Day 25: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Prelude

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

The C minor Prelude is quite unlike any of its predecessors in the cello suites. While the first four are different in their own ways, they all follow an overall pattern of a) working through various harmonies, b) building up to some kind of climax in the middle, c) winding down in a more improvisatory style than before. The C minor Prelude does none of these things.

Instead, it’s in the form of a French overture, with a stately opening section in slow duple time, and a second section in a quick three. In hardcore cello circles, it’s often known as the “Prelude and Fugue,” but the triple-time section isn’t, strictly speaking, a fugue.

Rather, it’s imitation, and a brilliant example of how the great virtuoso Bach knew how to achieve a full contrapuntal set of voices within the context of a primarily linear instrumental style. What also stuns me about the second section is its economy of means: Bach constructs the entire thing out of two little mini-motives: the first a “provoking” rising semi-tone/half step idea, and the second a “countering” ascending three-note idea (see below). The three-note motive is particularly important in the structure, and ends up being inverted and embellished in all kinds of ways that I hope I bring out in my recording.

Extra clues

One interesting fact about this suite is that it’s the only one for which we have access to a J. S. Bach manuscript. Not, alas, of the cello version, but a version in G minor for the lute. I studied this version (a facsimile of which may be found in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe) as well as Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript, and was struck at how many extra and different notes appear in the lute version.

The late Dimitry Markevitch, in his edition of the suites, actually included an alternate version of the C minor in which he incorporated some of the lute-isms from the manuscript. Over the past few days, while preparing the Prelude, I read through this version. The added possibilities for ornamentation and harmonic colour are very exciting, and I think I’ll probably use some of them the next time I perform the Fifth Suite. I didn’t use them in today’s recording because the aim of this project is to be as true as possible to the Anna Magdalena Bach copy, however.

The “Suitte [sic] discordable”

Another important feature of the Fifth Suite is the scordatura: Bach’s direction to tune the cello’s A string down to G.

The ramifications of this are many: added resonance for the C and (lower) G strings, and the ability to play certain chords that with normal tuning would be unplayable. The scordatura also compelled J. S. Bach to write the Fifth Suite in such a way that the cellist would read the notes “normally,” but the notes would come out at different pitches. Thus, the following excerpt

would sound like this:

This way of writing is meant to facilitate one’s ability to play scordatura, and in a way it’s fascinating because it gives us a very good idea of the fingerings Bach wanted us to use (of which more later). However, reading music like this is torture for someone who, like me, is cursed with perfect pitch. (I am only being partly facetious when I say PP is more of a curse than a blessing. It makes certain aspects of musicianship easier, but I would rather have my husband’s ear for intervals and harmonic and melodic structures than my own. He doesn’t have PP, but I have never met anyone with such finely-honed relative pitch.) I started preparing the Prelude by reading from Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy, but it was such an uphill battle for my poor old ears and fingers that I ended up supplementing it with one of the appendices in Kirsten Beisswenger’s edition, which thoughtfully provides an alternative version notated at pitch for dolts like me.

Relearning the Fifth

The first time I learned the Fifth Suite was for a competition, and although in theory I’d have liked to use the scordatura, I was too afraid of having to tune my cello using the pegs between pieces under the particular kind of stress that afflicts us all in competition situations. I know this sounds wimpy, but the combination of a pounding heart, hands that are both frozen and dripping with sweat, and the knowledge that the audience and jury are waiting for me to tune are enough to strike terror into me. It’s not just a matter of putting your A string down: doing this completely changes the balance of your strings, and the D is liable to go very sharp, requiring its own set of alterations. (Quite often I have to use the D peg in addition to the fine tuner when I’m going between tunings in my practice sessions.) So, yes, I wussed out. I was still in my teens and terrified of most things, uncooperative cello pegs among them. (And don’t you just know it that pegs are at their most uncooperative right when you really, really need them to behave. Wretched things.)

When you don’t use the scordatura, you must necessarily leave out quite a lot of notes from the chords, unless you’re going to contort your hand into quite difficult positions. I’m finding it quite rewarding to re-learn the Fifth in a way that will let me play the chords as Bach wrote them. The only problem is that scordatura makes it a) more difficult to play in tune, and b) much easier to make mistakes.

Today’s recording left me more frustrated than ever with my self-imposed (and stubbornly adhered-to) rule that I’m only allowed three takes of any movement, with no edits permitted and no false starts permitted unless the mess-up happens within the first four or five bars. I ended up having to use Take 2, which was the least accurate, least in-tune, and least interesting take, because it was the only one in which I didn’t make what I shall henceforth call an M.S.M. (Momentary Scordatura Malfunction: I borrow this from a term my co-instructors and I use in the sophomore ear training and sight singing class we teach, the “Momentary Solfège Malfunction,” a distressing mental blip which happens when you’re trying terribly hard to sight-sing something but forget all your solfège and end up hashing your way through with “da, da, da,” blinded by a haze of tears.)

Did I mention scordatura is hard for people with perfect pitch?

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C minor Prelude, Allemande, Courante; D major Gigue. (I am now going back to the end of the D major suite and preparing the pieces in reverse order in preparation for next week’s recordings.)


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