The Bach Cello Suites: A Brief Historical Background

J.S. Bach’s Six Cello Suites have been studied, performed, and recorded by countless musicians (including classical guitarists). They have become a fixture of the classical music repertoire. The Cello Suites have even made their way into contemporary mainstream culture via television performances, movies, videos, and radio. Most people have at least heard the opening notes of the Prelude to the first Cello Suite. As a result, their place in musical history appears to be exceedingly secure.

However, although the Cello Suites were composed approximately three centuries ago, there is much that is not known about this iconic composition.

First of all, the original manuscript is lost. Because of this development, we are left with many questions concerning the composition of the Cello Suites. We don’t know the exact date that they were composed, or what tempo, dynamics, or even instrumentation Bach intended for each movement. In other words, the Cello Suites could have been originally written for another string instrument! (see this fascinating article: http://www.pauldwyer.net/blog/so-what-instrument-were-these-cello-suites-written-for).

The earliest surviving manuscript of the Cello Suites was penned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach between 1727 and 1731, and is the source for most of what we know about the Cello Suites today. Interestingly, this manuscript was not written for a cellist. Instead, it was intended for violinist Georg Heinrich Ludwig Schwanenberger. Three other early manuscripts survive: one by J. Peter Kellner from the early-mid 1700’s, another by two unknown authors from the mid 1700’s, and yet another by an unknown author from the late 1700’s (all of these manuscripts can be viewed here: https://www.jsbachcellosuites.com/score.html#9WJNcwhn).

Most of the Cello Suites were written around 1720, while Bach worked as Kapellmeister (Court Music Director) for Prince Leopold in Cöthen. During his time in Cöthen, Bach mainly wrote instrumental music for soloists or ensembles, and this output included six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the six Cello Suites, and a Partita for solo Flute. Although nowadays pieces of music written for solo instruments are relatively common, in Bach’s time, it was quite unusual for music to be written for a solo instrument. This convention especially applied to a lower-pitched instrument such as the cello, which had previously been viewed as an accompaniment instrument. While Bach was not the first composer to write music for a solo instrument, his contribution to the cello repertoire was highly unusual at the time, and ultimately transformed the public’s perception of the capabilities and limitations of the cello. One of the most remarkable aspects of Bach’s compositions for solo instruments is that they tend to sound as if they are played by more than one instrument. Despite the cello’s inability to play full chords, Bach makes clever use of double stops, arpeggios, and alternating musical registers to create the illusion of harmony. The listener mentally “fills in” the remaining harmony notes without realizing that they are missing. As a result, the Cello Suites sound full and deeply resonant, even though they are played by a single instrument.

Bach used the dance suite form for the Cello Suites, and each Suite consists of six movements. Every suite begins with a Prelude, which tends to be dramatic, improvisatory, and full of character. This is followed by the Allemande, an elegant dance movement that was popularly performed but not often danced to during Bach’s time. After the Allemande comes the Courante, an upbeat dance of which there are two main types: the French Courante or the Italian Corrente. Bach usually used the Italian version in the Cello suites. The fourth movement consists of a Sarabande, which was originally a passionate and sultry Iberian dance, but by Bach’s time mellowed to a slow, longing character that was influenced by its use in French courts. The fifth movement is either a Minuet, Gavotte, or Bourrée, all of which possess a memorable, melodic, and generally joyful aesthetic. Lastly, all of the suites conclude with a Gigue, an animated and up-tempo dance movement with a big personality.

Bach (or his Cello Suites) were never famous in his lifetime. Before Pablo Casals’ groundbreaking recording of the Cello Suites in 1938, the Cello Suites were viewed as musically dry pedagogical studies. In fact, if Casals had not stumbled upon this work at a music shop in Barcelona as a teenager, the Cello Suites might still be shrouded in the dimly lit hall of musical obscurity. In the decades following Casals’ recording, multitudes of incredible cellists, violinists, violists, classical guitarists, and other instrumentalists have performed, recorded, and spread the word about the inimitable beauty and staying power of Bach’s Cello Suites.

Some cool resources: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bach/music/cello-suites/, http://theconversation.com/decoding-the-music-masterpieces-bachs-six-solo-cello-suites-83797, https://www.amazon.com/Cello-Suites-Casals-Baroque-Masterpiece/dp/0802145248, https://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603,

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Last Post of 2018

As 2018 winds down, I thought I’d reflect a bit on the past year. This year, I graduated from college, taught music lessons at a local music school and privately, and performed at Cafes, Farmers Markets, Churches, and other venues throughout New York and New Jersey. I also started this blog, and have greatly enjoyed writing about my artistic journey, sharing my insights with fellow bloggers, and discovering some wonderful and thought-provoking blogs in the process. In 2019, I will continue to perform, teach, and write about music, and may be starting graduate school in the Fall of this coming year. I’m also looking forward to blogging about my favorite classical guitar pieces, as well as ideas and issues that are relevant to myself and the wider musical and artistic community.

I also would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to visit, follow, or comment on this blog. When I began Classical Guitar Analysis this May, I wasn’t sure if anyone would bother to read my somewhat technical and academic analyses of classical guitar music. I was pleasantly surprised, and am very grateful to each and every one of you for your interest in this blog-it is very much appreciated! Wishing you a happy, healthy, and all-around fantastic New Year!

I will end my last blog post of 2018 with perhaps my favorite New Year’s quote of all time:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

-Neil Gaiman

Reading the Score

Despite my best efforts to read the score as I practice, it can be very easy for me to get so fixated on the notes that I forget to look at the other indications written on the music. Because of this tendency, I decided to spend some time reading everything written on all the music in my repertoire and looking up any term or indication that I didn’t understand. Even though I’ve done this before, I was pleasantly surprised how helpful it was to learn the meaning of indications on the score. It transforms your relationship with the pieces that you are working on, helps immensely with interpretation, improves your overall knowledge of music, and you even learn some phrases in Italian, Spanish, German, French, and other languages! See below for some of the musical terms (in no particular order) that I found and their approximate definitions-some are common and quite obvious, while others are a bit more obscure.

Maestoso: majestically

Leggiero: lightly

Andante: relaxed, moderate tempo (around 64-72 bpm)

Espressivo: expressively

Diminuendo: gradual decrease of volume

Con moto: with motion

Rallentando: gradual slowing down

Poco: a little

Subito: suddenly

Tranquillamente: quietly

Dolce e calmo: sweetly and quietly

Un poco mosso: less motion/slower tempo

Gallardo: elegantly

Cantado: in a singing/lyrical style

Pesante: heavy, important, pondering

Cediando: more relaxed

Allegro: fast, lively

Gallardamente: in a brave or heroic manner

Prelude: beginning of a work, improvisation written down

Allemande: German dance in 4/4, moderate tempo, flowing, polyphonic, starts on upbeat

Courante: Lively French dance in 3/4, starts on a pickup note

Sarabande: slow and stately Spanish dance in 3/4, starts on downbeat

Bourrée: French dance, lively, each phrase starts on the downbeat of 4

Gigue: fast English and Irish dance with imitation and wide skips

Vivace Molto: very lively, faster than Allegro

Meno Molto: less motion

Con cadenza: with ornaments or freely

Molto: much, very

Rubato: slight speeding up and slowing down of tempo, means “stolen time” in Italian

Poco Piu Mosso: a little more quickly

Allegro unmoristico: humorous allegro

Ritmico: rhythmically

Quasi ad libitum: at your pleasure

Tenuto: sustain for longer than written

Vivace: lively and fast

I’istesso mov.: same tempo

Sempre: consistent

A piacere: at the discretion of the performer

Marcato: louder

Con slancio: with enthusiasm

Marcatiss.: very strong accent

Sforzando (sf, sfz): sudden accent

Assai: very

Piùten: more tenuto

El bajo un poco marcado: the bass a little marked (accented)

Ad libitum: at your pleasure

Allargando: to broaden or play slightly lower

Piú mosso: more quickly

Poco meno: a little less quickly

Poco a poco: gradually, literally “little by little”

Senza: without

Vivo: lively, animated, brisk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artistic Integrity

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the concept of artistic integrity. What does it mean for an artist (or musician, writer, painter, illustrator, etc) to have artistic integrity? Is it a relatively black and white concept (like integrity), is it more subjective (like art), or is it something in between? What about the dilemma of how far an artist will or should go in order to please an audience and sustain a career? As a result of asking these questions and doing some reading and thinking, I thought I would compile some of my ideas on this topic in the hope of better defining what this concept means for me, as well as to share some of what I have learned along the way.

To possess artistic integrity is to embrace the contradiction between exquisite detail and boundless freedom. As a classical guitarist, I spend countless hours practicing and refining my technique with the goal of transcending technique. In my interpretations, I dedicate myself to learning about the composer, period, and style, while also assimilating my own musical ideas into the rich and highly textured fabric of musical influences present in a given piece. Classical musicians, like artists, walk a tightrope between respecting the traditions of the past and utilizing their individual musical aesthetic to create a body of work that is firmly grounded yet unmistakably original. In my live performances and teaching, I strive to share the fruits of my work and communicate the passion, love, and inspiration that I feel as a result of playing the classical guitar. For me, this involves performing and teaching music that I deeply enjoy, as well as discussing relevant background information about the music in a way that is both engaging and educational. It is vitally important to be true to myself, aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and to conduct myself in a manner that is professional, ethical, and morally sound. It is of the utmost importance to listen to my moral compass, artistic intuition, and common sense to make the choices that are right for my artistic journey. As a musician, I am continuously grateful that my chosen occupation involves bringing joy and beauty to others through the music that I perform, teach, and write about. In order to do this, it is crucial for me to cultivate my love of music, appreciation for beauty, and desire to learn more about music and other topics of interest. One of the wider reaching implications of being a musician with artistic integrity is that your work is not just a career. Instead, it is an all-encompassing lifestyle in which living, learning, and creating are interconnected.

Ultimately, artistic integrity, both for myself and the art form of music as a whole seems predicated on one word: balance. To be a musician requires being exacting yet expressive; learning from the past while developing your unique voice; keeping an open mind but staying true to your core principles; having the tenacity to devote extended amounts of time to something that does not always compute according to the standards of the world, and the courage to spread the word about your music. Although musicians perform for audiences and depend on pleasing their audience in order to sustain a career, a musician that has artistic integrity will not change the essence of their work for the sake of his or her listeners. Paradoxically, this commitment to strong artistic principles is often what attracts the audience in the first place.

To have artistic integrity, it is necessary for a musician to be able to work towards opposing ideas while also firmly maintaining their moral and artistic principles. To be artistic generally refers to the skill of possessing creativity or a refined sense of aesthetics, while being a person of integrity presupposes the character traits of honesty and moral uprightness. Thus, the concept of artistic integrity nicely illustrates the need for balancing an open mind with the establishment of clear boundaries. Musicians, like all people, should strive to be good, honest, and ethical people who prioritize upholding their values in every aspect of their lives, including in their art.

As you can see, I haven’t yet been able to settle on one particular definition. Instead, I attempted to outline some of the conclusions that I have reached in my exploration of the concept of artistic integrity. It is a truly fascinating topic, and writing about it has both solidified my understanding of the concept and also left me with more questions. I would love to hear your thoughts on this broad, intriguing, and important topic-how do you define artistic integrity for yourself and/or your work?

 

 

Prelude #6 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 6 is the last prelude to be analyzed in this six part series on Manuel Ponce’s Preludes. It is my favorite of Ponce’s first 6 Preludes because of its beautiful melody, intriguing musical structure, and cohesive sound despite not being written in a song form. Like Prelude No. 5, Prelude No. 6 is in 2/4, combines modern music, Mexican folk music, and impressionist influences to create a sublime musical whole. The piece primarily uses an 8th note texture and utilizes auxiliary components (a simple introduction from mm 1-3 and a Coda from mm 34-40) but does not follow any traditional song form. Instead, the form of the piece is suggested by the melodic contour of each phrase. The entire composition seems to be derived from the first phrase (mm 4-8) after the introduction, as each subsequent phrase possesses a similar (and at times identical) melodic contour as the first phrase. In addition, this piece is the only one of the 6 Preludes to feature bitonality. The accompaniment is in the tonal center of A major, but the melody is in the key of D minor.

An A pedal tone is present throughout, and the accompaniment acts as a drone that supports the melody, although colorful impressionist harmonies are also present. A change of voice occurs in mm 21-24, in which the melody is played in the bass and middle voices, and a tone color change occurs in mm 29-33, in which the right hand plucks the strings towards the bridge of the instrument, creating a ponticello effect. The Coda consists of cadential material derived from the last two measures of the final phrase before the coda begins, and the piece both begins and ends on the same voicing of an A major chord.

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Overview of 6 Preludes and Conclusion

Manuel Ponce and Andres Segovia’s 6 Preludes reflect the wide reaching influences of their composer, making use of elements from Mexican and Spanish folk music, 20th century music, the impressionist music of Debussy and Ravel, and the unique characteristics of the guitar. The irregular phrases that occur throughout the work and the relatively small pitch range and lyricism of the melodies are elements from Mexican and Spanish folk music. The 20th century music influence can be seen most clearly in Prelude No. 3 and Prelude No. 6, neither of which ascribe to a traditional song form. In addition, Prelude No. 3 uses pantonality and Prelude No. 6 uses bitonality, two primarily 20th century harmonic concepts. The impressionist influence can be seen throughout the work in the often unusual and extended harmonies chosen for the accompaniment. The profound dynamic and tone color changes in Preludes 1, 2, 4, and 6, the change of voice in the melodies of Preludes No. 1 and No. 6, the use of harmonics in Prelude No. 2, and the use of open strings in Preludes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are all notable examples of Ponce and Segovia’s exploitation of the musical potential of the guitar. This extraordinary synthesis of styles and compositional approaches demonstrates Segovia and Ponce’s virtuosic skills, creativity, and commitment to musical excellence.

Some Cool Resources

Hope you enjoyed this mini-series on Ponce’s 6 Preludes! If you would like to learn more about Ponce, Segovia, the 6 Preludes, or any related topics, I highly recommend checking out the following resources:

“A History of Western Music” (somewhat pricy but an excellent and comprehensive resource for any music-related research) http://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603

“The Influence of Folk Music in Guitar Compositions by Manuel Ponce” by Arnoldo Garcia Santos. Absolutely fascinating dissertation on how folk music influenced Ponce’s compositional style!

“The Classical Guitar in Paris: Composers and Performers c. 1920-1960” by Duncan Robert Gardiner. Excellent thesis on the leading guitarists and composers in Paris working during the mid 20th century!

“Preludes (24) for Guitar” by Blair Johnston. Brief yet very informative overview of Ponce and Segovia’s Preludes. https://www.allmusic.com/composition/preludes-24-for-guitar-mc0002462700

“The Segovia-Ponce Letters” by Andres Segovia and Manuel Ponce. Fascinating book that is a great window into Segovia’s collaboration with many notable composers, including Manuel Ponce. https://www.amazon.com/Segovia-Ponce-Letters-English-Spanish/dp/0936186291

 

 

 

Prelude No. 5 by Manuel Ponce

The second to last piece in this series is Prelude No. 5, which is in 2/4 time, features the creative use of open strings, modal mixture, wide intervals in the melody, and has few definitive cadences. The piece is also in three-part song form (Simple Introduction, A, B, A’, Postlude), utilizes an eighth note texture throughout, and features irregular phrases. Like the preceding Prelude, the tonality of Prelude No. 5 is a modal mixture between B minor and B major, although in this piece B minor is the primary tonality. The combination of diatonic and secondary dominant chords with extended and Neapolitan chords, as well as the ambiguity of the cadences, demonstrate the intriguing blend of classical, folk, and impressionist influences that are an important characteristic of this work. See below for my analysis of Prelude No. 5:IMG_0488

Prelude No. 4 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 4 is a fast and lively piece in 3/8 and is written in regular three-part song form. The texture of the piece is primarily eighth notes. All phrases are irregular, the piece is primarily a modal mixture of the parallel keys of B major and B minor, the melody is similar in character to a Spanish gypsy song, and the harmonies include Neapolitan and extended chords. These developments exemplify the combination of folk, impressionist, and modern influences that is a constant throughout the work. The A section (mm 1-15) utilizes a B pedal tone from mm 1-7 and the harmonic accompaniment alternates between B major and B minor throughout the A section. This is followed by a transition that consists of an unaccompanied scale passage from mm 16-21 that leads into the B section. The B section features a stark change of texture to a largely unaccompanied melody from mm 25-28 that possesses characteristics that are similar to melodies sung in the style of Cante Jondo, a vocal and poetic style of Andalusian flamenco music that is known for setting melodies of a small pitch range to lyrics that typically convey deeply emotional subject matter. Like most Cante Jondo music, the melody features a narrow range and is primarily unaccompanied. Shortly thereafter, the key changes to G# minor, the relative minor of B major, and there is an extended half cadence from mm 33-36 leading to a varied repetition of the melody that first appeared in mm 25-28. There is also an F# pedal tone and impressionistic chord voicings from mm 41-49. The first phrase of the A section (A’) comes back in slightly modified form from mm 53-58, which is followed by a ten measure Coda that alternates between B major and its neapolitan chord, C major, ending on an imperfect authentic cadence in B major.

For more on Flamenco and Spanish gypsy music, check out this dissertation: https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1846&context=dissertations (go to pages 5-6 to learn more about Cante Jondo music)

Prelude No. 3 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 3 is in several ways a composition that is significantly distinct from the other five Preludes. It is the only Prelude in this work that is completely through composed, meaning that there are no definitive sections and each phrase is different while also exhibiting some commonalities. It also is the shortest Prelude, consisting of only 19 measures, and has the slowest tempo of the 6 Preludes, being played at a graceful and somewhat free Andante. In addition, it is in F# major, which has more sharps than any of the other keys used in this work. Unifying factors in this piece include the melody being either unaccompanied or very lightly accompanied, sometimes by a bass line and occasionally by chords, which for the most part tend to be placed at the end of phrases to give the piece a sense of momentum. Also, imitation between the melody and bass line or the bass line and melody occurs in measures 1-3, 8-9, and measure 15. Phrases 2 and 4 have a similar melodic contour, as well as phrases 3 and 5. Phrases 1, 3, and 5 are irregular, though phrases 2 and 4 are of the normal four-measure length. A brief modulation to the chromatic mediant bIII key occurs in measures 10-11, before quickly modulating back to the tonic. Measure 17 uses pantonality, which is the use of nonfunctional and chromatic harmonies, to set up an imperfect authentic cadence that ends the piece. See below for my analysis of Prelude No. 3 (as well as the first 13 measures of Prelude No. 4):

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Prelude No. 2 by Manuel Ponce

Like the first Prelude, Prelude No. 2 is also in three-part song form, though instead of the typical three-part song form in which the A section comes back in some capacity, this piece goes to a section that contains some material from the A section but seems to be too distinct to be labeled as the return of the A section. Because of this, I have analyzed the musical structure of Prelude No. 2 as A, B, C. This piece is played at a rapid tempo in 3/8 meter, is in the key of A major, makes extensive use of motives, and also features dramatic contrasts in dynamics. The A section (mm 1-12) consists of an expanded contrasting period in which the first and second phrases are sequences of each other; the second phrase starts and ends a step lower than the first phrase.

The B section (mm 13-30) derives its character from a two-measure motive that repeats throughout the entire section. The melody of phrases 2 and 3 of the B section use the exact same melodic and rhythmic pattern as phrase 1 of the B section, though the melody is stated a minor third above in phrase 2 and a major second below in phrase 3. This melody is accompanied by a descending bass line and light harmonic accompaniment in phrase 1 of the B section, a stepwise bass line and equally sparse harmonic accompaniment in phrase 2 of the B section, and harmonies based on the dominant in mm 21-22 and mm 27-30 and bVI chromatic mediant chord in mm 23-26. In addition, a gradual and long crescendo occurs throughout the entirety of the B section. The C section begins with a one measure motive from measure 1 of the A section, though this time it is played an octave lower. The second phrase of the C section is a modification of a motive from the third phrase of the A section. This phrase also modulates to the chromatic mediant bVI key. The third phrase of the C section modulates back to the tonic and makes use of harmonics, while the fourth and final phrase of the C section begins with the same motive that began the section, although this motive is transposed a perfect fifth lower than its first appearance in the C section. The piece ends on a perfect authentic cadence. Recurring themes of this piece include the repetition and variation of rhythmic and melodic motives. These characteristics combine with the fast tempo to create a restless and driving rhythmic feel that contrasts with both the preceding and upcoming Preludes.

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Prelude #1 by Manuel Ponce

In the spring of last year, I analyzed the first set of 6 Preludes by Manuel Ponce as part of an assignment for a Form and Analysis class at Nyack College. Fast forward about a year and a half, and I am now preparing to apply to graduate schools, most of which require writing samples as part of the application. As a result, I’ve been looking over some of the papers that I had written and came across this analysis of the first set of Ponce’s Preludes. After doing some editing on this project, I thought that I would share my analysis of each Prelude on this blog in the form of a series of posts, each of which will discuss one Prelude. See below for my analysis of Prelude #1:

Prelude No. 1 is a mid-tempo piece in the key of F# minor that uses regular three-part song form (A, B, A’, Coda) and is in 4/4 time. The A section (mm 1-8) begins by stating the opening phrase in the tonic key with a two-measure phrase extension, followed by a restatement of the first phrase, this time in the chromatic mediant biii key and without the phrase extension. This section contains a primarily eighth note texture with sparse accompaniment. The B section (mm 9-16) is of a markedly different character than the A section, featuring a repetitive 1 measure rhythmic and melodic motive, as well as rapid key, dynamic, and tone color changes in the first phrase of the B section. The second phrase of the B section returns to the tonic key and features a bass line in mm 13-14 that ascends the natural minor scale by step from the tonic up to the tonic an octave higher. This bass line is supported by diatonic harmonies and an eighth note upper voice, all of which propel the phrase to a definitive half cadence in measure 16. In addition, a change of voice occurs in measure 15, where the melody is placed in the middle voice. The A’ section (mm 17-19) consists of an exact repetition of the first phrase of the A section. This is followed by the Coda (mm 20-26), which consists of an F# pedal tone, a variation of the 1 measure rhythmic motive from the first phrase of the B section, and a phrase extension from mm 24-26. The section ends on an extended plagal cadence in the tonic key.

 

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