Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Bach Project

A Bach Project

In this post, I'd like to describe another project I'll undertake during the next few months.  This one will be a much more involved activity, including practicing, reading and listening.

For many years, I've enjoyed playing and teaching movements from the Bach Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. 
Owing to its high musical value, this great music is now played on many different instruments, including the bassoon. Studying the pieces is a great way to stretch yourself musically and learn from the repertoire of another instrument.

Many of the movements fit well on the bassoon, while others require some re-arranging and inventiveness to bring off.  While the bassoonist will never sound like a cellist performing them, Bach's music is not so completely tied to string technique that it won't hold up in the hands of a talented and persistent bassoonist.

In fact, Arthur Weisberg has arranged all of the Suites for bassoon and published his own edition of the works.

While having this edition is a great service to bassoonists, I feel (as I do about the Mozart Concerto) that it's vital to know what the original says before consulting a later edition or transcription. Unfortunately, that's not quite possible.  Thanks to David Wells for enlightening me on this topic.  See his comment to this blog post below and my response.

One great way to reach an understanding of these pieces is to listen to recordings.  There is a dizzying number of recordings of the Suites! 

Among other choices, there are modern performances vs. historically informed practice performances to consider.

I think this, combined with some reservations about choices Weisberg made in his transcriptions left me wondering about how I was playing and teaching them.

So I've come up with a "little' project that should help!

Spurred on by reading the book, The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin I decided to revisit the Suites by doing some listening and playing of this music.  

In his book, Siblin titles each chapter after a movement from one of the Suites, starting with the Prelude of the First Suite and ending with the Gigue of the Sixth Suite.

This is a great book, by the way.  Siblin is a pop music critic and writes from the perspective of a layperson, so the writing is pretty free of musical jargon and very well explained when it is. Everyone can get something out of this book, especially if it leads one to go listen to this great music.

He follows a three-part format.
  1. His own discovery of the Suites
  2. Pablo Casals' discovery of them
  3. What we know about Bach and his time, his influences regarding the Suites
Since it will take me a great deal of time to get through all of the Suites, I thought I'd look at a movement each week.  I know there will be some interruptions along the way, but I want to take my time and absorb as much as I can from my reading, listening and practicing.

Here are my goals in this project:

1. Become better grounded in the style of this music through listening to different recordings and performances and talking with cellists I know.

2.  Become better at teaching this music as a result.

3.  Make my own (hopefully enlightened) choices about articulation, dynamics, tempo -- none of which Bach specified in his manuscript.

4. Make my own decisions about how to deal with cello writing that isn't possible to execute on the bassoon.  I'll consider questions such as:
  • Because this movement has so many double stops in it, should it even really be played on the bassoon?
  • How can I make the double stops in this movement sound natural on the bassoon?
  • Can this whole Suite be performed legitimately on the bassoon or should just parts of it be performed on bassoon?
  • How can I make bowings and phrasing inherent in string bowings sound on the bassoon?
  • Where to breathe (!)
From the above, you'll deduce that I don't think all of the movements of the Suites should be played publicly on the bassoon.  Nonetheless, perhaps those that don't work for performance can still be valid as study pieces.

By the way, I'll be listening to several different recordings.  It was hard to choose from the many out there!

Yo-Yo Ma

Pablo Casals

Anner Bylsma (my choice for an historically informed performance)

Do any of you have any suggestions that might add to the value of this project?

I'll try to check in from time to time and share any big insights I have!


  1. Something that would be interesting to add to the discussion is that we don't know exactly what Bach wrote in his manuscript, but can only attempt to reconstruct his original from the three extant (and one previously known, but now lost) 18th century copies. The fact that one of these, made by the composer's own wife, often differs from the others raises interesting questions of interpretation.

    On this subject, which edition do you prefer?

    1. Hi, David,

      I think you know more about this than I do, so thanks for your comment. This project will be a great learning experience for me, so it's great when others help me out.

      The edition I learned from was made from three sources: manuscripts made by Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann Peter Kellner and Westphal (first name unknown). It was then edited by Dmitry Markevitch and published by Theodore Presser.

      I will also look at Bärenreiter, which has a very nice edition made using those three sources with copious notes and suggestions.

      Here is a link to a short, excellent article about using the sources and making choices.

      I guess we have Anna Magdalena to thank for preserving some of Bach's music.

      This reminds me of the Russian novelists, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy who both had long-suffering wives to whom they dicated their works. In the case of Tolstoy, his wife re-wrote "War and Peace" for him after he burned it in a fit of dissatisfaction!