. It’s not that I was afraid to improvise, but nothing I came up with sounded in keeping with the style of the rest of the piece, so I opted for the simplicity of a literal reading.

Notes from today’s recording:

By and large, recording went uneventfully. Take 1 was unusable because without my registering it, my hair flopped further and further over my face throughout the video until I looked dismayingly like Cousin Itt. Take 3 was unusable because although it went quite well most of the way through, it ended with a crashing out-of-tune chord that would be unconscionable to post on the internet. That left me with Take 2. I think it gives a reasonable account of the harmonic and dynamic scheme I was trying to convey, although it was in most respects the weakest of the three takes. Oh well, another day, another douleur…

Today’s practice list: D minor Prelude, Allemande, Courante; C minor Gigue.

Day 6: Suite No. 1 in G major, Gigue

There’s something about the gigue as a form that seems a lot more rugged and rambunctious than the other Baroque dance forms. You can’t imagine people dancing a stately allemande with mud on their boots, spinach in their teeth, and a beer stein in one hand, can you? The ever-helpful Grove Music Online quotes Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as proof of the gigue’s populist origins: “Wooing is hot and hasty like a Scottish jigge.” (1)

With this in mind, I tried to bring out the robustness of the G major Gigue in today’s recording. David Ledbetter, whose Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works has been open on my desk since the beginning of this project, suggests that it’s rather similar in character to the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, a piece I’ve always found decidedly jolly (2). I aimed for this kind of boisterousness in the first repeats, and something more delicate and nuanced (and with more rubato) in the second ones. Unfortunately, the microphones on my Flip Camera aren’t the most sensitive, and you can’t really hear what I thought was quite a marked differentiation in dynamics. I may ultimately end up recording each take on my audio recording equipment and splicing it together with the video, although this takes a lot longer. If I’d really thought about this, I might instead have acquired one of those Kodak video cameras that’s essentially the same as the Flip, but into which you can plug the microphone of your choice. My husband and I have some pretty fancy mikes for our audio recording projects, so this might have been better. Alas.

Concluding thoughts on Suite No. 1

I really enjoyed revisiting the G major suite, which strangely is actually the suite I’ve played the least in my adult life. I’ve taught it to a few of my university and private students, but that’s different from living and breathing it myself. Something that surprised me was how much I had to unpeel a few layers of bad editions from my playing. I rather regret that most cello students’ first taste of the G major suite (in America, anyway) comes from the Suzuki books, where it’s presented in bits and pieces between Books Four to Seven, if I remember rightly. I think the first piece you get is the G major Gigue, in fact. I do take into account that the Suzuki editors did what they had to to make this great music accessible to the still-growing hands of children, since I don’t dispute for a minute that it’s wonderful for children to meet Bach when they’re eight or nine–why not? I wish, however, that they’d change the bowings and fingerings to something more musically and stylistically sensitive. What you learn as a child sticks with you. This has become very plain to me now that I’m a professor and it’s my job to give “technique makeovers” to incoming students. It’s unbelievably hard to eradicate a lazy habit. I know this from large amounts of personal experience, as well as the experiences of my students.

Today’s video.

If the G major suite is the Bach suite of my childhood, the D minor, which is coming up next, is the suite of my adolescence. Today’s practice list included the D minor Prelude and Allemande, as well as the D major Prelude (and, of course, the G major Gigue). I’m looking forward to the challenge of Suite No. 2!

(1) Ellis Little, Meredith. “Gigue.” Grove Music Online. (accessed June 18, 2011).

(2) Ledbetter, David. Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 185.

Day 5: Suite No. 1 in G major, Menuets I & II

The challenge of Galanterien

Each of Bach’s six cello suites contains a pair of Galanterien, dances that fall outside the usual scheme of prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In all of them, these dances are placed between the sarabande and the gigue. In Suites No. 1 and No. 2, there are minuets. (For the purposes of this project, I’ll spell this word the French way, because that’s how Anna Magdalena Bach spelled it in her manuscript.) In Suites No. 3 and No. 4, there are bourrées. In Suites No. 5 and No. 6, there are gavottes.

The formal plan of how Bach directs us to play the Galanterien is A–B–A; in other words, Dance I, followed by Dance II, followed by Dance I again, this time played with no repeats. Because each of the dances is composed in the usual binary form with repeats of each half, this effectively means that the reprise of Dance I is actually the third time we’ve heard it. The challenge is how to keep it interesting the third time around. After all, it’s hard enough for us to attract audiences to classical music without driving them to sleep! Usually, when a section is repeated, performers try to vary it in some way, such as with ornamentation or different dynamics and phrasing, but the challenge is finding a third way at the end. And then sorting out in your head how you’re going to remember three different versions.

Several years ago, when I was still playing in the Tasman String Quartet, we spent a summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where we had the privilege of studying with five or six of the world’s greatest quartets. We learned a huge amount of music that summer, including Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet op. 76 no. 3. The third movement is a minuet and trio along very much the same lines as Bach’s minuets: the first minuetto section is played with repeats, then the Trio section, then the minuetto da capo without repeats. My colleagues and I came up with what we thought was a great idea. Why not do the most ornate version for the second repeats in the first minuetto, and then play the final, repeat-less version of it as simply as possible, just to turn the notion of the ultra-flashy final reprise on its head? We set about composing some virtuoso ornaments for all four instruments to use on the second repeats.

We didn’t get very far with this idea, because our coach for our first lesson interrupted us somewhere in mid-swoop in a repeat during the first minuetto. “What,” he inquired with heavy irony, “are you planning to do for the encore?”

I kept this lesson in mind today when I was figuring out what to do with the reprise of Menuet I. I wanted the second repeat of the first hearing to have some ornaments–the odd trill here and there–but not to go crazy with them. Then on the reprise I would, I hoped, go a little crazy.

Notes on today’s recording

Today the honeymoon feeling I’d had for this project wore off. I started getting rather frustrated with my seeming inability to conjure up performance-style energy in my recordings. There’s something about being in front of an audience, even a small one, that puts a bit of fire in my blood. I always, always play better in performance than I do in practice and rehearsals. The trouble is that I really want some fire in these recordings, and yet, it’s hard to fake the adrenaline rush of being on a stage in a concert hall with that little tinge of abject terror pushing you onwards. I’ve never felt the urge to do physically dangerous things for fun, such as white water rafting and bungee jumping (both popular pursuits in my country). Instead, I do psychologically dangerous things, such as exposing myself to possible public humiliation and ridicule by doing a thing many people consider utterly terrifying. I once read that the two commonest fears are spiders and public speaking. This surprised me a bit, because I’d have thought most people’s worst fear would be the death of their loved ones, or their own death, or severe pain of some kind. But then, I can kind of see how public speaking might feature among the worst fears. It’s not that different from playing the cello in public.

I tried to conjure up a little fear today in the hopes of improving the energy of my playing. “Spiders!” I told myself firmly. “Giant, hairy spiders with poisonous fangs! Giving a speech in a foreign language that I don’t understand at my high school assembly while everyone jeers and throws things at me! And then I look down and realize I’m in my underwear! And there are spiders everywhere!” My adrenaline disobligingly refused to kick in. At one point, a real live wasp appeared in the office, but even that didn’t scare me. I swatted it lovingly out the window with my dog-eared copy of Popper’s High School of Cello Playing (which you can see on the piano behind me in the video). For some reason, I felt completely, unshakably calm. This is clearly something I have to work on.

I ended up using Take 2. Take 1 had too many intonation problems and little slips, whereas Take 3, which I’d thought would be the best one, was pretty dull. Which was a surprise, because that was the one in which I’d really been trying to give the feeling of the Menuets as dances, and had upped the tempo accordingly.

I was quite pleased with some of the ornaments I dreamed up, but any more would be, I think, excessive.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: G major Menuets and Gigue; D minor Prelude; D major Allemande.

Day 4: Suite No. 1 in G major, Sarabande

When I was a first-year university student doing some research for an essay in my music history class, I read something that filled me with unreasonable amounts of glee. The sarabande, I learned (probably from Grove’s Dictionary), had at one point been banned in Spain for its obscenity. Now that  put a different perspective on Early Music Ensemble rehearsals!

Indeed, the Oxford Companion to Music has just confirmed for me that one Father Mariana (1536-1624), who seems to have been no fun at all in spite of having a girl’s name, railed in his discouragingly-titled Treatise Against Public Amusements that the sarabande was “a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people.” Philip II of Spain was moved to suppress the sarabande, but people kept dancing it anyway. (1)

Naturally, I was eager to see some of these dreadful dance moves, if only to make sure, you understand, that I possessed sufficient decency to resist bad emotions. There weren’t many YouTube videos of dancers doing the sarabande, and I suspect most of them were just doing some different type of made-up dance to music with that title. Still, I rather liked this one by a Canadian dance company, if only because I coveted the dancers’ darling little pink shoes with bows on them.

This said, I don’t think Bach can have intended any of his cello sarabandes to suggest lasciviousness. They simply aren’t that kind of music. The D minor sarabande sounds (to me) dark and despairing, the C major and E flat major rather more peaceful and reposed. The C minor sarabande, with its amazingly economical resources, is perhaps the most tragic of all. The D major, by contrast, is just…heavenly. The main question in my mind today was how much of the feeling of dance should remain in an interpretation.

Notes on today’s recording

The biggest challenge I had with the G major sarabande today was finding a way to retain the feeling of being broadly in three, while still making the phrases breathe in and out. Where exactly do the phrases begin and end? Should we aim for expansive four-bar phrases, or should the tempo be slow enough that we can feel them in two-bar sections?

I ultimately decided on making two-bar phrases, because I felt that the tension and resolution of chord progressions seemed to arch over two bars rather than four. (Especially, I think, in the first two bars, where the second beat, whose harmony is IV 6/4, seems to “overtake” the tonic chord almost before the key has been established, culminating in an implied V 6/5 in bar 2 and resolving–almost weakly–to the tonic in the last beat of the bar.) What I was going for was a sense of inhalation and exhalation in two-bar groups. What gave me the most trouble was figuring out a way to run the first phrase into the second. Should one “taper” the G and start afresh with a stronger attack on the D that begins the third bar, at the risk of sounding disjointed and incoherent? Or try to run one seamlessly into the other, at the risk of obscuring one’s phrasing intentions?

I tried several different versions in today’s three takes, and ended up liking Take 2 the best. Regrettably, I seem to have bumped my camera’s tripod as I was pressing Record, with the result that there’s rather less of me and rather more of the Chinese fan hanging on my office wall than I’d intended. Well, it’s a very nice fan, a gift from my late great-aunt, of whom I was very fond. I think she’d approve.

Another thing I did today was to hazard some improvised ornaments. Some worked better than others. What I felt was lacking was a sense of spontaneity in them (ironically enough, since most of them were ones I dreamed up on the spot). I think I can play around more with the timing on ornaments, and perhaps a bit less at other times. Although this was the best take, I felt that sometimes I lost the overall triple pulse. It’s hard to keep it up, because although the piece is in 3/4, the harmonic rhythm wanders about in such a way that this isn’t always clear. Oh well, at least my clothes cooperated today.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list:

G major Sarabande, Menuets I & II, Gigue; D major Courante.

(1) Bellingham, Jane. “Sarabande.” The Oxford Companion to Music. (accessed June 15, 2011).

Day 3: Suite No. 1 in G major, Courante

When you have a dance whose title translates as “running,” it’s hard not to approach it at breakneck speed to prove the point. So I was interested to read in the Oxford Companion to Music that the seventeenth-century French courante was actually a much slower and statelier dance than its Italian analogue, the corrente. In fact, the authors of the OCTM entry describe it as “the slowest of all the court dances.” it was also, interestingly enough, a “courtship dance.” (1) This made a lot of sense to me. I’d never felt that the courantes in the cello suites should go particularly quickly. Many cellists take them at quite a clip, so it was fun to experiment with slowing them down a bit.

This said, the G major Courante is still in 3/4 time, like a corrente, as opposed to the more normal 3/2 of the French dance. Does this mean we should aim more for a corrente feeling? I’m not enough of a Bach scholar to answer this with authority, but I ended up choosing a tempo that compromised between the rapid tempo I’d previously thought I ought to be using, and something a bit more relaxed.

One of the wonderful features of Bach’s music for unaccompanied melodic instruments is his ability to make these instruments harmonically self-sufficient. No keyboard accompaniment is needed, because the solo instrument can generate its own linear counterpoint and its own harmonic accompaniment to go with the melodies. (Some musicians of the nineteenth century didn’t appreciate this. Schumann, for example, wrote some piano accompaniments for the cello suites, since he didn’t think they were suitable for public performance without them. Now that’s a moustache on the Mona Lisa!) Until relatively soon before Bach’s time, the cello was chiefly a continuo instrument, and in so many of these movements, including this Courante, you can really hear the “continuo roots” in the self-accompaniment. I’ve been trying to bring out the difference between the upper and lower voices with the frequent “pom pom!” commentary in the bass notes that so often follows a snippet of melody in the upper voice, as shown in the excerpt below.

Notes from the day’s recording

Unlike yesterday, I ended up with two takes I was pretty pleased with. Unfortunately, they were completely unusable. In the middle of Take 2, which was probably the best one, the ancient radiator in my office came on with many growls and hisses. Leaving aside the question of why the heating should be on in the middle of June, it was just so loud that it ruined the take, although I kept playing through it in the hopes that the microphone wouldn’t notice.

I waited for a while until starting Take 3, during which time the heating obligingly switched off. At the end of it, I was thinking to myself “Now, there’s a take I can use!” I put my cello in its case and skipped out to my car, feeling exceedingly pleased with myself.

It wasn’t until I got home and watched the takes that I realized to my horror that I couldn’t possibly put Take 3 up on YouTube, because of…a wardrobe malfunction. Nothing Janet Jackson-esque, but enough to make me look a bit slovenly. And the worst of it was that I was really happy with the take. Rats!

By default, I used Take 1. I’m not terribly pleased with it for a number of reasons, but at least the clothes stayed where they were meant to. The video is here.

Today’s practice list:

G major Courante, Sarabande, Menuets I & II; D major Sarabande.

(1) Thompson, Wendy, and Jane Bellingham. “Courante.” The Oxford Companion to Music. (accessed June 15, 2011).

Day 2: Suite No. 1 in G major, Allemande

Bach didn’t write his cello suites as music for dancing, but apart from the Preludes, all the movements are stylized dance movements, intended perhaps to suggest the lightness and fun of dancing, if not actually to incite the audience to leap to their feet and grab a partner. Allemande is the French word for a German dance: Bach used all French titles for the dance movements of the cello suites, though not, interestingly, for the violin partitas. I’m not going to paraphrase a music dictionary here by writing at length about the history of the dance types, but I still think it’s interesting to read what a danced Allemande actually looked like. In Grove Music Online, the authors of the Allemande entry describe it as

“…a couple dance with the man and woman side by side; the dancers proceed in a line of couples from one end of a hall to the other, each turning his partner around in such a way as to reverse the line and go back to the original place.” (1)

I trawled YouTube for videos of a danced Allemande, and the best one I could find was the clip below. It doesn’t show a roomful of couples proceeding down a line and back again, but you can get some idea of the grace, elegance and dignity of the steps from this pair of dancers in eighteenth-century costume. I particularly liked the care they took of each other’s headgear: every time one of them twirled the other, they were very cautious not to knock the lady’s powdered wig or the gentleman’s rather piratical-looking hat off.

With this delightful spectacle in mind, I tackled the Allemande this morning. Uppermost in my mind was how I was going to differentiate between the first and second repeats of each half. (All the dance movements in the cello suites are in various kinds of binary forms, with repeat signs at the end of each “half.”) The usual thing to do is to play the first half relatively “straight” and then improvise (or pretend to improvise) some ornaments in the second half.

What ultimately happened was that I didn’t just improvise ornaments in the second half, I also improvised bowings. The problem with my lofty goal of using all-Anna Magdalena Bach bowings was that I’d need to memorize them, and it is my personal failing that I am not much good at memorizing bowings. Notes, yes: I can memorize large swathes of them after rehearsing a piece once or twice. But for some reason, I need to have the score in front of me if I’m going to observe the written bowings with any degree of scrupulousness. In these video recordings, I do keep my facsimile copy of Frau Bach’s manuscript on a stand situated unobtrusively to the right of the camera (I didn’t want to have it cluttering up the picture), but I don’t like to keep looking at it all the time, since I’ve found that I play better when I’m not reading. I decided to compromise by glancing at the page at the points when I’m likely to forget the bowing during the first repeat, but to allow myself the freedom of not looking during the second repeat. I made a few errors, but I hope Frau Bach, wherever she is, didn’t mind.

Notes from the day’s recording

I’ve already had to break my rule about no more than three takes, but it wasn’t really my fault. I knew, going into this, that if you make a recording in an office without soundproofing under decidedly un-studio-like conditions, there’s going to be background noise. In the “proper” recordings I made when I was in the Tasman String Quartet, we went to huge lengths to turn off buzzing electric lights, locate non-squeaking chairs, remove our shoes in case we unthinkingly started tapping our feet, and so on. I did none of these things today, but I had to delay starting recording until the grounds staff stopped mowing lawns outside my window. I could whine about this, but the fact is that I’m still bursting with gratitude that my colleagues chose me for this job a year ago, and immoderately gleeful about the office they allocated me, which is large and light and airy, with eight windows that look out over towering trees and greenery and grass. Given these blessings, it seems churlish to complain about lawnmowers, particularly since the nice people who operate them work so hard to keep our splendid mock-Tudor campus looking so good. Still, it took an hour and a half for the dreadful din to stop, so I used the time for more practice. Today’s material was, of course, the G major Allemande, and also the Courante and Sarabande, since I’m recording those tomorrow and the day after. Working backwards from the end of the 36, I went through some of the nastier spots from the D major Gavottes, the first of which I’ve always found hard for intonation. Then I got cracking on my video.

Except that the first take had to stop after a minute or so, because my office phone rang, something it seldom does during the summer, and it was a wretched wrong number. Why is it that wrong number people only ever call me at 2 a.m. or when I’m trying to record something? I yanked the phone cord out of the jack with particular viciousness.

The second take was uninterrupted, but it was really wasn’t usable, because I fluffed so many things–and easy bits, too, not even the ones I normally find awkward. The other problem was that by the time I got to the second half, my A string had slipped flat, and there’s really no covering that up when you have to play a passage like this (it’s in bass clef, although you can’t see that here) where there’s clearly no effective way to do it without the open strings:

The third take, which should have been my last chance, went pretty decently, except that someone started playing the tuba in a nearby room, and this was distractingly audible in the recording. I know I said I was reconciled to some background noise, but this was a lot of noise.

So I decided, on the grounds that the first take hadn’t been complete, that I was allowed a Take 4. This ended up being the one I used. There are intonation slips, which I’m not happy about, and I also observed that it sounds kind of “played through” and rushed, which I hadn’t realized while I was doing it. Places where I thought I’d really exaggerated the expression of the phrasing, made a lot of dynamic contrasts, and taken a lot of time didn’t sound at all as I’d thought they would. In fact, a lot of the time my intentions in phrasing and dynamics weren’t clear at all. I suppose this is a lesson to me to exaggerate my exaggerations.

Another thing I want to do more is to be a bit bolder with my ornaments. I once attended a Manchester Cello Festival masterclass where a revered elder statesman of the cello (I actually can’t remember who it was) upbraided a student who was doing a lot of flowery ornaments in Bach with the deathless remark that he was “putting moustaches on the Mona Lisa,” that is, needlessly adding flourishes for flourishment’s sake, and in poor taste at that. I didn’t want to do this, so I reined the ornaments in a bit, but now I’m concerned it all sounds a bit plain and tame. Obviously, there are certain moments that pretty much beg for a trill, such as

which you can change to

without any trouble in the second repeat. I did a lot of that sort of thing. But I think this is a topic that I need to research better, so as soon as I finish writing this, I’m off to our wonderful library to get some books and articles on the subject.

Just one more gripe for the day. When I uploaded the video to YouTube, it came out fuzzy. The video I took wasn’t fuzzy when I played it on my computer, so I’m not sure why this happened. Yesterday’s upload came out much better. I wonder if it’s the length of the clip that makes it do this, since my Allemande comes out rather longer than my Prelude.

The finished product.

(1) Ellis Little, Meredith, and Suzanne G. Cusick. “Allemande.” Grove Music Online.  (accessed June 14, 2011).

Day 1: Suite No. 1 in G major, Prelude

The G major suite tends to be the one people learn first. To be honest, I hadn’t played it a lot since I first tackled it at some point in my childhood, ca. 1990, I think. I’ve never performed it in entirety, and I suppose I was thinking of it, possibly sacrilegiously, as “the easy one”–at least, in comparison with the finger-twisting D major or C minor. After all, the Prelude is often compared to the C major Prelude in Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which is the sort of piece you play on the piano when you’re about 10, and which is kind of easy. (I shall prepare myself for a smack-down by my pianist mother now.)

What I’d forgotten was that the G major Prelude is really a very hard piece. Whether you think of it as primarily vertical or horizontal, you have to be able to bring out and shape the harmonies of the wave-like melodic lines, while still keeping the individual components–that is, the moto perpetuo of running semiquavers/sixteenth notes–even enough to sound coherent and non-lumpy. Conveying an overall shape to a piece like this is also rather difficult, though Bach makes it a little easier by dividing the movement into two parts: the first a running progression of chords which builds up to a stand-still in the dominant key; the second a more improvisatory section whose harmonic rhythm is less clear, and which appears to be wandering in search of a key before a clear dominant pedal takes us back to G major again. In short, recording this movement gave me quite a bit of grief.

There’s also the question of bowings. So many editions insist (arbitrarily?) on repeated eight-note slurs (as in the excerpt below), which to my mind irons out many possibilities for nuance.

But when you’re reading from the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript, as I am, you’re faced with slurs whose placement is not only inconsistent from measure to measure, but ambiguously written (see below: apologies for my poor-quality photograph of the facsimile).

The musicologist Kirsten Beisswenger, in the fascinating Afterword to her scholarly edition of the Suites (Breitkopf), is at pains to assert that Anna Magdalena Bach copied her husband’s music conscientiously, for the most part. Still, she describes (wonderfully) her articulation and slurring markings as “characterized by negligence and prodigality.” (I expect that sounded better in the original German.) What we can be sure of is that Frau Bach was copying music incredibly quickly, probably at the same time as cutting up vegetables with her left hand, with several of her children and step-children hanging on her legs and climbing up her skirts, demanding a Currywurst mit Pommes or whatever the German fast food of the day was. Really, it’s surprising that she had the time or energy to put any markings in at all.

What Beisswenger ultimately does in the printed edition is a compromise: the first three notes of each eight-note pattern are slurred, and the rest are bowed separately. After the first few bars of Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript “settle down,” this seems to be the bowing that’s implied most of the time. This, therefore, is the bowing I’ve used in my recording.

The challenge, of course, is keeping one’s contact point relatively close to the frog of the bow. The temptation is to spend too much bow on the slur and progressively back yourself into the tip, from whence it’s rather difficult to get back. Or to compensate for this problem by stabbing the up-bows in an attempt to use a lot of bow to regain ground. With this in mind, you have to save bow like mad on the slur so that you don’t get too far up, and play the separate bows lightly enough that you can somehow fluke your way back to a contact point in the lower half. I suspect this would be a lot easier with a Baroque bow, and with this in mind, I may work on it using one I’ve just acquired to see if it makes a difference (in fact, I’m slightly kicking myself that I didn’t think to do this before).

Notes from the day’s recording

I woke up with horrendous allergies, and it was raining. I rather wanted to call this a sick day (after all, the rules I made up for this project state that I don’t have to record if I’m sick), but if I were to be strictly honest, and I like to be strictly honest, I wasn’t sick enough to stay in bed. So I dragged myself off to my office at the university to start Day 1 of the Bach 36 project.

The three-takes rule was harder than I’d anticipated. Initially, I supposed I’d do three back-to-back and watch them all at once, but I got curious after the first one and watched it right after recording. This was lucky, because if they’d all turned out like that, I wouldn’t have had anything I could use. Aside from many problems I simply hadn’t noticed while I was playing (bumping other strings, intonation slips, notes that didn’t speak, rhythmic unevenness), I was chastened to observe how mobile my face was the entire time. As a child I was constantly getting in trouble with my teachers (both school and music) for pulling faces and staring wildly around the room, and I could see on Take 1 that I hadn’t changed much. It’s strange how different it was from videos I’ve seen of myself playing in concerts. Perhaps it’s something about the solemn atmosphere and highly concentrated energy of a concert situation that keeps my face still(er) in those situations. However, when all I’m doing is sitting in my office on a rainy day in front of a camera, I have trouble summoning up performance energy. In Take 1, I was contorting my face in ways that would make Rowan Atkinson jealous. My vanity wasn’t going to let me upload a video to YouTube that made me look like Mrs. Bean, or possibly the madwoman in the attic, so Take 1 was definitely out.

I eventually ended up using Take 3. In this video, I can see myself trying extremely hard to keep my face and head still and my eyes focused. This isn’t why I used it, though. Accuracy wasn’t the prime criterion either. This one was actually the least accurate of the takes in terms of correct notes, evenness and so on, and there are several embarrassing fluffs and intonation lapses. I suppose I used this take because it was the closest any of them came to expressing the harmonic changes the way I wanted to. It was one of those recordings that doesn’t start well, but which gets better as it goes through. If I were allowed to edit, or to make more than three takes, I could go for a really good beginning and then paste them together. I expect there will be a lot of days like this in this project!

You can view and hear the fruits of my labours here.


When I decided to embark on this project, I realized that one of the less obvious benefits might be the improvement of my skill with electronics. I’m not a complete technophobe, but my husband likes to joke that my mere presence in a room is enough to stop all the appliances functioning correctly. My computer mysteriously malfunctions for no reason discernible to the IT staff at my workplace, every watch I have ever owned has irremediably died on my wrist after a month or two, my so-called smartphone behaves anything but intelligently, and even the milk frother on our espresso machine refuses to work the way it’s supposed to unless someone else operates it. Embarrassingly enough, I actually had a little trouble setting up this website.

This said, I was very proud of myself today, because I figured out how to operate my Flip Camera, with which I’ll be recording myself, without breaking it or anything else. I even figured out how to download and operate the video editing software that came with it. It took me positively forever, but I did it. So my schedule over the coming weeks will look something like this: drive to university (or walk, if I’m feeling virtuous), warm up, play scales and etudes, work on Bach for a couple of hours, then make three takes of the Bach movement of the day, go home, listen to and edit videos, post them to YouTube, then write here about how it went. (The reason I can do keep this up for 36 consecutive days is that it’s the summer break here; it would be much harder during the semester when I’m teaching and rushing around doing a million things.) For the rest of the day, I’ll work on my other writing projects, and maybe go back into my office for another practice session in the evening.

I’m excited about this project, but also experiencing abject terror at the thought of having to post a video of myself on my YouTube channel every day. What if I don’t get any good takes? What if I sound mediocre? What if I look…(horrible thought!)…silly? Well, I suppose I need to prepare myself for any and all of these eventualities! With luck, I’m going to start recording tomorrow, so watch this space.