Bach Cello Suites (II)

Note: Suite I here. Jonathan Mayhew’s posts here.

2/I — Prelude: Gorgeous long lines in a low register. Imagine this played on a baritone sax! Speeds up a little as it goes along. This was the first piece of the suites I ever heard, waking to it on a clock radio thirty years ago in Bellingham, in a little room overlooking the bay. What kind of jazz is this? I asked myself — that actual sentence in my mind & I still remember the words. In structure this Prelude is pretty simply, though not as symmetrical as many parts of the Cello Sutes. It seems to be finished about two-thirds of the way through, then there is a pause & an afterthought, a reflection not in the sense that symmetries are reflections, but in the sense of introspection. We don’t think of Bach as an introspective artist — what a mathematician, we cry! — but in these suites he often seems to look inward, listening to voices he then shapes into these moving lines.

2/II — Allemande: More chords on the cello in this one? More multi-string playing? The least dance-like of the movements I’ve listened to so far. I love that almost grinding low chord about a third of the way into the movement, the music then rising to a few sweet, higher notes before returning to the exploration of the middle range. I keep coming back to the sense that all these movements are exercises in the loftiest sense — or perhaps explorations, experiments — in which the artist is primarily interested in finding out what the materials can do.

2/III — Courante: A snappy little ho-down! I was telling a colleague the other day I think Sherman Alexie is one of the very few American novelists who can “do joy.” Bach “does joy” here. Not exultation, but joy, built on the basis of what the old song lyric calls “satisfied mind.”

2/IV — Sarabande: Symmetrical to the point of being nearly stationary. And yet I think this is my favorite movement so far. Lyrical & studied at the same time, somehow. On some of the low notes you can hear the cello bow pushing across the strings & it’s almost percussive.

2/V — Menuett : 1. A gently rocking rhythm. Perhaps because I’m listening with headphones, I’m really hearing the percussive quality of the bow on the strings. Decisive steps, a bit of swagger, boldness. 2. This one is more delicate & makes me think of flowers. A formal garden, evening. Fluent but entirely proper.

2/VI — Gigue: Begins with a bounce & picks up speed. A dancer would be pressed to keep this looking graceful. Masculine in contrast to the femininity of the menuett.  Yes those terms are slippery — for us in ways they may not have been for Bach. But throughout all  the suites there are men & women dancing, at least in theory, at least potential dancers like those potential subatomic particles physicists tell us onlycome fulling into existence when we observe them. Listening is a form of observation.