Bach Cello Suite no. 5 in Cm, BWV 1011

performed by Steven Isserlis, or below by Anner Bylsma

(cover image by Ashley Knedler)

We’ve finally made our way around to another installment of Bach’s cello suites. I remember nearly two years ago now when I began the weekend chamber series (originally for string quartets), I began by featuring the first two of Bach’s suites for solo cello and had intended to cover them over three weekends, 1 and 2, 3 and 4, then 5 and 6. Fast forward nearly two years, and we’re just now getting to the fifth.

As discussed before, these works all begin with a prelude and then proceed through a number of dances in a certain order and in different styles. The fifth suite, the second of the six in a minor key was also completed “between 1717 and 1723,” says Wikipedia, while AllMusic states decisively that it is from 1720.

If you haven’t read my articles on the other cello suites (and let’s face it, who has?), then maybe go do that first, but I won’t go into too much detail about this piece lest I repeat myself yet again. As discussed above, the movements for this work are as below:

  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Gavotte 1/Gavotte 2
  6. Gigue

The only difference in the movements of all six suites is the dance for the fifth movement. It could be two gavottes, as here (and in 6), or minuets (1 and 2), or bourrées (3 and 4).

It may seem so very subjective and even a bit silly to talk about how our thoughts about music will change how we hear it, or along with that, how music can be “psychological.” What is ‘depth’ in music? What are ‘implied harmonies’ that I’ve mentioned before that you might read about? Well, today’s work is an excellent example of some of these things.

First off is the prelude. In unpoetic layman’s terms, the prelude is basically exactly what it sounds like, a sort of foreword to the rest of the piece, which is all dances. You’ll often read online that this work is in the ‘French style’ because Bach includes a ‘fugue’ after the first part of this movement. What is a fugue? Well, since it’s part of the title of this blog, here’s a definition, per Merriam-Webster:

a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts

Beethoven’s famous Große Fuge uses a string quartet, four voices, to create this texture, but we also see it in his solo piano compositions. Since a pianist uses all ten fingers and can play multiple lines at one time, so the single performer can play a three-, four-, or even five-part fugue.

But a cello isn’t a piano.

It can really only play one melodic line at a time, and sometimes double, triple or quadruple stops (bowing more than one string at a time) for chords, but without independent voices, how the fugue do you accomplish this?

Well, as the beyond-famous Mstislav Rostropovich tells us in the video below, it’s psychological. In the video, he first speaks about the sarabande, which we shall get to in a moment, but maybe watch the whole video first, and then come back to reading.

What did he say? Did you notice? It’s as if the first subject lingers in the mind, somehow etched into the listener’s memory, so that when the second one comes along, it’s still on your palate, so to speak, and then when the third comes along, it grafts itself over the other two, even though by some sleight of hand they have disappeared. They don’t seem to have. That’s an outstanding example of the artistry in a piece like this, something even… perhaps magical or ineffable, an inherently genius quality of the music.

After that come the allemande and courante. Listening to these, you wouldn’t think of them as anything like dances at all, even in a Classical or Baroque sense. Johann Gottfried Walther said that an Allemande should be “grave and ceremonious,” and Johann Mattheson expressed that it should be “serious” but also “expressing satisfaction or amusement, and delighting in order and calm.” Well, the allemande here is certainly serious. It is the second longest movement after the prelude and its invisible fugue, and while you might not have any idea how to dance to it, I don’t doubt that it will speak to something inside your person.

The courante, in contrast with the Allemande’s double meter, is in triple meter. A courante following the allemande is yet another thing that apparently makes this suite French (or in this instance also possibly Italian). Wikipedia cites one Thoinot Arbeau when it says that “Courante literally means “running”, and in the later Renaissance the courante was danced with fast running and jumping steps.”

You might not want to put this on during your next morning jog, but relative to the previous movement, it is faster. It’s also the shortest of all the movements in the set (and I say that realizing that Isserlis observes all the repeats in the scores, which it seems perhaps not all performers do). Take a moment in this more vigorous, blustery movement to appreciate the fleeting, refreshing glimpses of phrases that resolve in major chords. It can’t all be doom and gloom, and we have here small little cracks where the sunlight can get through, and they are truly beautiful.

The sarabande of this suite is one of only five movements of the total 30 in all six suites that is non-chordal, or doesn’t contain any chords, only single notes, as Slava discusses in the video above. There are cases of the aforementioned implied harmony, where the cello plays a few lower notes along with the first note of a melody, and they stay on the palate in the same way that the segments of our fugue do, except more since they’re just creating a key area, not entire implied melodies. However, we don’t even have that here.

If you did in fact watch the video (and if you haven’t, go back), you might think of the intervals he plays on the piano as rather odd, similar to contemporary music, as he says. In fact, if you know something about that, you may think it sounds like part of a Webern piece or something. There’s no actual context given, just a single naked melody hanging there, carving out its own eternal line in space, moving forward even beyond the final note, and when you let your mind stop everything else it’s doing, put everything down and have two free hands, there is something strong, unstoppable, eternal about this somehow deceptively simple melody written nearly three centuries ago.

The use of a gavotte (well, two of them) in this suite is another French quality. In many recordings, these two gavottes will be tracked together, and the second is an interesting meditation of sorts. It doesn’t have the rumble and roar and deep resonant voice of some of the other movements. Rather, in its constant motion, it’s a bit like the sarabande, albeit with a much quicker pace, like a the prow of a boat cutting quietly and powerfully through a calm ocean. The first gavotte returns (da capo) to close the movement.

In Louis Horst’s Pre-Classic Dance Forms, he says that “In early French theatre, it was customary to end a play’s performance with a gigue, complete with music and dancing.” It shouldn’t come as any surprise by this point that we’re not finishing with any kind of jovial, cheerful chapter to close out this C minor work, but can you find the little bright spots in this final movement? We could get all subjective and interpret-y and entirely nonmusical; what do you hear at this work’s end?

We could discuss the technical aspects of the work (if I were capable), but a nuts-and-bolts discussion like that is just about as complex as analyzing a serial piece, with a set of pitch classes and transformations, at least for someone without a working knowledge of music theory. Instead, I suggest we just enjoy the expressiveness and deeply solemn mood of this work.

That being said, there are some things you can listen for. For one, in all of this C minor, it isn’t all just bleak, dark shadows. There are some glimmering moments of major-key harmonies, even if only for a moment, and finding them and seeing where they’re located and what purpose they serve is just one way even a beginner listener can begin to appreciate the craft and finesse in a composition like this.

Secondly, if you’re at least somewhat familiar with the previous four suites, you may notice how this work is clearly another installment in innovation, in just about every aspect of the work. Compare it with the prim-and-proper first suite (or the second, in a minor key and thus more similar to the disposition of this work) and you’ll see how phrases and rhythms and things are quite different here from the way they were in the previous suites. But not even that is really necessary to enjoy the near-spiritual depth of these profoundly poetic compositions.

I’d also suggest for anyone who can read music to go get a nice physical copy of the score (or just print one out if you have doubts) and enjoy reading this score along with either of the two above performances. You’ll see how strangely mesmerizing the piece is, how every contour, every shape and gesture seem somehow perfect. This is not just the case with the cello suites; I have scores for some of the piano music as well, and even if you can’t explain in fancy musical terms the details of something, you do pick out things that you wouldn’t otherwise, like how there may be two perceived lines of music, one ascending and one descending, or how one phrase seems to be the answer to or an echo of a previous one. For me at least, all of this is much clearer when listening and reading, and if you haven’t before, I strongly suggest giving it a go. (The solo scores, like for violin or cello, will be easier to follow along for some people than piano, which can get a little dense here and there. Just don’t lose your place!)

We haven’t seen Bach in a very long time, so while we’re here, I thought we’d go ahead and discuss another of his pieces, so stay tuned for a bit more from him at the beginning of next week, and thanks so much for reading.

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