Johann Sebastian Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

performed by Stephen Isserlis

(the above video begins with the prelude of no. 1, but is excerpts of Isserlis’ performances of all the suites. Find plenty of full versions of the work on YouTube or practically anywhere music exists. I also found a gentleman on Kickstarter who performed and recorded all six suites, and his website is here.)

So, finally, here is the Bach. I figured the cello suites were as good a place to start as any, and the first is quite famous. I had originally intended to do all six within only a few weeks, but these are some of the most revered, deeply artistic, genius works in all of classical music, so… maybe they should be given more devoted attention. We’ll spread them out.

We’ll start this week with numbers one and two, a wonderful contrast to each other.

Let me say a few things to start, though. For one, a reason I’ve avoided Bach for so long is that I feel like talking about his music requires an inherent knowledge of music (theory) and technical aspects of the art to address intelligently that I just don’t have. And to some degree or other, it affects the listening process. What differentiates this 20 minutes of cello dances, arpeggiated chords and movement from that one? Preludes and Allemandes, Courantes and Sarabandes, Minuets and Gigues, one after another… how do they sound different? Well, that was a question I’d had about the pieces when I’d listened to them end-to-end without a lot of attention, but it’s incredible, when you sit down (in a comfy chair, with headphones and a nice, new, clean score) and really pay attention, how they begin to speak to you.

Secondly is that, related to the above, I will not be talking about the nitty-gritty of these works. In contrast with the way much music today is typeset and notated, with slurs, accents, tempi, dynamic markings and all the rest, these cello suites are famously bare of bowings and all the rest, so there’s lots of room left (or responsibility) for the performer to shape and mold the phrases, to carve out direction and logic in the beauty of what’s there. I know nothing of this, so I will not be talking about Casals’ interpretation or the way he treats certain phrases and technical aspects of the performance. I am only a listener.

Those two things are quite related. The first and second cello suites, taken as a pair, provide incredible contrast to each other, so I’ll talk about them as best I can. The Wikipedia article on these pieces quotes this MusicWeb article:

These suites for unaccompanied cello are remarkable in that they achieve the effect of implied three- to four-voice contrapuntal and polyphonic music in a single musical line.[1] As usual in a Baroque musical suite, each movement is based around a baroque dance type;[2] the cello suites are structured in six movements each:prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets or two bourrées or two gavottes, and a final gigue.

So this idea of musical suites, a progression of contrasting but related baroque dances is ultimately where the symphony came from, with what was originally a minuet (the only of the dances that made it in a big way into the classical era), eventually becoming a scherzo.

And yes, there are complexity and voicing and all sorts of layers in the works, but it doesn’t take an expert to begin to grasp and appreciate at least some of this depth.

The prelude of the first suite makes regular appearances on TV and media, and maybe for good reason. It is a bright, sunny, warm, but brief piece, a perfect way to set the mood for this entire suite. In reality though, none of these individual movements of any suite is really hefty.

The piece is in G major, a key that people like Haydn, Bach, and Scarlatti used for a larger-than-average portion of pieces (or slightly more than the other keys, I suppose.) It’s a relatively friendly key for keyboard and string instruments, but it’s very pleasant in this work, and that will become more apparent when we contrast it with the second suite.

The prelude is kind of the setup for the work, the introduction, and you’ll see how what follows is similar in nature.  The more familiar with it I as a listener get, the more I see these similarities and difference, how they’re related but obviously different. There’s a general sunny pleasantness to the prelude, but it reaches its climax at the very end, in a kind of very baroque manner. It’s not all springy notes and fluff.

The Allemande has some familiar figures in the low register, some trills, and is obviously in the same key. It uses some similar motions and figurations that we heard from the prelude, but obviously in a more ‘dancy’ presentation, with a stronger rhythm that emphasizes downbeats, which give it a sense of motion and melody.

To be honest, I can’t much differentiate Allemande from Courante from Sarabande (Sarabande is slower!) without looking at the score. Some are in triple meter, some double, but one does begin to see how they’re distinct.

The Courante has more spring in its step, it feels faster, a very clear phrasing, perhaps an even stronger dance-ness. If You had trouble hearing the motion in the Allemande, in common time, you should hear it here. The Courante is in 3/4 time, and like almost (if not) all the movements (save the preludes) has repeats for sections, AABB, so we have a chance to hear each section twice. You might think that’s boring, but it’s a chance to get familiar with the content of a passage that isn’t very long.

“Let’s slow things down a little bit,” J.S. Bach says into the microphone from the DJ’s place at someone’s 18th century dance party. Not really.

The Sarabande that follows is also in 3/4, and takes up only half a page of score. This might sound nothing like any kind of dance you’re familiar with, but it’s, shall we say, stately. It’s a quite, soft, more pensive place in the suite. Wikipedia says “Johann Sebastian Bach sometimes gave the sarabande a privileged place in his music, even outside the context of dance suites,” and that kind of comes through here. I’m not sure how you’d dance to it, but in contrast to the previous dances, especially the Courante, we get a chance really to cherish each triple stop, each trill, let the music breathe a bit. Contrast.

This almost sacred, peaceful nature is very different from the first minuet of the suite, which is one of the sunniest, happiest moments of the piece for me, mimicking the mood of the prelude. Those first eight bars, how wonderful that they’re repeated! What beauty! We get the AABB of the first Menuet, then move onto Menuet II, in D minor (!), a noticeable change. This menuet is drastically different from the first. As will be the case with all of these, at the end, we get “Menuet I da Capo,” which means “go back and do the first menuet again straight through without the repeats to close out this movement,” but Menuet II finishes in what appears to suggest G minor, before returning to the truly gorgeous brightness of Menuet I. Again, contrast.

But wait, there’s more celebration. We finish with an extremely lively Gigue in 6/8. (aka jig…?!) Even in such a small, seemingly unassuming movement as this gigue, in what appears to be such simplicity, ends of phrases, certain sections suggest the relative minor (Em), the treatment of voicing, all the rest, in such a lively, sunny, really catchy (in the most supremely artistic way possible) movement that rounds out a deceptively simple, outstandingly enjoyable piece.

As you can see, I cannot talk about these works intelligently, but I kid you not when I say I could read along in the score and listen to Isserlis play these pieces all. day. long. There’s something almost hypnotic about the works, the sense of harmony, voicing given to a solo instrument, the way I can follow the player’s navigation of the line, the sense of arrival at the end of a phrase, and the satisfaction of its completion.

Isserlis’s recordings are quite close-miked, so you hear all the clicking and tapping on the fingerboard, which originally unnerved me, but I quickly got used to it.

I’m sure there’s plenty of room to get into suggested tonality, voice leading, the qualities that make up each of these individual traditional dances, but it seems I’m not going to do that. I can’t. But if you can read music, these works are really required reading, if you’ve never done it. The overall feeling is that each note is perfectly placed. Figures are repeated in each bar, with the highest or lowest note ascending or descending, accenting certain pitches, giving a sense of motion or buildup, and the overall sense I get is that any single thing added or removed would detract from what’s here.

On the surface, at an amateur first look, they seem almost like homework exercises, etudes, but with each listen, there’s more depth, more detail, more perfection, and the personality, the mood of each piece becomes ever clearer. There’s an optimism, a happiness, joy in this work that puts it in stark contrast with what comes tomorrow.

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