Day 24: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Gigue

Anna Magdalena Bach. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Thoughts on approaching the two-thirds point of the Bach 36 Project

I’m partly mightily relieved at finishing my recordings of the E flat suite, because I find it the most wretchedly hard to tune, hard to phrase thing in the world. I’ve had nightmares about E flat major these past six days. E flat major is just hard.

Coming up next, of course, is the C minor suite, which I play to play using the scordatura specified in the score: you tune your A string down to a G. I’ve not done this before: the first time I learned the C minor was for a competition, and for reasons I shall go into in further detail in tomorrow’s post, I didn’t want to have to tune my cello with the pegs between pieces. So I did it in what’s now considered the old-fashioned way. Ever eager to modernize (or un-modernize, I suppose), I have now started preparing it the way Bach intended. It turns out this is quite difficult to do. I expect there will be much moaning about this in the days to come.

Following the C minor is the D major, the suite that has caused me the most anxiety of all in this project. It’s the only one I’ve never studied with a teacher and the only one I’ve never played in public. It also has the great disadvantage of having been written for a five-string instrument. Most of us don’t have one of those, so, lacking an E string, we must make do by leaving out a few notes in chords from time to time, and playing in rather high positions on the A string. It’s a challenge, that’s for sure.

But back to the E flat. I conclude that this piece is very strange. I’m not the only one. Ledbetter surmises that the piece may have been written for a different instrument altogether (1), since E flat is really not a very resonant or idiomatically-placed key on the cello. “It goes against the grain of the cello inasmuch as the harmonies are obviously meant to ring on, particularly the bass notes [of the Prelude], yet the key allows little use of the resonance of the open strings.” I’ll say! Ledbetter also points out that it’s the only one of the six suites in which Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript uses the title “Preludium” instead of “Prelude” (i.e. Latin instead of French), which may mean that it was an “isolated piece brought in to fill a gap.” Somehow this wouldn’t surprise me.

The Gigue is no exception to the general awkwardness of playing in E flat major. It’s complicated, because one wants to play it in a robustly good-humoured style at a cracking tempo, but it jumps around so much that this is hard to do without messiness and poor tuning. I think I’m more displeased with today’s recording than I’ve been with anything apart from the D minor Courante and Menuets. The first take was fast fast fast, and I thought it was pretty good, but listening to the playback was a chagrining experience as I noticed far more little pitch inaccuracies than I’d realized. Truly, self-recording is the number one way to clean up your playing! It’s worrying when you find out how many problems you were simply oblivious to when you were in the moment.

I wasn’t going to have the same messy scrambles on Take 2, so I slowed it right down and focussed intently on accurate shifting, clean string crossings and fine-tuned intonation. Needless to say, it sounded like a funeral march.

Take 3 was an unhappy compromise between the tempo of Take 1 and the heightened efforts at cleanliness of Take 2. I wasn’t thrilled with it, but seeing as I only allow myself three takes, I had to pick one…..

Today’s video.

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

(1) Ledbetter, David. Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, 204.


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