Day 19: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Prelude

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Also known as “The Hardest Piece in the World.” Well, perhaps it isn’t Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto, but it’s still wretchedly hard to tune.

This brings me to a topic on which I have spent a tremendous amount of time: the thorny question of how to tune the tonic triad when playing in E flat major. It’s one of the harder keys to play in on stringed instruments, partly because we have no E flat string to guide our tuning or provide a sympathetic resonance. The first time my quartet played Beethoven’s E flat major quartet opus 74 (popularly known as the “Harp,” though Beethoven himself didn’t call it that), we played around with various ways of tuning an E flat major triad for weeks before settling on one with an E flat (and, correspondingly, a B flat) that was considerably sharper than an “objective” E flat. If we can speak of objectivity in this way, which I’m not sure we can. Put it this way: it was a lot sharper than you’d necessarily play if you were simply playing up and down an E flat scale in a linear fashion. We discovered that horizontal tuning and vertical tuning, so to speak, are very, very different concepts.

The E flat Prelude is one of those pieces where vertical tuning seems more applicable, because the colouristic interest is in the harmony rather than in what’s going on linearly. The melody, such as it is, is fragmented rather than continuous. Consider, for example, this passage, which leads up to the dramatic climax of the first half of the movement (my apologies for the size discrepancy between excerpts– there was a line break in Frau Bach’s manuscript and I didn’t photograph it at all consistently):

If you played it “straight,” you’d get dangerously into “boring exercise” territory. The melody, as I see it, lies in the bass notes that form the quaver/eighth note pick-up and the down-beat of each bar, and should be voiced something like this:

All this brings me back to the point of tuning the E flat major triad. I have never come across a really comprehensive guide for intonation in any book on cello playing I’ve read, and most tend to gravitate towards the system popularized by Pablo Casals as “expressive intonation.” In the words of David Blum, author of Casals and the Art of Interpretation, we can read his philosophy:

The principal challenge confronting the string player whose sensibilities have been dulled by the mechanical pitch produced by the piano is to establish proper placement of semitones. Here we must distinguish between diatonic and chromatic semitones, the former being invariably characterized by a sense of connectedness which Casals likened to ‘gravitational attraction’. Casals considered the tonic, subdominant and dominant of a given tonality (the first, fourth and fifth degrees of a scale) to be points of repose to which the other notes are drawn. Thus, the principle of gravitational attraction is at work within each of the two tetrachords of which a scale is composed. The diatonic semitone within each tetrachord has a natural tendency to be drawn upwards: the third degree towards the fourth and, most particularly, the seventh degree–the leading note–towards the octave. (1)

I’m completely in agreement with the first sentence. We simply can’t play a solo cello piece “in tune” with the piano. What’s in tune for the piano doesn’t always work for the cello. Where I disagree with Casals is the placement of the third degree of the scale, at least, not when you’re playing chords (or a “vertically-dominated” piece like the E flat major Prelude). Simply put, if you’re going to have a high third in an E flat major triad on the cello, you’ll have to pitch your E flat low, because you’ll want your third (the G) to be able to take advantage of the possibilities of sympathetic resonance with the open G. Now, I’ve tried playing the Prelude with a low E flat, and it simply doesn’t work for me. I prefer to use the quartet system of intonation (a more chordally- than melodically-based one) because it just seems to work better.

That said, I wasn’t too pleased with my efforts at intonation today. I chose Take 3, mostly because it was the most in tune of a not-very-in-tune bunch. For my first take, I thought it would be interesting to experiment with a rather fast tempo and a brushy bowstroke. I did this as a reaction to some of the recordings I’ve heard of this piece that take it at a ponderous tempo and a triumphal sort of mood. I really don’t like to hear the E flat Prelude played that way. For starters, the whole thing takes 8-10 minutes at a slow tempo, which is a bit more than my gnat-like concentration span can take. Moreover, when it’s played slowly, it sounds as if the player is trying to create a melody out of every note in the chordal texture, large consecutive leaps and all, where I think melody doesn’t exist. I thought the melody could be better accented if the tempo was faster and didn’t make such a pedantic big deal out of every note.

Well, it was a nice idea. In reality, I had such trouble with the intonation that I had to slow it down for Takes 2 and 3, partly to enable myself to listen better. I have concluded that this movement is one of the most difficult in the entire Six Suites. The D major Sarabande would give it a run for its money, but it would still be close.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: E flat major Prelude, Allemande, Courante; C minor Gigue. (Now that I’ve reached the mid-point in this project and have finished the “backwards practice” part of it, I’m going back and practising the C minor and D major suites again to prepare myself for recording them.)

(1) Blum, David. Casals and the Art of Interpretation. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1977.


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