by James Nicholas

(A commentary on "Interpretational Angst and the
Bach Cello Suites" by Tim Janof

James Nicholas received his doctorate and two master's degrees from Indiana University, where his cello instructors included Eva Czako-Janzer, Fritz Magg, Janos Starker, and Helga Winold. He is particularly interested in the performance practice of the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic eras, and has collaborated and/or performed with such early music luminaries as Anner Bylsma, Max van Egmond, Christopher Hogwood, John Holloway, Steven Isserlis, Martin Pearlman, Stanley Ritchie, and Elisabeth Wright. He is also active as a composer and editor, having published several original works as well as performing editions of Bach's solo string music, reconstructions of two unfinished Mozart horn concerti, and most recently the first English-language setting of the traditional music of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He has published an idiomatic version of the Bach Sixth Suite arranged in G Major for a normal 4-string cello, and recently published a critical edition of the scores of six Boccherini cello concerti. He lives and works in the Hartford area, where for years he and his German shepherd sidekick, Sparks, were well-known as the Sunday afternoon announcing team on Connecticut Public Radio.

Twenty years ago, as a young graduate assistant at Indiana University, I had a very talented cello student (a chemistry major) who had been working on Bach's second suite in D minor. I suggested some helpful left-hand fingerings and tricks, taught him about tracing arcs, ovals, and circles with the bow hand, straightened his back and made him drop his shoulders every once in a while, AND went around and around about the agony of Bach suites with all of their attendant mysteries. At one point, somewhere in the middle of the Menuets, I said to him: "Look, Mike, there's no difference between playing these things and playing Brandenburg concertos or the orchestral overtures (suites)". I think that at that moment, I had stumbled upon a simple, perhaps obvious, but great truth: that the answer to whatever cosmically profound questions we may have (about what bowing to use there or what the tempo is here) is staring us right in the face from all of the hundreds of pages of OTHER string music which Bach wrote, and which still exists in his own hand, fastidiously copied out with articulations and pitches in the right places. If we really study Bach's language, we can perform the cello suites from the most adulterated edition and still "speak" them with a Bachian "accent." If we still agonize and philosophize over what sort of articulations are true to Bach, or over what he meant by giving a dance title to a piece in sarabande rhythm that's not meant to be danced to, then it is we, not Anna Magdalena Bach, who are to blame. Deep down, we still want to live in denial and believe that the cello suites are a great metaphysical mystery which have nothing in common with the violin sonatas and partitas, sonatas for violin and cembalo concertato, viola da gamba sonatas, violin concerti, Brandenburg concerti, suites for orchestra, cantata parts, etc, etc. What's the excuse for not sitting down in an armchair for a while with some of that other music?

The following is a set of notes which I distributed at the University of Connecticut when I performed the complete cello suites in 1996. At the time, I was asked jokingly by the director of the auditorium series how a nice Orthodox boy like myself could be such an iconoclast. My answer was that I am not so much interested in smashing holy images as I am in putting up better ones!

Why I Still Like Bach, or How Not To Get Soured On Suites

Now that you're finished groaning: When the University of Connecticut invited me to perform the complete cycle of Bach cello suites, I was concerned as to how I could justify two lengthy programs of music for a solo instrument in one idiom. It occurred to me that this might be viewed as a perfect opportunity to change the way in which these suites are perceived by some music lovers. Some two-hundred seventy-five years after their composition, and innumerable record-jacket notes later, we have been conditioned to view them as an austere challenge; a Parnassus to be climbed, a rite of passage for cellists, even as a sort of artistic cold shower to be endured. It's doubtful, however, that such an idealized, Romantic notion corresponds to Bach's intentions, or whether it will help us to understand either him or his music. Sebastian Bach (as he was known in his time) was of course an immensely sophisticated musician, but an eminently practical one as well, as all eighteenth-century musicians had to be. He could also be quick-tempered, complaining, and petty, and was not very broad-minded by today's "art is whatever you say it is" standards. (This is the man who, in his youth, was once fined for being discovered alone with a young woman in a choir loft, and who once spent a night in jail after drawing his sword on someone after a perceived insult). A pious Lutheran (probably later in life than the choir-loft and sword episodes!), he maintained that the sole purposes of music were the glorification of God and the permissible recreation of the spirit. Our secular age tends to minimize and de-emphasize the "glorification" aspect in an effort to remake an earlier aesthetic in its own image; on the other hand, generations of musicologists and the rigors of conservatory training have largely driven from our consciousness the notion that such music might, in fact, have any recreational aspects at all. It's also a good idea to remember that the man who wrote the cello suites was only in his early-to-mid-thirties.

An attempt to create an authentic experience of earlier music will probably be only a fair reconstruction at best; however, not to delve into issues of tempo and phrasing, rhythmic conventions, and the grammar and syntax of this music means to miss the essence of its meaning; rather like listening to a speech orated in a foreign language and enjoying it purely as a sonic phenomenon. Bach's cello suites, like all of his other suites and in fact like all suites of the Baroque age, are sequences of dances, often prefaced (as these are) by a prelude of improvisatory character. It's true that these suites were not actually intended to be danced to; the frequently irregular phrases would undoubtedly cause many dance-floor collisions, and the rich and subtle harmonic vocabulary, combined with the often dramatic melodic gestures, demand attentive listening in intimate spaces. Nevertheless, the educated listener of Bach's time would have instantly recognized a genre piece such as a Sarabande or a Gavotte, much as his counterpart in the mid-twentieth century would have recognized a rag, a waltz, or a rhumba. My students, colleagues, and professors have often voiced the objection that Bach's dances are "stylized" dances (and therefore presumably exempt from the tempo demands and rhythmic stylization already inherent in the dance forms themselves), or that Bach had such a great mind that he would have accepted and even welcomed all manner of widely varying interpretations. The latter objection seems to imply that music consists of just the notes on the page and carries with it no inherent style. I suspect that it is frequently invoked as an excuse to impose one's own alleged artistic vision upon an artwork without first submitting to the discipline of finding an artistic solution within appropriate stylistic boundaries. It's still generally accepted (and even applauded) when one plays Bach in the style of Brahms or Prokofiev. Is it OK to play Brahms or Prokofiev with little trills, appoggiaturas and French ornaments here and there, routinely double-dotting or overdotting and with notes inegales all over the place? Try it at your next recital or audition and experience for yourself the double standard which prevails among the musical establishment! Let’s face it; a tango or a fox-trot with occasional 5-bar phrases and fugal writing is still a tango or a fox-trot; a polka containing chains of diminished seventh and ninth chords over a dominant pedal tone is still a polka.

Today, as we agree to confine ourselves to more limited boundaries of tempo, dynamics, and special effects (e.g. vibrato), let us see whether we are not actually more liberated through the exploitation of stylistically reasonable rhythmic freedom, ornamentation, and above all, continually shifting nuances of feeling (Affect).

Lean back in your seat if you wish; tap your toes if you're having fun. Clap between movements if you like (that perfectly natural reaction was suppressed by certain conductors beginning only in the early years of the twentienth century!) Laugh if something strikes you as droll; sigh if something moves you. Imagine yourself dancing the stately Allemande ("German" dance), with its bowing gestures at the end of each section. Feel the vigor, the hops and kicks of the Italian Corrente ("running") and the refinement of its French counterpart, the Courante. The grand and sweeping Sarabande had its origins in the West Indies, where it was once a fast dance and considered so lewd that one could be jailed for dancing it. By the early eighteenth century it had become tame enough to be danced in the courts of Europe. The word "Menuet" is derived from the French "pas menu", or "tiny step" (the heel of the foot never touches the floor), and has long been emblematic of courtly grace. "Bourrer" in French means "to ram” or “to shove", and while the dance bearing the name Bourree was not such a coarse affair, it did call for lots of knee bends, side steps, and hops. (Its Italian equivalent, the Borea, was evidently a bit wilder). The Gavotte is supposed to have originated among the Gavots, a mountain people of France, and is normally characterized by a half-bar pickup and a graceful, mincing horizontal step. Lastly, enjoy the rollicking swing of the Gigue, whose Frenchified title thinly disguises the "jig" contributed by the Celtic peoples of the British Isles and perhaps of northwestern France as well.

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