Bach Cello Suites (I)

Note: Jonathan Mayhew is blogging the Bach Suites for Solo Cello & I thought I’d play along. He is listening to Yo Yo Ma, I’m listening to Rostropovich. I intend to keep things relatively gnomic — I’m a poet not a music critic — & I’m also going to keep all my responses in this post rather than writing a post for each suite as Jonathan is doing. Sometimes I may read Jonathan’s take on a movement before I write, sometimes I’ll write first. (I see that Maryrose Larkin is joining this little exercise.) I may also go back & add to my comments on each movement if I think of a further response. Update / Note: In order to keep the posts near the top of the page, I will write a separate post for each suite that includes all the movements in that suite.

1/I — Prelude: A little nervous & unsettled at the beginning, then finding its cadence. A theater before the house lights dim, a church before the service starts.

1/II — Allemande: Confident & stately. The first note a call to attention, to attend. Jesus often began his parables with the command, “Listen!”

1/III — Courante: Like a folksong, country to the previous movement’s city. Later note: I’m glad Jonathan is describing the movements structurally. I don’t have a score & even if I did, it has been 20 years since I tried to read one (even then I could barely get along). His descriptions, though, underwrite my intuitive perceptions of symmetry: Many of the movements suggest the two halves of a book lying open on a table. Later: Singing & dancing. Lagging & scrambling.

1/IV — Sarabande: Slow & stately, a dance at a slow walk, the trills acting as signs to the dancers. Important to imagine the body moving while listening. Later: The line drawn out, almost a romantic landscape. I’m actually reminded of Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.” The sublime is casual.

Interlude: Coleman Hawkins’ Picasso: Thinking out loud; feeling out loud; perhaps talking to yourself, musing about important matters. Later: Jagged but elegant like the painter, turning the subject this way & that. Analytical, even pedagogical, like both Picasso & Bach, both famous for their endless “studies.” The phrase at the beginning repeated three times with variations provides the basic palette. Each pause breaks the line, shifts the angle, alters the perspective, then another pause, a little shift, & another way of seeing. A line flowing through it all. Drawing with the tenor sax.

1/V — Menuet 1: If old Bach were singing to himself this is what his voice might sound like. 2: Introspective.

1/VI — Gigue: Isn’t it interesting how the first note of many of these pieces have the feel of stepping down & then up into some new place. Brilliant corners.

Question: Is there a traditional performance order for the suites? Both the Rostropovich & Yo-Yo Ma disks I have present the suites in the order 1-3-5-2-4-6.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

4 thoughts on “Bach Cello Suites (I)”

  1. You are accomplishing much in the way of being involved so directly and vibrantly with these pieces as they are (performed). “Drawing with the tenor sax” is lovely.

  2. “Each pause breaks the line, shifts the angle, alters the perspective,[…]”
    an interesting passage, a great read.

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