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


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.


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.

Day 27: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Courante

Today was another tempo-rethinking day. My impulse is to play both the Allemande and Courante of the C minor suite slowly, because the melancholy turns of the melodies in both seem to beg to be lingered on. Still, I think it’s preferable to pull the Courante’s tempo up a bit so that you can bring out the full effect of the ascending pentachord in the bassline. Here’s the first four bars, notated at pitch for ease of reading:

and here’s the underlying bassline that I was trying to bring out:

While preparing the Courante, it’s been really interesting to examine the way Bach wrote the scordatura in terms of the implied fingerings. Sometimes he “lapses” and writes at pitch instead, and it really makes me wonder what he wanted the performer to do. Or was it simply an error?

Take, for example, the very first bar.

If this were written with scordatura and the implication that we were to cross to the tuned-down A string for the Gs and A flat, it would have been written like this (I include suggested fingerings for added clarification):

But the thing is that it’s not written this way. What’s implied is a fingering that would keep you on the D string the whole time.

The problem with this is that it’s wretchedly awkward to find a fingering that works. I played around with various fingerings (here are two of the ones I tried)

but none of them satisfied my desire to hear a clean, flowing line undisrupted by audible shifts.

I actually ended up doing the fingering from the first example, i.e. using the A string so that I wouldn’t have to do any shifts. It’s not what’s indicated by the way the notes are written, but it sounded better…..

Today’s video.

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

Day 26: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Allemande

Today’s C minor Allemande recording featured one of the biggest tempo rethinks I’ve done in this project. I used to play it very, very slowly, lingering over every nuance and trying madly to bring out all the different voices using bow speed, dynamics, and so on. I was actually rather pleased with it the last time I played it several years ago.

Two things caused the rethink. The first was that I noticed (having somehow overlooked it before) the time signature.

I don’t claim to be a Bach expert, or a historically informed performance practice expert, or even a time signature expert, but a time signature of cut common a.k.a. 2/2 indicates to me that you want a feeling of a moderate two beats to the bar. The way I was playing the Allemande was so slow and so, well, self-indulgent that it didn’t even sound like a moderate four. It wasn’t even a slow four. It was more like a moderate eight. This had to be wrong: you wouldn’t want to conduct this in quavers/eighth notes, so why was I playing it this way?

I discovered this after doing my Take 1, which came out over nine minutes long. I listened to it and realized that the structure wasn’t really discernible, because it took so long to achieve harmonic change at this tempo that some of the more interesting things Bach does with the harmonies lost their effectiveness.

Which was really a pity, because I’d worked hard on my nuances.

Take 2 took a mere five minutes once I’d practised for half an hour and substantially worked up the tempo. The problem was that it sounded exceedingly dull, un-nuanced, and lacking in dynamic contrast.

Take 3 wasn’t much better, but I picked it over Take 2 because it didn’t have any M.S.M.s (Momentary Scordatura Malfunctions). Nuance and expression at the faster tempo are clearly things I’m going to have to do more work on.

Another point I noticed was a possible wrong note in the third bar of this line towards the end of the second half.

This is in scordatura, of course: in Normalstimmung it would look like this (my apologies for a couple of careless mistakes in the note values in my transcription, which I didn’t have time to correct):

Playing through this, the G-D-A flat chord in the third bar just sounded weird to me. In most editions the G is changed to a B flat, which gives you a nice tidy V7/I progression for the tonicization of E flat that occurs in that bar. G-D-A flat just sounds dissonant.

I turned to my recording collection for help, but Phoebe Carrai’s was the only one I listened to that went for the dissonant chord. She made it sound great because she’s a genius, but I wimped out and changed to a B flat. The spirit was willing, but the fingers were weak, or something.

Today’s video.

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

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

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.)

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

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.

Day 23: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Bourrées I & II

The cinematic significance of the bourrée

I watched Milos Forman’s Valmont (1989) last night, a film that had the disadvantage of coming out at the same time as Stephen Frears’ more famous Dangerous Liaisons, another adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses. I’d not heard of this other version until my Netflix Instant Queue recommended it to me, and I had high hopes, since most of the reviews on the site said it was much better than the Frears film. I was disappointed, however: it actually wasn’t half as good. First of all, it seemed confused about which decade it was set in, since the soundtrack leaped precipitously between Charpentier, Couperin et al and Haydn and Mozart. (This is why pedantic classical musicians can’t watch period movies: the soundtrack always gets the music wrong and one spends the entire evening gnawing one’s knuckles in disapproval and annoyance.) Secondly, the script was weakened by wild deviations from de Laclos’ epistolary novel, and I’m a stickler for that sort of thing.

One scene, however, did attract my interest. During an evening’s entertainment at the palace of Madame de Rosemonde, her scandalous nephew the Vicomte de Valmont, as the only male guest, is trotted out to dance with all the ladies present. First he dances with his elderly, dignified aunt (I couldn’t figure out what this dance was). Then he dances a wild gigue with little Cécile de Volanges, whom he considers (in this adaptation, anyway) a rowdy, boisterous child. Next, he dances a stately minuet with the outwardly ladylike Madame de Merteuil. And then he dances what I was pretty sure was a bourrée with the young, faithfully married Madame de Tourvel, with whom he has fallen in love. This scene intrigued me for several reasons. First was the obvious fact that the bourrée, although danced in a syrupy and doubtless anachronistic manner, was what precipitated Madame de T to fall dramatically into doomed love with Valmont. Second was an abrupt and annoying change of performance style: having been played in a reasonably historically-informed style up until now, the soundtrack lurches into what I can only describe as a bourrée in the style of Tchaikovsky, complete with histrionic violin vibrato and swoopy shifts, tempered only by a harpsichord, which continues its dispirited plinking.

Well, it took me a long time to get around to why the danced bourrée was important to the plot, but there it is. I wondered if my rendition of the E flat Bourrées might cause anyone to swoon into the arms of a depraved French aristocrat, but upon listening to today’s videos, I am forced to conclude that it would not, because I really did try to tone down the vibrato today. However, it did create a few interesting questions in my mind, such as how one navigates the constant ascending and descending pentachords in the cello-unfriendly key of E flat major. It really is unbelievably inconvenient not to be able to use the open A string during runs, and unless Bach is tonicizing another chord, you almost never get to here. I had always played the opening with the following fingering:

My rationale was that when you have to shift, it’s best and least noticeable to do it over a bow change, if applicable (which it isn’t here) or between the interval of a semi-tone/half step. I discovered from my Take 1 that this fingering really didn’t work at all: it was messy and cumbersome. To my surprise, I discovered from some between-takes experimentation that it would be cleaner to finger the offending passage like this:

with a split-second “lightening” of the bow between E flat and F and another between A flat and B flat, to minimize any audible shifting. Well, it worked on some of them and not on others. This recording was really not half as clean as I wanted it to be (it’s hard when you only allow yourself three full takes and no edits!).

The other intensely irritating thing about the Bourrées is that the first one is exceedingly long in proportion to the second one, which is a mere thirteen bars. You have to get yourself through the epic #1 intact, and then your entire take could be ruined by #2, which is terribly hard to tune.

The first two chords of the second half can really only be achieved by barring your thumb across B flat and E flat on the A and D strings, and the next chord needs to be played with your thumb and third finger. It’s not that hard in and of itself, but getting to it from what precedes it is the hard bit. (I note from my Beisswenger score that the last time I played this, I attempted to play these two chords without my thumb, opting instead to stretch the A flat-B flat major second between first and fourth finger, but I have now concluded that such cowboyish tactics have a far smaller chance of being in tune.)

What this means is that you can play through Bourrée I in a way that you’re quite pleased with, but then botch your take with an out-of-tune Bourrée II, and then you have to go back and record the whole thing again. Most frustrating. This is essentially what happened on two of my takes today, and by the time I got to Take 3 I was tired and peevish. So I elected to do something that might be a bit un-kosher: in the first run of the first Bourrée, I didn’t do the second repeat of the second half. Proportionally, it’s is so much longer than the first half, and by the time you’ve repeated it, done the second Bourrée and embarked upon your Bourrée I da capo, you feel as if a third go through the second half is rather…laborious. We’ve been there too many times already.

This piece of shameless lèse-majesté cut a full two minutes off my recording time, and, I think, works better, at this tempo at least. I know I should worry that perhaps Herr Bach will haunt me for this, but I expect his ghost is too busy haunting Charles-François Gounod and people who play his stuff on electric guitars.

Today’s video.

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

Day 22: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Sarabande.

Today’s set of three takes was notable for being the most different (from each other, that is) set of takes I’ve made in this project. This was largely because of tempo, though it had other ramifications for phrasing, dynamics and so on. I’d practised the Sarabande at a tempo that I thought conveyed the timeless marvel of the suspended tension-resolution that characterizes the Sarabande. That opening/shutting feeling that, if I were in a poetic mood, would remind me of the e. e. cummings poem “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”: i do not know what it is about you that closes/ and opens; only something in me understands/ the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses… (Full disclosure: we had that poem read out at our wedding by my bridesmaid, who cried copiously all the way through and had to fan herself frantically with the book while she got her voice back. I have a very soft spot for it.)

However, this tempo didn’t work at all. My rationale had been that it gave the rhythmic impression of a slow three, but in fact, I’d say it sounded as if it were “in twelve”! (It’s not that I have a tiny imaginary conductor waving a stick about inside my head, but I find it quite helpful to think of how a piece should feel according to a downbeat.) So I decided a dramatic rethink of the tempo was in order. For Take 2, I aimed for a moderate three, and upon listening to it realized that even that was too slow, focusing as it did on the micro-details of the line rather than the broad sweep of the tensions and resolutions in the harmony (i.e. the thing I’d thought I was bringing out in the first place). So in Take 3, I imagined myself “in one,” and that, I felt, worked the best of the lot. To give you some idea, Take 1 took over 5 minutes, Take 2 was 4:02, and Take 3 came out at 3:25. That’s a lot of difference both in overall length and in tempo.

Tuning was also an issue today. I decided to use my “chordal” system for intonation almost exclusively, because the Sarabande is so packed with chords. Sometimes I nailed a difficult bit (there are so many in this challenge-packed movement) and sometimes I didn’t. One thing I wish I’d thought more about before I started was what to do with the Cs on the A string. They sound a bit flat to me. Maybe I should have gone for the sympathetic resonance of the C string, which would have pitched them sharper. But then, my reasoning had been to make them flat in relation to the E flats, because in the system I’m using (not, I hope, too pedantically) major thirds get made narrower and minor thirds get made wider, and…it’s thoroughly done my head in. I took note of this problem for the next time I play the E flat major suite.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: E flat major Sarabande, Bourrées I & II, Gigue; C minor Courante.

Day 21: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Courante

An experiment in intonation

I outlined the general system I use for intonation on Day 19 when I was recording the E flat major Prelude. However, this system works best on chordal passages, and isn’t so successful for linear ones. So today in the Courante, which has a mixture of vertical and horizontal, I started using a different system: a kind of hybrid of my own system, where the third of a major triad will be pitched a little flatter than the “objective” pitch (which in effect means you have to make all the E flats and B flats a bit sharp, since the third is G, which sounds best when it corresponds exactly with the open G string), and the Casalsian system that I quoted in the post I’ve linked to above, i.e. where the third degree of the scale should “lead up” to the fourth by being a bit sharp, and the same with the leading tone towards the tonic. I used my system on the more vertical passages, such as this:

and the Casalsian system for the more horizontal, scalar types of passages, such as this one:

This experiment was not unproblematic. For starters, when you’re in E flat, that means your leading tone is a D natural. D, as one of the open strings of the cello, will have a natural sympathetic resonance with that string wherever it’s played on the cello. So the question is, do you monkey about with the D, making it sharper so it “leads” to E flat but isn’t in tune with the open string, or do you play the D in tune with the string but make the E flat flatter, which effectively means you’ll be chopping and changing between two different E flats depending on the texture?

I chose the second option, but I’m not sure it worked. It’s a bit weird to have a collection of different E flats all over the place. I mostly ended up confusing myself and thinking I was out of tune more or less all the time. I worked on the system until I was thoroughly exhausted and crotchety and suffused with mutinous sentiments. Take 3 is what I came up with.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: E flat major Courante, Sarabande, Bourrées I & II; C minor Sarabande.

Day 20: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Allemande

Sometimes there are movements in the Bach suites where the notes themselves are highly debated. This can be because of discrepancies between Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript and that of Johann Peter Kellner, and/or those of the two anonymous eighteenth-century copies included in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. Or sometimes it’s just because we’re not sure what the copyists meant by a certain marking.

The E flat major Allemande is one of those movements. In the middle of the second half, in the phrase that begins on the upbeat to the last bar of the first line in the picture below, there’s some controversy as to what Anna Magdalena Bach meant by the A flat she wrote as an accidental in the first bar of the second line.

Why did she write in an extra A flat when there’s already one in the key signature of E flat major–and, moreover, when she even went to the trouble of writing in an extra A flat and B flat into the key signature an octave above where the customary flats appear? (I assume that the “correct” way to write time signatures was probably not standardized at that time, just as orthography and a few other things weren’t.) Is the A flat a mistake? Did she either mean to write a natural sign and wrote a flat in error, or did it slip in for no reason at all?

Beisswenger’s scholarly edition suggests that we consider playing A naturals in this passage, as in the example below. (She puts the A naturals in parentheses; I was too lazy to figure out how to do this in Finale.)

This goes right against tradition: most recordings, including historically-informed ones, have all A flats but the last one, as shown in the next excerpt.


It makes sense melodically to do this. If we assume we’re in the middle of a tonicization of C minor, the C minor scale (as relative minor of E flat major) has an A flat in it. In a C melodic minor scale, you’d use an A flat on the way down, and an A natural on the way up, which is exactly what happens in this way of playing.

Then again, if we were to make a presumption that we were already in (or heading rapidly towards) a tonicization of G minor, we could then say that the A-C-E flat triad being outlined is, in fact, the chord ii (diminished) of G minor. What to do?

What I did was to compromise. I played the traditional, A flat-heavy version on the first repeat and Beisswenger’s suggested version with the A naturals on the second repeat. I admit a preference for the trad one, but I expect this is because it’s familiar.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: E flat major Allemande, Courante, Sarabande; C minor Gavottes I & II.