Archetypal. Protean. Daunting.

Given that my plan is to practice each movement of the Suites with a fresh mind and heart and share the result here, this project can’t be said to have actually begun without some actual cello playing, but I find that I need a bit of a wind-up before I can really get underway. Picture a common scene, where I am meeting someone and answering the “what do you do” question:

“Nice to meet you. I play the cello.”

I am answered with an uncertain expression. “Cello?”

I pantomime and say, “Yeah, you know,” 

Now they’re smiling. “Oh! I love that song!”

If one piece of music says “cello” to most people, it is this, the G Major Prelude from Suite No. 1 by J.S. Bach. When I am showing the cello to an audience who may or may not have much acquaintance with classical music or with the cello, I almost always play this first Prelude; in my experience, most people recognize it and everyone loves it.  (Typically, I also play The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens, to display the Romantic and melodic aspect of the instrument. They’re both in G Major, which is pure coincidence but always bothers me a little anyway. Oh well, what can I do? They’re perfect!)

What is it about this little piece of music that enchants us so? The first two notes are the middle two open strings, G and D, the warm heart of the cello’s register. The rhythm couldn’t be simpler, running sixteenth notes, and at first, there’s really no melody per se, just arpeggiated chords. This opening bears a marked resemblance to the opening of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the prolific cellist Peter Wispelwey even built a recording around that idea, including a transcription of that keyboard Prelude in C BWV 846 transposed from the original C to the G Major of the first Cello Suite. If this Prelude is so much like a keyboard piece, why is it considered so archetypically cellistic?

It’s not exactly easy, either. Its very simplicity is nerve-wrackingly revealing. Playing it with evenness and control requires a supple bow hand and a smooth, accurate bow arm. For many cello students, playing this movement is the holy grail, sometimes the very thing that made them want to learn the instrument, and they approach it with nervous excitement, even when they’ve already learned other movements from the Suites and are comfortable with the style and techniques required. They want to play it beautifully — not merely with technical competence, but with ease. Preferably transcendent ease. (But hey, no pressure!)

Then there are the decisions. A mechanical rendition, rhythmically accurate and steady (much like my performance excerpted above from a recital in 2000, I’m afraid) can be attractive, but would hardly seem likely to inspire and transport generations of listeners from all walks of musical life. Tempo (how fast or slow), articulation (separated or connected, and how much so), dynamics (loud, soft, rising, falling, etc.) — these basic tools of musical craft are wide open to interpretation here, more than in most of the music we play. (More about that in future posts, you can be sure!) It is protean, elemental, a veritable Rorschach test in G Major.

Normalized Rorschach blot 01

About cellonancy

Principal Cello Oregon Symphony
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6 Responses to Archetypal. Protean. Daunting.

  1. Niel DePonte says:

    Nancy: I love that you are doing the suites. So many possibilities to explore. Even marimba players do them. Maybe I’LL revisit the first suite as well. Though the last time I played it all was 1978, my first season in the orchestra. And I’d rather wait until I get a 5-octave marimba so I could play them down an octave where you guys play them. The challenge for us, especially in the first movement, is to get a greater dynamic range happening without sounding aggressive on the attack, something that can be dealt with by changing the hardness quotient of the 4-mallets we use, from softer on the lowest mallet to harder on the higher mallet and having two of the same hardness in the middle. But in a way that makes it more difficult to control attack quality too. It is an analogue to the balance you must have to create as you move to upper strings from lower and to create the illusion of two melodies, one low and one high in the passages that are written this way, but then having to show the one melody that often occurs and just happens to have a wide tessitura, to say NOTHING about the interlocking of the end of one phrase with the beginning of the next on the same note. Oy. That Bach, what a prankster! 🙂

  2. Cami Scott says:

    Congratulations Nancy, what a creative idea. I love that you are sharing this with others. Do you slur notes 1&2 and 7&8?

  3. cellonancy says:

    Cami, I’ve never done that particular slur scheme. The whole question will surely play a starring role in a future post!

  4. Niel DePonte says:

    Nancy:
    According to the Rorschach outcome above, shouldn’t you be playing Die Fledermaus? 🙂 Well, that’s what I see anyway…

  5. russhodge says:

    I’ve been playing this on the viol, dear, and I politely beg to differ: the melody is in the soprano line, and you play it beautifully…

  6. Pingback: “An Appalachian Christmas” preview: Traditions converging … – Oregon ArtsWatch

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