Another balm to lockdown ennui (aka My Normal Life):
“I don’t wanna get into specifics“, so I won’t divulge how long it is since I took out my trusty violin—suffice it to refer you to Inspector Clouseau and “It was in tune when I bought it” (see also “It doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!“). But “What I can tell you is this”:
First I warm up by seeing how much I can still recall of the movements of Bach cello suites that I learned some years ago—a remarkable amount, as it turns out (speaking as someone who doesn’t even know what day of the week it is at the moment). Then I devoutly set about learning the intense Sarabande from Bach’s 5th cello suite, inspired as I am by the great Steven Isserlis (for his rendition of the complete suite, click here; the Sarabande from 13.12).
Short as it looks on the page, this should be a manageable task, though here the usual challenge of transposing from cello to violin—the preliminary spadework—is further complicated both by its highly chromatic melodic lines and by the score, with its scordatura, the E string tuned down to D. The ear is the best guide: once the piece is in my heart and under my fingers, I can dispense with the notation (as one does). Playing it on the modern violin (I don’t quite know why), I soon adopt higher, more veiled positions; so in the end, ironically, I don’t require the top string at all.
Steven imagines the 5th suite as representing the Crucifixion—before the Resurrection of the 6th suite. As he writes:
The tragic atmosphere of the suite reaches its emotional peak in the desolate loneliness of the famous Sarabande. What an extraordinary movement this is: no discernible melody as such, no particular rhythmic interest, no obvious dynamic changes, no chords*—and yet, one of the most powerful pieces of music ever composed. One can point to such features as the pain-filled appoggiaturas, and the breathtakingly expressive intervals between the notes—not just adjacent notes, but also between the first and last notes of bars, intervals whose dissonance one can somehow feel across the beats separating them: the major seventh between the G and A flat at the beginning and end of the first bar, the minor ninth between the C and the B natural of the second bar, and so on. These are in effect semitone clashes, warring tones that will not let each other rest, their conflict piercing through the intervals heard between them.
To irritate Tweety McTangerine (cf. They come over ‘ere…), I note that the Sarabande was Latin in origin, with Arab influences; like many dances, it was once considered “so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people”. This one may seem remote from its dance ancestry (it’s hardly a track to get the kids onto the dance floor), but I find myself trying to convey a stately balletic rhythm alongside the anguish.
And now even the other movements aren’t safe: next, the Allemande. This beats household chores and gardening any day.
While I’d love to hear the Sarabande on the Uyghur satar (cf. the exquisite muqaddime here), I’m also rising to the challenge of making it work on the ethereal Chinese erhu, like the Feuchtwang variations and the Allemande for flute. This requires yet more vertiginous positions. “They said it couldn’t be done—and they were right!”
Chiswick House Prices Take Another Tumble
For some real, nay astounding, erhu playing, click here. And DO consult Steven’s inspiring book on the Bach cello suites.
And here’s a 2023 update.
* Um, OK: in WAM such monophonic melodies, even an extremely tortuous one like this, always spell out a harmonic structure horizontally, but hey.
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