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.