Bach and the cello suites, Part II

Si interpretas a Bach diariamente, no estarás tan solo.
( “If you play Bach every day, you are not so alone”) Pablo Casals

As the NCMF Winter Baroque concert on Sunday, December 18th gets closer (Buy Tickets), I couldn’t help but reflect on the 2021 program.  There was some – ahem – dissatisfaction with last year’s experimental attempt to include music in the spirit of baroque composers so I’ve returned to the tried and true holiday formula of not programming anything composed after 1750.

The mandatory wig requirement has also been relaxed

A previous post compared iconic performances of Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied cello (Casals, Yo-Yo, and Bylsma).

This December, you can hear the second suite live. Eliana, fresh from recitals in Rome and Naples, comes to Newburyport to take a stab at the D Minor herself.

Bach wrote his six solo cello suites circa 1720 while working as Kapellmeister in Cöthen, Germany. Each begins with a kind of free-form prelude followed by baroque dance movements – minuets, gigues, gavottes, courantes, etc. – popular forms of the time with origins in folk music. (For example, sailors danced gigues, or “jigs” aboard tall ships.) Like those cooking shows where, from a few basic ingredients, a chef creates something magical, Bach transformed relatively banal forms into transcendent works of art.

Allez cuisine!

The suites pose a considerable technical challenge: how, with one cello only, do you play something like a minuet or sarabande normally played by several instruments? Bach’s solution was ingenious. Since the cello, unlike a piano, can’t play two lines at once, he instead implies two, three, sometimes even four parts with a kind of musical sleight of hand. Let’s look at the minuet from the second suite.

If you extract the melody (in this case the soprano line), you get this:

Isolating the bass line reveals pieces of an independent melody implying a descending scale headed to the basement.

This is the visual equivalent of looking at a cow behind a fence and understanding it is a cow even though we don’t actually see the complete animal; our brain is really good at filling in gaps where a full view is blocked.

In the same way, your ear registers a continuous bass line even though you only hear one note per measure. Meanwhile, the performer has to keep track of all these voices simultaneously. While tricky, this is also part of what makes it fun.

The commonly held image of Bach as a stuffily devout old Lutheran workaholic is outdated (ok, the workaholic part is accurate). Bach had a bit of a temper and serious issues with authority and, with twenty children, clearly took Genesis 1:28 to heart (“Be fruitful and multiply”). The image that comes to me of the Minuet from the second suite is peasants in heavy shoes letting loose, not some mildewy old friar gliding silently through the hallowed halls of a church.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525 – 1569):
The Wedding Dance


In an interview with NPR, the great Bach interpreter, John Elliot Gardiner, beautifully depicts a day-in-the-life of “old Bach.”

NPR: I think we tend to think of Bach as the bewigged "grand arbiter and lawgiver of music" who would be far from being jailed or drawing a sword on someone. And I think we tend to romanticize Bach's big job in Leipzig where he landed in 1723 and where he wrote so many great pieces — the St. John and St. Matthew Passion, the Goldberg Variations, the B Minor Mass. We imagine him just quietly churning out his church music but...


JEG: It wasn't like that at all.

NPR: Right. You reveal in your book it's so much different than that. Tell us just briefly what a day in the life of Bach might have been like when he was in Leipzig.

JEG: Well, he was responsible not just simply for writing the music but also as a schoolmaster, for disciplining and for being a kind of house father to a lot of the boarding school choristers who were in his charge and who had their dormitories right up next to his private living quarters in the Thomas School in Leipzig. So, how Bach had any time for a private life, God knows. But he would have taken prayers. He would have taken early lessons. He would go into daily rehearsals and daily classes, and then he would get to his desk and start composing the cantata for the week that was going to last up to 35 minutes depending on the occasion. And it didn't end there.

He then had to see to its copying out. And there was this little kind of mini factory, or sweatshop, of copying that was under his supervision with students, sometimes family members, doing the copying out of the parts of the score, readying for the one and only rehearsal. There may have been a few private, tuitioned rehearsals when he could have dealt with particularly difficult solos or obbligatos but basically it was rehearsed in breakneck speed on a Saturday before the performance on a Sunday.

In addition to that, he was also assessing organs in different parts of the country, around Saxony, and he was writing recommendations, he was supervising a harpsichord hire system. Some of his works went through publication and he was publishing other people's works. He was tireless, absolutely tireless. And he kept up that rhythm for at least the first three years — before he either burnt out a bit or else became disillusioned by the lack of support and responsiveness on the part of the town authorities from the clergy.

The book referred to above is Gardiner’s “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” a great read (even if halfway through I needed a break and switched to something with more space ships). Casals made a ritual of starting out every morning playing Bach for himself on the piano. An understanding of who Bach was as a person, while fascinating, fortunately isn’t required in order to be transported by his music, for both listener and performer alike.


David Yang, Artistic Director

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