Eva Heinitz's Pet Peeves in Bach

by Tim Janof

Eva Heinitz playing her viola da gamba

Eva Heinitz, my former cello teacher, died last year at the age of 94. She was known to have very strong opinions about music, too strong for some. Her response to her detractors was "If you haven't figured anything out by the time you're 90 years old, then what the hell were you doing all those years?" Few dared to challenge her, most just listened.

One of her frustrations in her career was that she was known primarily as a Bach player, even though she felt equally at home in the music of other eras. But there was a reason for her reputation: she seemed to have a special understanding of the Bach Suites, both compositionally and emotionally. She became so intimate with the Suites that she was known to recite the harmonies from memory while walking around the University of Washington campus. No, she wouldn't be considered an "authentic" baroque player by today's standards, even though she was a true pioneer in the revival of the viola da gamba. But she must have been doing something right, because musicians came from all over the United States to play Bach for her, and not just cellists; violinists would play the Sonatas and Partitas and pianists would play the Goldberg Variations.

I studied with her for over 6 years. During that time I worked on Suites II-VI (she wasn't too keen on the first Suite). As a result, I learned, often through my own mistakes, the things that either annoyed or disappointed her about how the Bach Suites are often played, even by some world-renowned soloists. She considered some of her ideas to be almost doctrine ("Music is my religion," she once told me.), ideas that I now see as but one point of view. But she believed them to her core and she was not above berating cellists who dared to perform Bach while she was in the audience.

It used to puzzle her that musicians often throw out basic musical principles as soon as they play unaccompanied works. When playing with others, one has to play within certain musical bounds just to keep the ensemble together (i.e. accurate rhythms, steady pulse, subtle rubatos and ritardandos, etc.), and it sounds great. Why should this change just because one is playing alone? As Casals use to say, 'Fantasy, yes, but with order."

What follows are just a few of the passages that she considered, whether fair or not, first-cut litmus tests for a cellist's basic musicianship. No, these aren't necessarily earth-shaking ideas; in fact, most may seem obvious (her more eye-opening ideas had to be experienced in lessons through the force of her personality). You may also flat-out disagree with her. But these are things that she noticed throughout her long life, and, frankly, she grew so tired of hearing cellists "falter" that in her later years she rarely went to concerts in which the Bach Suites were performed.

Her pet peeves can be roughly placed into three basic categories.


D minor Suite -- Prelude (m. 1)

The A is often cut short. Play its full value.

D minor Suite -- Prelude (m. 60-64)

If you choose to play these chords as written, each chord should be held to its full value, not 2-1/2 beats.

D minor Suite -- Sarabande (m. 1)

The trilled E on the second beat is often not held to its full value. This is usually the result of a technical miscalculation. If one starts the movement at the frog, instead of towards the middle, it is likely that one will run out of bow on the 2-beat upbow. In other words, this rhythmic inaccuracy is often due to a lack of planning regarding one's bow distribution.

C Major Suite -- Prelude (m. 77-87)

Cellists often slow down when they play the chords in this passage, which is the opposite of what should happen, since the piece's momentum is towards the end of the movement. Maintain the tempo.

C Major Suite -- Courante

This is a very difficult movement for the bow arm, because of all the string crossings, which can cause the pulse to push and pull. Use a higher bow arm, positioned for the upper strings when there are frequent skips. Feel the measures in 1, not 3.

E-flat Major Suite -- Prelude (m. 59-62)

The tempo is often lost on these chords too. The piece's momentum is towards the end of the phrase. Keep the larger phrase in mind.

c minor Suite -- Prelude

Players are often all over the place rhythmically in this movement. Keep the pulse!

D Major Suite -- Allemande

Maintain a sense of pulse on the larger beats, which is made even more difficult if this movement is played too slowly.

D Major Suite -- Sarabande

Cellists often play this movement too slowly. Don't forget that this is based on a dance form. A tempo somewhere around 56-60 beats/minute is slow enough (and it's in 3, not 6).


D minor Suite -- Prelude (m. 13)

The prelude goes into the relative major (F Major) here. There should be a character change at this point, perhaps more uplifting.

D minor Suite -- Allemande (m. 1)

There is an appoggiatura on the third beat. Lead to the first D in beat 3.

D minor Suite -- Gigue

Cellists often play this movement too fast, which doesn't allow one to bring out the harmonies.

C Major Suite -- Prelude

She had a strong distaste for over-slurring in this movement (i.e. the Fournier edition). It sounded like musical mumbling to her and greatly reduced the energy level of the piece.

C Major Suite -- Sarabande

As a general rule, the second beat of a sarabande should be emphasized ... with exceptions. (Recent research in the dance field now calls into question this rule of thumb for sarabandes, however).

D Major Suite -- Prelude (m. 12)

The first motive has returned (and in the dominant). Play as if you recognize this. Help the audience to remember it, perhaps with a stronger character whenever it returns throughout the movement.

D Major Suite -- Prelude (m. 100)

A nice image: "Peace on earth." More gently.

D Major Allemande -- (m. 7)

Lead to the A from the previous measure. Note that the A and F# are neighboring tones to the G#, so the A is an appogiatura. The same thing happens in measure 19.

D Major Suite -- Sarabande (m. 13-14)

Keep the high C in your ear throughout this and the following measure and play it accordingly. The C returns in measure 14, as if it were held throughout both measures.

D Major Suite -- Sarabande (m. 24-25)

This one used to break her heart because there is a very special harmony on the first beat of measure 25 (a I-6/4 chord). In order to bring this out, one should do a subtle broadening on the G-C# double-stop in measure 24 and then on the following I-6/4 chord, as if heaven were glimpsed for a moment. Almost nobody plays as if they recognize this.


E-flat Major Suite -- Prelude

These are just arpeggiated chords. There's no reason to emphasize each and every note. She sat through too many performances in which this was played in a slow, "profound" tempo. Think of it in two, not four.

c minor Suite -- Sarabande

If you play the bowing as shown (down-up), don't blast the third beat. That fast upbow is dangerous!

D Major Suite -- Prelude (m. 98)

Cellists often speed up when playing the chords, but they have more impact when the pulse is maintained.

D Major Suite -- Allemande

This movement is full of 32nd notes. Don't play each one with "meaning." They are merely ornamentation.

Eva Heinitz would never admit her ideas were anything special. As she told me in 1997, "I think I know something about Bach, but not anything that a reasonably intelligent and hard-working musician couldn't figure out." Of course, she's probably right. But if they were so obvious, why did she have to keep repeating these, and many others, for 70 years to cellists ranging from beginners to world-renowned soloists and pedagogues? As she often said, "People can be so ridiculous. Even my cat wouldn't do half the crazy things cellists do."

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Editor: Tim Janof Director: John Michel
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