The Joy of Basslines (Or How I Learned to Love Pachelbel’s Canon)

Internet meme "What I Really Do." Title: Cellist. What my friends think I do: image of Yo Yo Ma. What my mom thinks I do: image of Popper's High School of Cello Playing. What the media thinks I do: movie still from August Rush. What my co-workers think I do: image of Man Ray's "Ingre's Violin." What I think I do: image of Augustus John's "Madame Suggia." What I really do: image of cello part from Pachelbel's Canon.
It’s impossible not to look cool when you’re a cellist 😀 

A pianist friend and I were planning a chamber recital, and had already settled on piano trios by Brahms and a modern composer. “We should have something more Classical, too,” he said. “What about Haydn…oh, wait, no, cellists never want to play Haydn piano trios.”

“What?” I said. “I love Haydn.”

“You do?” said my friend. “Cellists always frown when I say ‘Haydn piano trio.’ Or they start singing do do do do sol sol sol sol, and then they veto it.”

This conversation brought to mind various interactions I’ve had with cello students and colleagues over the years where someone would complain about a composition being “boring” because “there isn’t much going on in the cello part.”

Really?

A thought: isn’t do do do do sol sol sol sol kind of what you signed up for when you decided to be a cellist?

Another thought: if you think do and sol are boring, is it possible you aren’t doing your job very well?

Exhibit A:

Image of bassline from "Toreador Song" in Bizet's Carmen.
A bassline we’ve all played in a few opera pits…

Boring? Really? Let’s look at what else is going on.

Image of first violin and cello parts of "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen
“Toréador, en garde! Toréador, Toréador!” (It’s Bizet’s Carmen!)

One of Bizet’s catchiest melodies is taking place right next to us, and it’s our job to take part in the drama. The direction in the vocal score, by the way, is “Avec fatuité.” “With fatuousness.” That puts a different perspective on do, sol now, doesn’t it? If the melodic line is the bullfighter’s conceited voice, the bassline represents his strutting footsteps. We may not be on the stage, but we’re equal characters in this story, and we need to play like it.

The footstep analogy quite often comes to my mind in Baroque basslines too. In one of my absolute favourite pieces of music ever written, Bach’s Actus Tragicus BWV 106, the biblically derived text instructs us to prepare for death. Perhaps because I know the text well and because I fear death, the opening instrumental Sonatina reduces me to helpless tears every time.

You might look at the Sonatina’s bassline and think there’s not much to do, but in reality, there’s an infinite amount to do. This chain of E-flats directs and determines the harmony so that the pair of recorders on the two top lines of the system can weave in and out, overlapping — and why does Bach cross the parts? Isn’t that a big no-no in voice-leading? Could it be that they are crossing because they represent… a cross?)

Image of measures 4 and 5 from J. S. Bach, "Actus Tragicus" BWV 4, I. Sonatina.

I hear Bach’s bassline as the faithful friend who walks by the side of the anguished protagonist. “Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, du mußt sterben!” (“It is the ancient law: Man, you must die!”) When I play it, I feel as if I’m saying “Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. I will be with you, I will not leave you, I will take care of you, I will stay by your side on this hardest of journeys.” 

“Bestelle dein Haus: denn du wirst sterben…” “Put your house in order, for you will die…” How this text must have jumped off the page at the 22-year-old Bach, who despite his youth had already suffered the losses of so many dear to him.

***

Here’s the thing. When you’re the bassline, you’re the instigator and harbinger of harmonic change. You’re the sea that keeps this whole ship afloat. You can do things that the keyboard instruments you’re so often doubling can’t: sustaining, vibrato, and so on. You provide the rhythmic impetus that stops the ensemble from dragging. You envelop the other parts in a sound-world of resonance that they can add their own resonances to. Who holds the steering wheel? You do. You steer the group sound, the intonation, the harmonic rhythm, the rhythmic drive. You are the most powerful thing in the ensemble.

***

This post started out as a love letter to basslines, but halfway through I was forced to stop and reconsider a certain bassline that I haven’t always treated with love.

Now play it another 55 times.

Yeah. I’m talking about Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel. Yeah. That Canon.

So here’s the thing about the Pachelbel Canon. We all sneer and roll our eyes, we laugh along with Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant, we trade in-jokes with other cellists about the not-so-secret “Pachelbel surcharge” for brides who want it for their wedding processional. But it just occurred to me that Johann Pachelbel basically paid for me to go to graduate school.

Like all students, I was broke and disgruntled, and one of the things I did to pay my rent was wedding gigs — sometimes two or three every weekend. I was a singularly insufferable young person and I thought that (a) wedding gigs were beneath me and (b) anyone who wanted to walk down the aisle to Pachelbel must have very poor musical taste. Luckily, and uncharacteristically, I kept my obnoxious mouth shut, and the rent got paid.

(What a horrid girl I was. I can’t rightly remember what it was I objected to about making $350 for the very small effort it cost me to give a lot of pleasure to a lot of people on the most special day of their lives.)

And another thing. Without Pachelbel’s basslines — listen to his F major Chaconne for organ for a great example — we mightn’t have such good ones by Bach. Pachelbel was friends with Bach’s father, godfather to his sister, teacher to his brother, and his connection to and influence over Bach are well documented. Pachelbel himself was no Bach, but his music is still deserving of our respect.

So in the unlikely event of my ever playing another wedding gig, I promise I will play Pachelbel with better grace this time. I’ll consider how clever this composition actually is — the myriad possibilities for melody and harmony and rhythm that Pachelbel achieves over this simplest of resources, the charm and peace and symmetry of it, the joy it gives to others. I will play the best darn Pachelbel bassline you ever heard in your life, and I’ll play it with love and gratitude. Thank you, Herr Pachelbel.

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One thought on “The Joy of Basslines (Or How I Learned to Love Pachelbel’s Canon)

  1. Excellent post! I have often felt exactly this way, both about bass lines (love ’em) and about those who disparage them while missing the musical potential in them. And, as luck would have it, I will be performing a Haydn trio on Sunday and have just started the run-up to a chamber orchestra concert a week from now featuring Bach & Telemann and lots of evocative bass lines! Thanks for this!

    Like

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