Day 23: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Bourrées I & II

Monsieur Choderlos de Laclos by Quentin de la Tour. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

The cinematic significance of the bourrée

I watched Milos Forman’s Valmont (1989) last night, a film that had the disadvantage of coming out at the same time as Stephen Frears’ more famous Dangerous Liaisons, another adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses. I’d not heard of this other version until my Netflix Instant Queue recommended it to me, and I had high hopes, since most of the reviews on the site said it was much better than the Frears film.

I was disappointed, however: it actually wasn’t half as good. First of all, it seemed confused about which decade it was set in, since the soundtrack leaped precipitously between Charpentier, Couperin et al and Haydn and Mozart. (This is why pedantic classical musicians can’t watch period movies: the soundtrack always gets the music wrong and one spends the entire evening gnawing one’s knuckles in disapproval and annoyance.) Secondly, the script was weakened by wild deviations from de Laclos’ epistolary novel, and I’m a stickler for that sort of thing.

One scene, however, did attract my interest. During an evening’s entertainment at the palace of Madame de Rosemonde, her scandalous nephew the Vicomte de Valmont, as the only male guest, is trotted out to dance with all the ladies present. First he dances with his elderly, dignified aunt (I couldn’t figure out what this dance was). Then he dances a wild gigue with little Cécile de Volanges, whom he considers (in this adaptation, anyway) a rowdy, boisterous child. Next, he dances a stately minuet with the outwardly ladylike Madame de Merteuil. And then he dances what I was pretty sure was a bourrée with the young, faithfully married Madame de Tourvel, with whom he has fallen in love. This scene intrigued me for several reasons. First was the obvious fact that the bourrée, although danced in a syrupy and doubtless anachronistic manner, was what precipitated Madame de T to fall dramatically into doomed love with Valmont. Second was an abrupt and annoying change of performance style: having been played in a reasonably historically-informed style up until now, the soundtrack lurches into what I can only describe as a bourrée in the style of Tchaikovsky, complete with histrionic violin vibrato and swoopy shifts, tempered only by a harpsichord, which continues its dispirited plinking.

Well, it took me a long time to get around to why the danced bourrée was important to the plot, but there it is. I wondered if my rendition of the E flat Bourrées might cause anyone to swoon into the arms of a depraved French aristocrat, but upon listening to today’s videos, I am forced to conclude that it would not, because I really did try to tone down the vibrato today. However, it did create a few interesting questions in my mind, such as how one navigates the constant ascending and descending pentachords in the cello-unfriendly key of E flat major. It really is unbelievably inconvenient not to be able to use the open A string during runs, and unless Bach is tonicizing another chord, you almost never get to here. I had always played the opening with the following fingering:

My rationale was that when you have to shift, it’s best and least noticeable to do it over a bow change, if applicable (which it isn’t here) or between the interval of a semi-tone/half step. I discovered from my Take 1 that this fingering really didn’t work at all: it was messy and cumbersome. To my surprise, I discovered from some between-takes experimentation that it would be cleaner to finger the offending passage like this:

with a split-second “lightening” of the bow between E flat and F and another between A flat and B flat, to minimize any audible shifting. Well, it worked on some of them and not on others. This recording was really not half as clean as I wanted it to be (it’s hard when you only allow yourself three full takes and no edits!).

The other intensely irritating thing about the Bourrées is that the first one is exceedingly long in proportion to the second one, which is a mere thirteen bars. You have to get yourself through the epic #1 intact, and then your entire take could be ruined by #2, which is terribly hard to tune.

The first two chords of the second half can really only be achieved by barring your thumb across B flat and E flat on the A and D strings, and the next chord needs to be played with your thumb and third finger. It’s not that hard in and of itself, but getting to it from what precedes it is the hard bit. (I note from my Beisswenger score that the last time I played this, I attempted to play these two chords without my thumb, opting instead to stretch the A flat-B flat major second between first and fourth finger, but I have now concluded that such cowboyish tactics have a far smaller chance of being in tune.)

What this means is that you can play through Bourrée I in a way that you’re quite pleased with, but then botch your take with an out-of-tune Bourrée II, and then you have to go back and record the whole thing again. Most frustrating. This is essentially what happened on two of my takes today, and by the time I got to Take 3 I was tired and peevish. So I elected to do something that might be a bit un-kosher: in the first run of the first Bourrée, I didn’t do the second repeat of the second half. Proportionally, it’s is so much longer than the first half, and by the time you’ve repeated it, done the second Bourrée and embarked upon your Bourrée I da capo, you feel as if a third go through the second half is rather…laborious. We’ve been there too many times already.

This piece of shameless lèse-majesté cut a full two minutes off my recording time, and, I think, works better, at this tempo at least. I know I should worry that perhaps Herr Bach will haunt me for this, but I expect his ghost is too busy haunting Charles-François Gounod and people who play his stuff on electric guitars.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: E flat major Bourrées I & II, Gigue; C minor Prelude, Allemande.


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