Day 29: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Gavottes I & II

Painting of a lute by Hans Holbein. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson


My husband and I used to be very fond of the now-defunct television comedy Scrubs, which was set in a hospital and featured the clownish antics of a bunch of young doctors. Somewhere toward the end of the series, the makers of the show started showing montages of out-takes as the end credits were playing. I have thought several times during this project of compiling a similar montage of my bloopers and false starts, complete with the heavy sighs, stamped feet and outbursts of “Rats!” (my oath of choice now that I’m a lady professor and must set a good example to the youth of tomorrow). This would probably only be of amusement to me, however.

As painful as it is to examine one’s playing closely for faults, I make a habit of watching all my false starts to see what went wrong. The curious thing is that quite often, I can’t figure out why I stopped. Well, in theory, I know why I stopped–the most common reason is intonation or a wrong note–but this is sometimes imperceptible in the video. Then when I watch my complete takes, I can’t believe I kept playing through what I perceive, from my other vantage point as a listener, as bad intonation lapses, tone quality issues, non-resonant chords and so on. It’s very interesting how one’s perceptions of one’s performance are skewed by being in the driver’s seat. No wonder professional athletes still have to have coaches. As a quartet player, I had the privilege of coaching from great musicians well into my mid- to late twenties, well beyond the age when most professional musicians are no longer having regular lessons, and sometimes I feel as if I still want a coach to nit-pick me (and cheer me on, too, of course). I suppose it’s good that we’re all our own harshest critics, isn’t it? Although I know few people who are their own most enthusiastic cheerleaders.

Today was a discouraging recording day. For some reason, my fingers were very “mistakey” and not one take was free from careless, silly errors. In retrospect, I realize I practised the Gavottes the least of any of the C minor movements. They aren’t finger-breakers like the Prelude and Allemande; they aren’t brain-breakers like the Sarabande; they aren’t relatively short like the Courante. I suppose I simply didn’t allot them the time they needed to get them sitting comfortably under my fingers with the new (to me) scordatura way of playing.

This is really a pity, because they’re some of the most charming movements in the whole six-suite cycle. Also, more than any other movement but the Prelude, I think they really illustrate just how idiomatic to the lute this suite can be. To demonstrate this, here’s a YouTube recording of lutenist Oliver Holzenburg playing them.

I wasn’t sure how lute-like I could get them, but various things I did included “rolling” the chords wherever possible, rather than doing that “two-and-two,” “crunch-crunch” thing so many cellists do, which is a large pet peeve of mine. Sometimes I didn’t do this to my liking, particularly in places where there was no fingering choice but to bar a perfect fifth with my fourth finger, which makes it hard to get the kind of resonance I want.

Another thing I aimed for was the lightness of lute playing, where, obviously no legato slurring or sustaining is possible. Now, I’m not going to abandon my legato, slurs, and sustaining power (you’d have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands), but in the second repeats of Gavotte I, I decided to vary the mood by playing the two-quaver/eighth note slurs as upbow staccatos. In the third repeat (i.e. the Gavotte I da capo) I went back to slurring, but added in a few improvised ornaments so that all three renditions of Gavotte I would be subtly different from one another. (Note that there’s a mistake in this part of Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript: the second crotchet/quarter note of bar 2 is missing. Scholars know what the notes are by piecing them together from other manuscript sources, however.)

Today’s video.

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


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