Day 32: Suite No. 6 in D major, Allemande

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

After yesterday’s chastening experience with the D major Prelude, I had an epic case of the don’t-wannas about recording the Allemande today. I cheered myself up by remembering the immortal words of the redoubtable Florence Foster Jenkins: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say that I didn’t sing.”

I know Mrs. Jenkins is a figure of fun,* but there’s a certain dignity to this remark that I find rather touching. (Little-known fact about FFJ: she was christened Narcissa. I expect that wasn’t such an eyebrow-raiser of a name in those innocent pre-Freudian days.)

In any case, the Allemande is at least fractionally easier than the Prelude, at least from my left hand’s point of view. The movement I’m really worried about is the Sarabande, which I’ve found monstrously hard to tune. It occurs to me that on a five-string cello, almost all the big headaches in this suite would be a snap. For fun, I played as much of the Allemande as possible a fifth lower in my morning practice session, and it was easy peasy (inasmuch as we can ever say such a thing about the music of J. S. Bach!). Playing this suite on the right equipment must completely change one’s perspective on it. I expect I could concentrate far more on what I really want to say interpretationally and much less on how terrified I am of the intonation problems.

In these last two of the Bach suites, the C minor and D major, I find myself straying further and further from my initial goal of sticking to the bowing marks in Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy. This is partly because it’s hard to figure out where the bowings actually lie, and partly because of the extreme difficulty of the music. As you can see in this photograph of her manuscript of the first half of the Allemande, the bowings are more than usually ambiguous.

Kirsten Beisswenger, whose edition I find myself turning to more and more, interprets most of the slurs as long ones. I practised all her suggested bowings, and ultimately chopped quite a few of them in half for the sake of manageability. (This is not my idea of a good reason, but I had to get this done, so…)

Another problem of the Allemande (and several other movements in the Sixth Suite, particularly the Sarabande and Gavottes) is the three- and four-note chords, which don’t lie easily for the fingers when they’re in a highish tessitura.

For example, in the first bar of the second half, there are two four-note chords, the first of which I could manage readily enough, the second of which I couldn’t.

I did the first one in extended fourth position over all four strings. It’s awkward, but doable. For the second one, however, I simply couldn’t find a way of playing it all in one position that didn’t involve an inapposite slapping-down of my thumb on G on the C string, a trick I couldn’t really pull off anyway. So I decided to find a way to arpeggiate it with a shift in the middle. At first, I tried doing it in fourth position, scooting my fourth finger up to the A harmonic on the A string at the last microsecond. This worked fine, but it occurred to me that I could get a) better resonance and b) better continuity from the preceding mini-phrase (which I play on the A string) by staying in first position, playing the bottom triple-stop, and then zipping up to the A separately. Thereby treating the triple-stop as a sort of grace note preceding the A, which as I hear it is the melodic goal of that part of the phrase anyway.

There are quite a few chords in other movements, most notably the Sarabande, that I’ve started using this shift-in-the-middle method for, simply for the sake of good tone quality. I was thinking this was a terrible cheat until I watched Rostropovich’s video of this movement and saw that he did something comparable! I have concluded that if the great Mstislav Leopoldovich could do this without guilt, maybe I can too.

Another possibly controversial thing I did today was to omit the repeat of the second half. I’ve decided to do this in all the dance movements of the Sixth Suite, for the main reason that the second halves are all disproportionately longer than the first halves, and go through so many key centres and (if you’ll forgive the expression) emotional journeys that it seems illogical to repeat them. In my quartet days, we never played second-half repeats for Haydn and Mozart quartets for this reason.

Today’s video.

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

*Although my father occasionally makes the trenchant remark that as a singing teacher, he for one doesn’t really find Florence Foster Jenkins funny at all.


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