Music and mathematics

I read with great interest an Independent article by Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers about what he calls the “myth” of a link between mathematical and musical ability. I’d heard this theory before, usually framed in the form of a reproach to my child self ca. 1989-1995 for not having worked hard enough at my maths homework. I was pretty good at maths, or at least I was until they brought in all that calculus business, but truthfully, it never provoked any interest or excitement in me the way music did.

It’s true, as Gowers notes, that many mathematicians play an instrument well. But so do many scientists, librarians, and academics in all fields. People who are academically bright as children often learn to play an instrument, and their intellectual quickness and diligent study habits mean they can get quite good at it. Is this a sign of mystical interconnection of abilities, or simply an indicator of the type of personality that doesn’t mind being shut in a room for long periods of time developing a challenging skill?

In an attempt to find a comparison, Gowers points out certain intuitive connections that we can make between the rules of Mozartean phrase structure and “A is to B as C is to D” mathematical logic problems. I wonder if these might also be applied to one of the forms of music theory and composition that really is directly related to mathematics: that is, serialism. I don’t know if the “big three” of the Second Viennese School deliberately set out to write mathematical music: there is, after all, a charming anecdote about the young Anton Webern most unscientifically crossing note names off a piece of scrap paper while composing a twelve-tone row. But Milton Babbitt, a mathematician and theorist as well as composer, was able to fit mathematical terms such as “combinatoriality” and “semi-combinatoriality” to Arnold Schoenberg’s row transformation techniques, opening up new possibilities of total serialism to post-war composers.

Some concert-goers do find twelve-tone music a bit difficult to listen to. Perhaps it’s the very “mathiness” of it that makes it such a challenge. I confess that it didn’t set my own heart aflame until one of my theory professors at university introduced me to theorist-composer George Perle’s startling detective work into Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, within whose tone-rows which we can find clues and insights into the composer’s forbidden and hitherto undiscovered love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. After that, I couldn’t get enough Second Viennese School. Maybe a passionate teacher is all that mathophobes and dodecaphobes alike need to give these subjects more of a chance?

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Brain surgery

A sentence by Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones seemed practically to jump off the screen at me today. (I promise I don’t usually read the Daily Mail. Someone I know on Facebook linked to Jones’ article, and I read it because the byline caught my attention.) Irritated at the nepotism in her profession, Jones observes “Everyone believes they can write – while not everyone believes they can perform brain surgery.”

The same might be said of all the arts, including music. Why else would so many people audition for American Idol, and then splutter in disbelief when the judges reject them after the first round? (“But all my friends say I have a wonderful voice! You’re making a big mistake! Just let me do it again and I’ll show you!”) Why else would my dad make a considerable portion of his income teaching singing to well-paid corporate employees who decide, well into their adult lives, that they’d “like to get into opera,” even though they’ve had no musical training at all?

I’m reminded of a dinner party I was once at where all the guests were professional classical or rock musicians except one man, a lawyer, who’d come as someone’s date. We musicians tried scrupulously not to talk too much shop so we wouldn’t alienate or bore him, but at some point in the evening he piped up “I used to be a musician, you know. I played in this great rock band all through college. Everyone said we were really good.” Taking our polite nods as encouragement, he pulled out his iPod, and before anyone could stop him, crossed the room to plug it into the stereo. We were compelled to spend the next hour listening to recordings of the songs he’d written, while he beamed with pleasure. One by one the musician guests discovered that they were very tired, or remembered that they had an early rehearsal the next morning, and left. I might have felt sorrier for the lawyer and his embarrassing faux pas if the songs hadn’t been so trite or so excruciatingly performed, but as it was, I was irritated to the point of homicidal fantasy. Or at least to the point of biting my nails.

So why is it, then, that certain people think they could easily become professional-quality artists, but not brain surgeons? Is it because we know that brain surgeons earn high salaries, whereas artists earn very little? Are low-income professions thought to be easy to pick up?

Or could it be because almost everyone can read and write, and most of us can sing in the shower, but we wouldn’t perform any medical procedure more complicated than bandaging a cut knee? When you think it of it this way, art does, I suppose, look easier than medicine.

This said, I suspect if you interviewed a large number of both professional artists and brain surgeons and asked them about the conditions that must exist for a person to reach professional standing in their respective jobs, the answers would look remarkably similar. You’d need

  • Parents who were prepared to devote a great deal of time and money to your interest in art/medicine, and make difficult sacrifices so you could achieve your goals.
  • The very best teachers, who could train your mind and your body to make art/heal the sick.
  • Good equipment, which is always expensive and not always easy to come by.
  • An early enough start to be able to absorb a tremendous amount of knowledge: in other words, the 10,000 hours of study it takes to achieve professionalism in any field.
  • The temperament to work incredibly hard for long hours, often to the detriment of your social and family life, and certainly your pocketbook. The humility to apprentice yourself to your elders for many years to learn your craft. The ability to live on almost no money long past the days when all your friends from high school have “real” jobs and nice cars and their own homes. The understanding that you may fail even though you gave it everything you had.
I happen, conveniently enough, to be acquainted with a surgeon who is also a fine amateur musician. I once asked him about the parallels between the fields of music and medicine, since I’d noticed that lots of doctors play an instrument well. He replied that making music on a high level was much harder than operating on patients. I was surprised to hear this, because if surgeons make a mistake, someone could die. My profession, by contrast, is a fairly undeadly one.
That’s not what I meant, he told me. Surgeons have to have a steady hand and a memory for many, many facts so they can diagnose illnesses and act quickly in emergencies. But musicians must train their brains and bodies in ways that don’t come half as easily. The ability to recognize and reproduce pitches, the ability to coordinate interior knowledge with exterior movements, the ability to perform music in front of an audience without panic: these, he said, were much harder for him than routine surgeries.

Scalp-collecting

A friend sent me a link to a recent article by Guardian music critic Tom Service on a “three-a-day” menu of works he was using to convince a radio DJ to like classical music. As someone whose livelihood partly depends on getting more bums on seats, as it’s so elegantly known in the trade, I hesitate to criticize such a noble aspiration. But I’ll admit to a little irritation at Service’s chosen works for each day: two standard-repertoire pieces that are already so ubiquitous that not to have heard them would mean you’d never watched a television commercial (e.g. Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven 9), alongside a modern-ish piece that was clearly put there to function as some sort of nasty vegetable alongside the sugary stuff (Penderecki’s Threnody, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge).

I suppose I could complain that Service didn’t list any Bach, Mozart, Brahms or Bartók, or that he didn’t think to include any women composers, but it wasn’t even those omissions that annoyed me. After all, it was a short list, and he couldn’t have everyone. It was more that he seemed to have compiled it out of a sense of duty. Overplayed classics, plus something Improving from the past fifty years so no one would think he was old-fashioned?

This made me wonder what would happen if performers and proponents of classical music stopped worrying about what new listeners “should” know, and instead tried to attract them to classical music with music they love. Haven’t we all had an electrifying or mesmerizing or heart-wrenching experience while listening to music, one that made us sit bolt upright, or dissolve uncontrollably into weeping, or go for a long, long walk afterwards to contemplate what had just happened to us? Wasn’t it experiences like these that convinced us to join the music profession? Why don’t the proselytizers and scalp-collectors of classical music recommend this stuff rather than trotting out poor old Nimrod from the Enigmas yet again?

With this goal in mind, I’ve made a few menus of my own. I’m afraid I wasn’t very dutiful or thorough at all: my preferences are often biased by things I’ve performed myself or heard a lot because people I’m close to were doing them (my opera singer father, my trumpeter husband, various of my teachers). Some are things I studied at university, some are things I discovered while working for HMV during my student days in London, some come from my lifelong habit of wandering off to whatever concert happens to be on wherever I am. Some, I’ll admit, veer awfully close to warhorse territory. I haven’t tried to group them by genre or instrumentation or anything like that; I just tried to have one piece in every menu that was earlyish music, one that was composed in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and one from the twentieth or twenty-first.

Menu 1: Alessandro Grandi, Quam tu pulchra es; Beethoven, Quartet op. 130, Cavatina; Schnittke, Sonata no. 1 for cello and piano.

Menu 2: J. S. Bach, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut; Mendelssohn Octet, Britten, “From the Gutter” from Act II of Peter Grimes (couldn’t find a good YouTube recording, sadly).

Menu 3: Henry Purcell, Fantazia for 4 Viols in G minor; Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor; Gubaidulina, In Croce.

Menu 4: G. F. Handel, Birthday Ode for Queen Anne; Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”; Shostakovich, Viola Sonata.

I’ve left out dozens of my own favourite pieces and composers, but what all the ones I listed have in common is their ability, under the right conditions (such as a wonderful performance or recording), to set my hair on fire. And if anyone wanted me to win somebody over to classical music, this might be where I’d start.

Day 36: Suite No. 6 in D major, Gigue

The arid plain behind me

It’s the last day of the Bach 36 Project. Or, as I now like to think of it, the longest 36 days of my life! It’s hard to describe how much I underestimated how difficult it would be to record all 36 movements of Bach’s six cello suites in 36 days, one movement a day. At the start, I thought “One movement a day? That’s it? Piece of cake!” Well, it wasn’t a piece of cake. It was a butt-kicking of titanic proportions. I’m still glad I did it, though.

I feel strangely sentimental about the whole thing now I’ve made my last recording in my office, so if you’ll humour me, I feel the urge to write a list summarizing what I’ve learned from doing this.

Most difficult movements to record: a tie between the D minor Menuets, the E flat major Prelude and the D major Prelude.

Easiest movements to record: hahahaha! NONE of them!

Suite I expected to be the most generally difficult to record: D major, because it’s got a lot of high, fiddly stuff.

Suite that actually turned out to be the most generally difficult to record: E flat major, because it’s wretchedly hard to tune.

Movements that I thought would be horrendous, but turned out better than I thought: E flat major Allemande, C minor Sarabande.

Movements that I thought would be easy peasy but turned out horrendously: D minor Courante, E flat major Gigue.

Things I learned about my own playing and what I need to work on: the top one was intonation. I was shocked at how many notes I was playing sloppily or out of tune simply because I hadn’t prepared them carefully enough. I’m going to keep making daily recordings of myself even though I won’t be posting any more on YouTube for the present, if only because it really forces me to listen to my own intonation better. People have been complimenting me on my intonation and my “good ear” my entire life, but I now realize I could be doing way, way more to improve them both.

Another thing I learned is that I need to take more care in preparing double, triple and quadruple stops. Many of them didn’t speak clearly. Many of the triple- and quadruple-note chords broke in odd ways that didn’t resonate well. Sometimes I got nasty little squeaks with no overtones when what I really wanted was lush, ringing chords of the kind that I can get on my viola da gamba.

I also learned a lot about pacing, timing, and hierarchical use of dynamics. I took copious notes on what I really wanted to accomplish for every movement, and now when I go back to work on them again (because working on the Bach suites is a lifetime job, I think) I’ll have a much clearer idea of how to express the harmonic structure with what I do in my phrasing.

And then there were the things I always tell my students in their lessons: for heaven’s sake, play closer to the bridge! Support your left arm so that when you make the transition from the neck position to the upper positions, you don’t have to flap your elbow up in the air like the wing of a particularly uncoordinated chicken! Prepare your shifts! Don’t squish your fingers together like that when you’re shifting! I blush to think how much I need to take my own advice. Forget “physician, heal thyself”: it should be more like “professor, teach thyself.” But then, shouldn’t we be our own best teachers anyway?

While I’m still summarizing, I’d also like to list the best things about doing this project. (Other than the obvious goal of making myself practise more during the summer months, a time when my natural talent for indolence tends to come out!) Perhaps the best one has been the journey of revisiting that I’ve been on through the Suites. It’s extraordinary how musical memory seems to trigger memories of certain times of our lives. And it’s not just musicians who feel this way: think of the nostalgia value of pop songs in movies. In much the same way as just a few seconds of listening to Cyndi Lauper singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” takes me instantly back to the late 1980s and the awesome fashions of the day (I remember with particular fondness the spaghetti jeans with little zippers up the sides, the oversized sweatshirts with shoulder pads and the side ponytails), the First Suite kind of does the same thing. I think of my nine-year-old self in 1989, grappling with the problem of getting my fingers around the G major Gigue, together with more commonplace nine-year-old matters, such as my tyrannical parents’ terrible, terrible ban on those beautiful latticed plastic Jellies shoes with the pointy toes.

And then there’s the suite of my adolescence, the D minor, when my concerns had moved on from the purely sartorial to the more self-important: will I ever be a famous poet? Will anyone ever write my biography? Will I ever meet a boyfriend who isn’t a dolt?

The C major and E flat major are the suites of my late teens, when I was a bit of a nerdy bluestocking, while simultaneously fancying myself as some kind of amateur Anna Karenina, without the unfortunate bit at the railway station. And the C minor is the suite of my early twenties, where I was grappling with the problem of trying to Be Somebody in London.

The D major doesn’t have any associations like that, because I only just learned it, but maybe one day I’ll look back on it as the suite of my early thirties, of the beginning of my academic career, of my immigration to America, of my early years of marriage, of my imminent motherhood.

And so, to the Gigue. You might expect the last movement of the cycle to end with a bang, but it doesn’t. But it doesn’t end with a whimper, either. Rather, it’s a graceful dance with a hint of the pastoral in the drones that suggest memories of Gavotte II. It covers the compass of the cello’s range, as do the Prelude and Allemande. Like the Courante, it’s light-hearted without abandoning the idea of the courtly dance. Like the Sarabande, it has many three- and four-note chords. In other words, it sums up the Sixth Suite as a whole without bashing us over the head with the idea of it. A low-key ending, maybe, but one that brings to mind some of the last lines of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

It’s definitely time to set my own lands in order. Classes start in a month, and there are lesson plans to write, school instruments to be maintained, chamber groups to organize, textbooks to order, and masses of paperwork to be done. But this isn’t going to be the end of this blog. Although it was a phenomenal time-sucker, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided to keep writing in it regularly on all types of musical subjects. I’ve always written a lot, most recently for Strings and American Music Teacher, and I think it would be fun to have a more informal outlet for some of my writing.

I’ll also be taking down the YouTube videos of my playing soon (probably tomorrow), since I pride myself on presenting a “product” that’s polished and poised, and these videos have been neither. But putting myself out there for the scrutiny of the internets has been tremendous for my playing. I think everyone should do it from time to time. I’m going to do it again.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Gigue, plus a few things I haven’t been able to work on for a while that I need to prepare for upcoming concerts. Franck’s Cello Sonata in A major, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, Bach’s Art of Fugue and Wedding Cantata, Françaix’s Flute Trio, the continuo parts of several Purcell songs…I have a lot of work to do.

Day 35: Suite No. 6 in D major, Gavottes I & II

Sausages and cabbages: the penultimate movement of an epic

Sometimes Bach likes to have something altogether rather jolly for his second-to-last word. Take, for example, the Goldberg Variations. The last movement before the reprise of the opening Aria is the Quodlibet, whose title is a Latin word with the agreeable meaning “what pleases,” or, as my undergraduate students would say, “Like, whatevs.” It’s said that Bach incorporated a popular song tune of the day called “Sausages and Cabbages” into the Quodlibet, and I find this immensely endearing. The first I heard of this story was in the winter of 2008, when two of my Tasman String Quartet colleagues and I were preparing the Dmitry Sitkovetsky arrangement of the Goldbergs for string trio. We related it with glee over a splendid Christmas Eve dinner to our host, the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colorado (a wonderful, acoustically perfect little church in which we ran a concert series in 2008-2009). He guffawed “How very Lutheran of Bach! We Lutherans just love sausages and cabbages!” Then he urged us to take third helpings of both.

I suppose what I’m getting at is one of the most genius (to quote Mstislav Rostropovich again) things Bach does in both the Goldbergs and the Sixth Suite: not allowing us to have a rollicking good time on the very last movement the way other composers, such as Haydn, might. He doesn’t disapprove of fun, but timing is everything: he gets it all out right before the end on the second to last movement. But on the final moment, time appears to stand still as the utterly perfect, heart-stopping Aria reappears, miraculously, after this epic journey of an hour and a half. “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

And that’s Bach for you.

But back to the rollicking good time (we don’t get to heart-stopping perfection until tomorrow). The D major Gavottes are anomalous in the six-suite cycle in a number of ways. There’s the matter of the key signature: cut common/cut time in Gavotte I and a plain “2” in Gavotte II. What’s the difference? They’re both “in 2,” so why differentiate between them?

I wonder if Bach means to suggest not only a subtle tempo change here, but also a character change. He doesn’t change into the parallel mode for the second of the Galanterien here the way he does in the first three suites, which provokes you into thinking you’d better do something. In addition to this, the second Gavotte is in a rather different style from the first. Gavotte I has more of the graceful Baroque dance about it, the sort you might expect to see lords and ladies doing, but Gavotte II, with its vigorous peasant energy and its folk-style drones, suggests a real knees-up of a country dance, one you might dance to in the village barn until everyone was exhausted and the hearty community feast of sausages and cabbages was ready. Perhaps to be washed down with a mug of beer or two.

This said, today’s recording wasn’t the most rollicking thing in the world, mostly because I still can’t play the Sixth Suite very fluently yet. I notice that my face is set in an expression of grim determination. It was my Take 3, and by then I was playing very cautiously, because Take 1 (in which I tried to portray a lot of sausages and cabbages) had many intonation lapses that I didn’t even realize I was making as I played them, and Take 2, which had been pretty good until Gavotte I da capo, had a few weird wrong notes that I couldn’t bring myself to post on YouTube. I suppose I wasn’t quite ready to release any unbridled foot-stomping.

This whole project has provoked me to make a resolution: that I want to be able to play the later suites really, really well. I’ve already admitted that I didn’t, to my shame, learn the Sixth Suite until this year. I think it’s going to be my project now for a long time. Of course it would be nice to have a five-string cello to play it on, but in the absence of that rare beast, I want to play it as well as possible on the normal cello. Recording your early attempts at learning one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire is a sobering business (sobering? Who am I kidding? It’s positively cringe-making), but I’m willing to make a bet that I’m going to play it a lot better a year from now. In fact, I wonder if it might be fun to repeat this project next summer. And maybe every summer. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a “snapshot” of Bach at every time in your life?

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Gavottes I & II, Gigue.

Day 34: Suite No. 6 in D major, Sarabande

I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to recording the D major Sarabande. Dreading it because it’s the movement I find the most difficult of any in the entire Six Suites, and looking forward to it because it’s my absolute favourite Bach movement in his entire oeuvre.

For some reason the Sarabande has always powerfully reminded me of the Sonatina to Bach’s Cantata BWV 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit. The texts of the movements are based on parts of the Old Testament and deal with the idea of preparing for death and, I suppose, submission to the will of divine. It’s my favourite of the hundreds of cantatas. In fact, I’d really love it if it were played at my funeral, in that far-off day when I expire peacefully in my own bed at the age of ninety-nine.

I’m embedding a YouTube video of the Gottes Zeit Sonatina here as a preamble to the Sarabande. It isn’t my favourite recording (for the best, most heart-crunching one ever, the one that’ll have you sobbing on the floor on your knees, I recommend Ton Koopman’s with the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, Challenge Classics CC72201), but it gives some idea of the feeling of absolute peace, tenderness, and abandonment of fear that I wanted to bring out in my recording today.

How can a dance movement in a major key resonate with topics of death and mourning? To my mind, it has something to do with the long chains of descending duplets in suspension and resolution that make up most of the Sarabande’s second half.

Anyone who’s listened to a lot of Monteverdi–or, indeed, any Italian operatic composer, up until the nineteenth century–could pretty much sing “Piange! Piange!” along with this. And it’s not just the Italians who write music with weeping downwards sequences like this. Josquin’s Nymphes des bois, a lament on the death of his teacher Johannes Ockeghem, has an extraordinary descending chain of suspension-resolutions like this too, on the text:

Acoutrez vous d’abitz de deuil:
Josquin, Brumel, Pierchon, Compère.
Et plorez grosses larmes d’oeil:
perdu avez vostre bon père.

(Put on your mourning garments:

Josquin, Brumel, Pierchon, Compère.

And weep great tears from your eyes,

for you have lost your good father.)

I’m embedding a YouTube clip of this just because I think it’s interesting, but you can skip to 3’53” for the bit I’m talking about if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing.

If you will permit me to go one step further in this possibly already extravagant hyperbolic discussion of weeping and mourning, the Sarabande also makes me think of El Greco’s extraordinary painting The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586).

In it, we see richly robed priests, the conduits between the human and the divine, bearing the prostrated body of the deceased Count, a nobleman of chivalry and honour, as the heavens open up to receive him. It’s as if in ending life, he has gone back to the absolute innocence of childhood (symbolized by the little boy standing to the left of one of the priests) and is going to be carried back through a symbolic birth canal into the arms of the Virgin Mary, who we can see waiting for him at the foot of Christ.

This is a fascinating painting for many reasons, but the one I want to point out is that only one of the living people in this painting (a work which starkly points out the barriers between life, death and the divine) who’s “looking at the camera” is El Greco himself, in self-portrait, standing slightly to the left of the centre and behind one or two other mourners. He stares out at us fearlessly, part of the drama, and yet, as observer and chronicler, an outsider, not part of it. That’s the person the performer-interpreter has to be.

I’ve read many times that when performers think they’ve given the most emotional performance of their lives, they’re chagrined to realize, upon listening to a recording, that it was actually quite sloppy and messy. I didn’t want this to be ones of these occasions. I tried to keep some El Grecoan personal restraint out of this, my best beloved of Bach movements, but I couldn’t quite keep out of my mind Bach’s text:

Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,

In ihm leben, weben und sind wir, solange er will,

In ihm sterben wir zur rechten Zeit, wenn er will.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Sarabande, Gavottes I & II, Gigue.

Day 33: Suite No. 6 in D major, Courante

After the emotional turmoil of the Allemande, the Courante almost seems like light relief. Bach doesn’t let the drama become too serious by alternating sublimity with joviality. So the Prelude, Courante, Gavotte II and Gigue are lighter-hearted, in contrast with the elevated mood of the Allemande and Sarabande and the courtly Gavotte I. I suppose our job as performers is to bring that out.

The main problem I had today was that the Courante, as the least evilly difficult movement in a horrendously difficult suite, was the one I’d practised the least. I’d only just scraped it into memorization from the Beisswenger edition before transferring my attentions to the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript, an enlarged copy of which sits on a music stand out of the frame of the camera. Having bragged before about my memorization skills, it pains me to report that I occasionally had flashes of panic that I was about to have a memory lapse. I’d turn my glance to the score, and then I’d have an alto clef lapse. How terribly embarrassing.

The only take I could use was the third one because of the alto clef vs. brain problem. I think it needs a faster tempo, more bounce, cleaner runs, and cleaner intonation. And more consistent use of vibrato (consistent, not constant, that is).

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Courante, Sarabande, Gavottes I & II, Gigue.

Day 32: Suite No. 6 in D major, Allemande

After yesterday’s chastening experience with the D major Prelude, I had an epic case of the don’t-wannas about recording the Allemande today. I cheered myself up by remembering the immortal words of the redoubtable Florence Foster Jenkins: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say that I didn’t sing.” I know Mrs. Jenkins is a figure of fun,* but there’s a certain dignity to this remark that I find rather touching. (Little-known fact about FFJ: she was christened Narcissa. I expect that wasn’t such an eyebrow-raiser of a name in those innocent pre-Freudian days.)

In any case, the Allemande is at least fractionally easier than the Prelude, at least from my left hand’s point of view. The movement I’m really worried about is the Sarabande, which I’ve found monstrously hard to tune. It occurs to me that on a five-string cello, almost all the big headaches in this suite would be a snap. For fun, I played as much of the Allemande as possible a fifth lower in my morning practice session, and it was easy peasy (inasmuch as we can ever say such a thing about the music of J. S. Bach!). Playing this suite on the right equipment must completely change one’s perspective on it. I expect I could concentrate far more on what I really want to say interpretationally and much less on how terrified I am of the intonation problems.

In these last two of the Bach suites, the C minor and D major, I find myself straying further and further from my initial goal of sticking to the bowing marks in Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy. This is partly because it’s hard to figure out where the bowings actually lie, and partly because of the extreme difficulty of the music. As you can see in this photograph of her manuscript of the first half of the Allemande, the bowings are more than usually ambiguous.

Kirsten Beisswenger, whose edition I find myself turning to more and more, interprets most of the slurs as long ones. I practised all her suggested bowings, and ultimately chopped quite a few of them in half for the sake of manageability. (This is not my idea of a good reason, but I had to get this done, so…)

Another problem of the Allemande (and several other movements in the Sixth Suite, particularly the Sarabande and Gavottes) is the three- and four-note chords, which don’t lie easily for the fingers when they’re in a highish tessitura.

For example, in the first bar of the second half, there are two four-note chords, the first of which I could manage readily enough, the second of which I couldn’t.

I did the first one in extended fourth position over all four strings. It’s awkward, but doable. For the second one, however, I simply couldn’t find a way of playing it all in one position that didn’t involve an inapposite slapping-down of my thumb on G on the C string, a trick I couldn’t really pull off anyway. So I decided to find a way to arpeggiate it with a shift in the middle. At first, I tried doing it in fourth position, scooting my fourth finger up to the A harmonic on the A string at the last microsecond. This worked fine, but it occurred to me that I could get a) better resonance and b) better continuity from the preceding mini-phrase (which I play on the A string) by staying in first position, playing the bottom triple-stop, and then zipping up to the A separately. Thereby treating the triple-stop as a sort of grace note preceding the A, which as I hear it is the melodic goal of that part of the phrase anyway.

There are quite a few chords in other movements, most notably the Sarabande, that I’ve started using this shift-in-the-middle method for, simply for the sake of good tone quality. I was thinking this was a terrible cheat until I watched Rostropovich’s video of this movement and saw that he did something comparable! I have concluded that if the great Mstislav Leopoldovich could do this without guilt, maybe I can too.

Another possibly controversial thing I did today was to omit the repeat of the second half. I’ve decided to do this in all the dance movements of the Sixth Suite, for the main reason that the second halves are all disproportionately longer than the first halves, and go through so many key centres and (if you’ll forgive the expression) emotional journeys that it seems illogical to repeat them. In my quartet days, we never played second-half repeats for Haydn and Mozart quartets for this reason.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavottes I & II, Gigue.

*Although my father occasionally makes the trenchant remark that as a singing teacher, he for one doesn’t really find Florence Foster Jenkins funny at all.

Day 31: Suite No. 6 in D major, Prelude


The Sixth Suite is in a category of its own, separate from the other five. That’s because, as we can clearly see in Bach’s instructions at the top of the page, it wasn’t written for the usual four-string cello, but for one with five strings. There are lots of theories about what this instrument might have looked like. There’s evidence that some “normal-sized” cellos had five strings in Bach’s time, the top one tuned to the E a perfect fifth above the A string, though most of these have been cut down to size over the centuries. There’s also a more recent theory that he wrote all the suites for an instrument called the violoncello da spalla. Spalla is the Italian for “shoulder,” indicating that this was more like a modern viola than a modern cello. I tried to find a YouTube recording of the Sixth Suite played on this instrument, but the best I could find was a Dutch television broadcast of Sigiswald Kuijken playing some of the First Suite on one. It’s quite extraordinary looking: sort of like a half-size cello turned over sideways and played almost like a viola. I was amazed at Mr. Kuijken’s fluency and virtuosity on an instrument that looks so hard to play. I expect it would be murder on the tendons for most of us.

I also have a wonderful CD of Anner Bylsma playing the Sixth Suite on a violoncello piccolo. Phoebe Carrai’s CD appears to have been recorded on some kind of 5-string cello, but I’m not sure what it looked like. It’s a goal of mine to get to play the Sixth Suite on some kind of 5-stringer one day.

This said, most of us have to make do with the “normal” cello for playing the Sixth Suite, and in the absence of an E string, it’s fiendishly difficult. In fact, it’s more than fiendishly difficult. It’s so difficult it makes fiends look like harmless little pixies.

Another issue with my plan to play everything from Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of the Suites is the fact that large stretches of the Sixth are written in alto clef, which I do not read as fluently as I should be able to, considering that I’m a former string quartet player and spent many hours studying quartet scores, not to mention my other occupation as a professor of string chamber music and music theory (on top of my main duty of teaching cello, that is). For my own sanity, therefore, I learned the notes of the Sixth from Kirsten Beisswenger’s scholarly edition. I memorized it quickly, since one of my more dubious talents is a freakishly fast photographic memory for musical scores, although this doesn’t apply to anything else in my life that I’ve needed to memorize, such as the periodic table or any of my internet passwords. Then I transferred my attentions to Frau Bach’s facsimile and have read from that ever since.

Today was a discouraging recording day. I really started beating myself up that I hadn’t learned the Sixth Suite at the age of 18 like everyone else. Why couldn’t I have been more like those good little boys and girls who got on with their practice, instead of swanning about writing daft poems and fancying myself as some kind of romantic heroine in outfits inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings of down-at-heel medieval princesses? I told myself after three very frustrating takes that it wasn’t too bad for someone who’d only just learned it and done really quite minimal practice on it, but I had quite successfully put myself in such a ratty, disappointed mood that I had to go home and play a vigorous game of fetch with my puppy to restore peace and equilibrium to my mind.

The bit that gave me the most grief was a certain passage in E minor, where the absence of an open E string means you have to substitute your thumb if you’re going to get the implied string-crossing effect.

In all my takes, I had a hard time getting up there, and I had a hard time getting the entire section in tune once I was up there. I stopped and did half an hour’s practice between each of the takes, but I could never get a recording of myself doing it cleanly. I suppose I can count today as one of the less good days of this project, alongside the D minor Menuets and the E flat major Bourrées.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Gavottes I & II.

Day 30: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Gigue

Five-sixths of the Bach 36 Project complete!

When I was a child and kindly adults asked me how old I was, I always replied in fractions: “Seven and eleven-twelfths.” I was the sort of kid who looked forward to birthdays a lot. (If your mother was as much of a genius as mine is at children’s birthday party games and the sort of cake decoration that would make a French pâtissier weep with jealousy, you would too.) That’s sort of how I feel about being five-sixths of my way through this project. My elation, however, is mixed with morbid fear of Suite No. 6. Disclosure: I studied the first five suites with various teachers, and have known them all for many years, but I never actually learned the Sixth Suite until I had the idea for this project. Some might think it was very foolhardy of me not even to try to learn it until my fourth decade, but what can I say? I was busy getting degrees and being in a quartet, and somehow there was never the opportunity. Better late than never, right?

The last day of Suite No. 5

It’s while I’ve been preparing this suite for recording that I’ve realized that my goal of playing as many of Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowings as possible, and not adding in any non-AMB ones, may have been unrealistic. It’s not that it’s impossible to do what’s written, but the problems are a) that so much of what she’s written is inconsistently applied to passages that you think must have been intended to be played simile, b) that sometimes it just sounds better with a slur where she hasn’t written one (well, if you’re me, anyway) and c) that the piece is so wretchedly hard that “convenience bowings” just, you know, help. These problems seem even greater when I look ahead into the Sixth Suite. So I’m not going to beat myself up too much if I have to make up my own non-AMB bowings from now on. I’ll try to do them as much as I can, but if I can’t, so be it.

Another issue with this suite has been the scordatura. As much as I love the Fifth Suite–and having got this far in the project, I think it’s my favourite of the six–I’m not going to miss the daily de-tuning of the cello, or the yanking it back up again after the recording session. After I’ve moved the peg, it takes me about six or seven minutes of fine-tuning to get it the way I want it (it takes so long because the de-tuning puts the other strings out of kilter too), and I have to tune again after each take because my cello objects to being interfered with in this manner. Very time-consuming. I’ve more or less figured out how to play in scordatura now, though, and as the past six days went on, I had fewer and fewer MSMs.* I really don’t think I can go back to playing the Fifth with A-D-G-C tuning any more–I’ve become far too addicted to the increased resonance of the G and C strings when you have a second G to reinforce the existing overtones. It’s like the goblin fruit in that creepy poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, with which the teenaged M. Wilson was much entranced:

She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?

Goblins aside, I had the relatively short Gigue to record today, and although I vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take me and ended up having to rush to get to a rehearsal afterwards, I managed three takes. The chief question in my mind was how to bow the lilting dotted figure that makes up much of the melodic texture.

At first, I’d thought playing it “as it comes,” with a slightly “brushy” stroke, was the thing to do:

After some experimentation, however, I wondered if it mightn’t be more dance-like, more piratical** (I’m very taken with the notion of the gigue as a pirate dance since Day 12 of this project, when I was recording the D minor one) to use a “hooked” bowing:

I eventually compromised by doing “as it comes” bowing in the first repeats and the “hooked” bowing in the second repeats.

None of my three takes was flawless, but I picked the second, because the first was a bit careful and boring and the third was very much like the second, with the exception that several young gentlemen of Idaho chose those particular three minutes to drive past my window in old bombs of cars with souped-up engines and immensely powerful sub-woofers. (Of course they did. The only surprise was that the city recycling truck didn’t also roar up the street and reverse back down over and over, as it often does for no reason I can think of, with a loud BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! This project was an interesting experiment in home videos, but next time I’m getting myself a proper recording space.)

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C minor Gigue; D major Prelude, Allemande, Gigue. (I’m working backwards from the end of the D major suite now as well as forwards, in the hopes that by the time I meet in the middle at the Sarabande, it will be less horrendously difficult than it now appears.)

*Momentary Scordatura Malfunction, when you forget your A string is tuned to a G and stuff up the fingering. Very irritating.

**Obligatory pirate joke of the day: why couldn’t the pirate go to the movie? Because it was ARRRR-rated! (Sorry.)