Thursday, April 3, 2014

Overselling the Bach Solo Cello Suites

This morning I found myself returning the the DVD portion in the box The Complete EMI Recordings of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This is the video version of the recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach's six solo cello suites in the Abbey of la Madaleine in the town of Vézelay in the Burgundy region of France. These are definitely informative performances; and the opportunity to watch Rostropovich at work, rather than just listen to him, makes them all the more informative. Unfortunately, each suite is preceded by introductory commentary, which begins by assigning a title as follows:
  1. BWV 1007 in G major: Lightness
  2. BWV 1008 in D minor: Sorrow and Intensity
  3. BWV 1009 in C major: Brilliance
  4. BWV 1010 in E-flat major: Majesty and Opacity
  5. BWV 1011 in C minor: Darkness
  6. BWV 1012 in D major: Sunlight
I have no idea whether or not Rostropovich had any say in assigning these titles; and, if he did have a say, I have to wonder whether or not he took them seriously.

As I have written frequently on my site, I feel that the best way to approach any of Bach's solo instrumental compositions is to assume that he wrote them for pedagogical purposes. After all, between his children and his royal patrons (not to mention all those students in Leipzig), he probably had a lot of instructional duties on his plate; and, even when a particular piece may not originally have been intended for instruction, may have have subsequently used it that way (just as any number of teachers have done so since). In addition, when it comes to hypothesizing how Bach went about teaching, I tend to use the title page he provided for the two-part and three-part inventions, which were originally written into the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In that text Bach made it clear that the inventions were intended not only to cultivate clarity of execution but also the imagination behind the "inventiones" (ideas) that would provide Bach's son (Friedemann) with "a strong foretaste of composition."

While we tend to think of such "inventiones" in terms of the creation and elaboration of thematic material, there is also a rhetorical element that escalates such themes from the abstract to the concrete. In Bach's sacred music we appreciate the role of rhetoric in terms of how the music is associated with sacred texts. Even an instrumental chorale prelude takes the text of the hymn providing the theme as a point of departure. However, for suites and partitas, the only point of reference comes from those movements named for dance forms; and it is unclear whether or not specific dances were intended to be associated with different moods. (Just because a sarabande is slow does not mean it needs to be solemn, any more than we should assume that a gigue is energetically cheerful. Think of how a trio or a double for one of those dances introduces a contrasting state of mind.)

My point is that Bach probably would not have approved of a priori assignments of nouns and/or adjectives to these movements. It would be up to the imagination of the performer to decided how such movements could be "described" and then conveyed to the listener. This may be appreciated when we compare the Rostropovich recordings with those made by Pablo Casals (also for EMI). Furthermore, for those who heard either (or both) of these musicians in performance, there is a good chance that the interpretations of those performances different from those on the recordings. Indeed, Casals even went as far as to tell at least one of his pupils (Bernard Greenhouse) that the study of Bach had to include the exploration of new ways of performing the music one had already learned.

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