Preparing for a Bach Cello Suite Marathon

suitte a cinq cordes

Performing all six of Bach’s Cello Suites is a marathon in the career of any cellist, and for many years I wondered if it was even a good idea to attempt this feat. Surely it was a lot to expect of an audience to compel them to sit through six long and intellectually demanding pieces? Mightn’t they stagger out at the end, exhausted, never wanting to listen to the Suites ever again? Would it not be more prudent to perform one or two of the Suites at once, leaving the audience wanting more, rather than bashing them over the head with all six?

But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. And the more I thought about the Suites and how important they had been in my career and my life, the more I realized they really did belong together as a cycle. A Gradus ad Parnassum, almost, starting with the G major suite (No. 1, which is playable by some well-taught children of eight or nine), progressing through the harder D minor (No. 2) and C major (No. 3) Suites until you get to the “big three,” the really hard stuff: the E-flat major (No. 4), the C minor (No. 5, in which Bach asks us to tune our A-string down to a G, a setup which is very hard to get used to), and the mighty D major (No. 6), which is, on a four-string cello, bloody difficult.

To be honest, it was the difficulty of No. 6 that had stopped me performing a “Bach marathon” in the past. How could I, after playing five long, complicated pieces, have the strength to play something that compelled me to zoom up the highest reaches of the register and twist my fingers into all manner of uncomfortable shapes?

That’s when I hit upon the idea of doing what the cellists I admire the most do: getting a five-string cello. No one can say without a shadow of a doubt exactly the instrument Bach had in mind when he directed us to play à cinque cordes, though Dmitry Badiarov has made a pretty convincing case for the violoncello da spalla. I knew right away that I had neither the funds nor the time to buy one of these marvellous shoulder-held cellos and figure out how to play it, so I hit upon the idea of commissioning a five-string cello from Luis & Clark, since I knew that it would be relatively familiar to play and would have a sound that I liked.

There was now no excuse not to do a Bach marathon, and so I find myself preparing daily for this concert, which will take place on January 16 here at the University of Idaho and which I hope to repeat at other venues.

One problem remained: exactly how do you prepare for such an event? Comparatively few people do this, so I didn’t have a rule-book to refer to.

The first question was: repeats, or no repeats? In Bach’s binary dances (i.e. every movement except the Prelude that begins each Suite) so much of the sense of balance and proportion comes from having repeats, plus, the second time affords you the opportunity to add a few improvised ornaments. Big problem, however: when I timed myself playing with all repeats, the total time of the concert came to well over two and a half hours, which seemed like a big ask, both for me and for the audience.

So with some trepidation, I decided to ask strangers on the internet. This is a thing I ordinarily hesitate to do, since as we all know, the internet is full of terrible mansplainers. (There are two ways to deal with mansplainers: the delete button, or, if you’re feeling particularly ornery, replying “Nice mansplaining there, buddy!” which will cause them to lose their minds.) I went on an internet forum where a lot of cellists hang out and asked if anyone had done a Bach marathon, and if so, had they done the repeats.

A few commenters jumped in to tell me I was a moron (I ignored them). A few people who actually knew something about the subject offered thoughtful opinions. A couple had done Bach marathons and found they’d got much tireder than they thought they would after just two or three Suites, and wished they hadn’t done repeats. After much consideration, I decided I wouldn’t do repeats, and would save my improvised ornaments for a later studio recording.

Next problem: how do you practise for such a long and hard concert when you have a full teaching load of lectures and studio students, not to mention rehearsals and concerts and travel and class prep and grading and email and freelance writing, and your practice time is at a premium? Clearly, I was going to have to apportion my time very carefully.

That was when I had the idea of practising only two Suites a day, but in pairings that would allow me to “review” the “easy” Suites (1-3), which I’d performed dozens of times, and work in detail on the “hard” Suites (4-6), which I hadn’t done as often, and in the case of No. 6, only ever on a four-string cello.

My pairings went like this, and I did them for six days of every week:

  1. G major and D major (two major keys, both pieces in the “transcendent” style)
  2. D minor and C minor (two minor keys, the most “French” of the Suites, both in a melancholy style)
  3. C major and E-flat major (two major keys, both in a more “jovial” style than the G major and D major)
  4. D minor and D major (parallel modes)
  5. C major and C minor (parallel modes)
  6. G major and E-flat major (somewhat related major keys)

On the seventh day, I did a mish-mash of movements that were the hardest for me: usually, the D minor Menuets; E-flat major Prelude, Sarabande, and Gigue; C minor Prelude and Allemande; D major Prelude and Sarabande.

This way I felt I was covering each Suite relatively often and relatively well. The only problem was that I did tend to get overly stuck on the Preludes and Allemandes, which tend to be the longest and most complicated movements in each Suite. I solved this problem by starting with the Gigues first and working backwards.

The rest of the difficulty lies in being true to the score, which is hard when no J. S. Bach autograph exists. I’m working mostly from Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy, but referring to the other three manuscript sources (Johann Peter Kellner, Westphal, Anonymous Viennese) and the Norblin edition (first print). And until someone buys me this for Christmas (hint! hint! Come on, it’s only 400 euros), I have to do this by flipping back and forth. I documented some of my struggles on Instagram:

…and added a few videos of myself practising the five-string cello:

I have a month and a half to go. I’m nervous but excited too.

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