Day 28: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Sarabande

The late Mstislav Rostropovich used to describe the C minor Sarabande as “the most genius composition.” All the movements of the C minor suite are characterized by their extraordinary economy of motivic means, but surely none more so than the heart-stopping Sarabande, restricted as it is to linear motion, unrelieved by a single chord or double-stop. The solitary line weaves its way in and out of dissonant harmony, often in jagged leaps. No other movement of the Bach cello suites is even remotely similar to it.

Fun fact of the day: the C minor Sarabande is the most popular movement of the six-suite cycle for funerals. Well, in my observation of these matters, anyway. There’s something about Bach that seems very churchy to people, which is why you so often hear it at grand religious-themed occasions such as weddings and funerals, I suppose. My husband and I had the Quodlibet and final Aria from the Goldberg Variations at our wedding. On one occasion I was part of an orchestra that performed some large sections of the B Minor Mass with a choir at the funeral of a popular university choir director. When I was about fifteen, my parents and I did “Quia fecit mihi magna” from the Magnificat BWV 243 at the funeral of my mother’s older brother. (I was quite upset, and my father tried to cheer me up by pointing out, sotto voce, that the end of the opening cello line sounded almost exactly like “One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.”) And you quite often get requests for “Bist du bei mir” for both funerals and weddings. The latter mystifies me a bit, since if the requesters knew what the text meant, they mightn’t want it at their nuptial celebrations. Still, back in my gigging days, I didn’t ask questions, I just gave people what they wanted, even if it was the loathsome Pachelbel Canon.

What has this to do with the C minor Sarabande? Well, in my roundabout way, I suppose I mean to point out the catharsis, to use an overused word, that most performers try to create when they play it. Some recordings draw out every dissonant leap and implied appoggiatura with a sense of drama and agony. There’s a huge temptation to play it extremely, extremely slow. Now, I’ve made the observation several times in this project that it’s a great deal more fun to be the person playing a sarabande extremely slowly than it is to be the person listening to it, and today’s recording made me even more convinced of this opinion. Maybe some cellists can sound good at very slow tempos; I do not believe I am one of them.

What I wanted was to create a sense of reverence without necessarily wallowing in the tragedy of it all. With this in mind, I set about playing it at a moderate tempo in my first take. I didn’t want to add ornaments such as grace notes and so on because I felt that they weren’t suitable to Bach’s stark melodic-harmonic line. So to differentiate between repeats, I played the first times without vibrato and the second times with, although trying to keep it to a minimum, since my vibrato has been driving me a bit bananas recently. I think this was a reasonably effective idea.

I ended up using Take 1, which is only the second time I’ve done this throughout the project. The thing was that after I’d finished it, I decided I was totally wrong about playing it at a moderate tempo, and slowed it way down again. I listened to Take 2 and realized it was completely unusable, because not only did the tempo fluctuate wildly, it was so slow it made me itch to get up and run around in circles to relieve the boredom. Take 3 was a bit of a reaction against Take 2: I played it at such a clip that it made no sense at all. So back to Take 1 it was.

Today’s video.

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

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