Playing Bach’s Cello Suite in G on the double bass – Gigue

Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue

Video in preparation

Gigue (English Dance)

A jig is a lively dance in compound time and it should be full of energy. Here’s a video from YouTube of a couple dancing a baroque Gigue.

For the Gigue in Bach’s Cello Suite in G (it actually looks more like Gique in all the sources), the great composer gives us a dazzling display of descending and ascending sequences – some repeating after half a bar, some after a whole bar. (It is very effective if you make clear which is which by only accenting the middle of the bar when it’s a half bar sequence.) After the first repeat sign we even get nested sequences where a descending half bar sequence gets repeated a tone higher two bars later!

I interpret the bowing in the manuscripts to mean that you should slur pairs of notes when they are adjacent (i.e. a 2nd apart). This usually means the second and third quavers of each half bar (bars 1, 5-6, 13, 15, 17-18, 21-23). In the rising sequences it’s always the first two quavers that are adjacent and in fact some of them (bars 9-10 & 25-26) are backward versions of some of the falling sequences. Slurring the first two quavers of each half bar brings this feature out and provides rhythmic contrast. The semiquavers are always slurred. In bars 2 & 7 all the sources agree that the quavers have staccato dots (a rare marking) so those bars need to be bowed out.

I would not recommend ever slurring three quavers together as indicated throughout the Gigue by Wenzinger in the 1950 Bärenreiter edition. It will lack energy and won’t sound like Bach if you smooth everything out like that. I suppose it’s fair to say that the slurs are a bit ambiguous in some of the manuscripts, but in others they are very clearly marked over only two notes. (The first printed edition interpreted the slurs very imaginatively as a tie over the third and fourth quavers throughout the first half of the dance. This gives it all a syncopated feel that is very funky but unlikely to be what Bach intended!)

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Structurally the Gigue follows the same pattern as all the movements of this Suite from the Courante on. It has its own special cadence (see the Overview for details)

  • in D major at the halfway point,
  • in E minor midway through the second half
  • in G major almost at the end (bars 26-28).

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There are various ways of bowing this cadence but using the same one in all three places will help the audience to recognise these punctuation points.

Before completing the descending arpeggio of the final cadence, Bach inserts an additional codetta, a sequence that repeats initially by the whole bar but eventually by the half bar. This doubling of the pulse as you approach the finishing line serves to propel the music forward towards its thrilling conclusion.

Technical tip for bass players – Using the 4th finger

Bar 32 is very difficult for the left hand. Like most players I can’t stretch major 6ths with 1-3, so using standard technique I always had to shift up for the E and then immediately back for the D which was not ideal. It never sounded clean when playing up to speed. But I discovered I can stretch it using a 4 on the E. Using the 4th finger is an unusual thing to do in thumb position but I find it works if you are playing across two strings. It helps further if I also play the harmonic D in bar 32 with a 4, as that allows me to get my hand into position earlier. I have subsequently used 4 for lots of the spread chords in the Second Cello Suite in D minor. (See page 50 of my book on thumb position for more about using the 4th finger in thumb position.)

I have also experimented with playing the semiquavers in bar 22 with 2-3-4 but it didn’t help as my articulation was not good enough with those fingers. Perhaps you can do better?

Playing Bach’s Cello Suite in G on the double bass – Menuets I & II

Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue

Video in preparation

Menuet I

The menuet or minuet is a stately dance of French origin in triple time. Anybody who has ever played a classical symphony will have come across a minuet before, as almost all symphonies before Beethoven have one as the third movement. I would have liked to include here a video on YouTube of somebody dancing a minuet, but I couldn’t find one that was convincing. Some of them don’t even seem to be dancing in triple time. I did learn that it was considered quite a complicated dance, so your dancers would not thank you if you played it too fast.767E9A44-86DF-4976-8632-4202053F64EB

The two Menuets in Bach’s G major Cello Suite are the perfect pieces for the double bass player who has learnt the fundamentals of thumb position. Using only the three basic hand shapes, it’s possible to play almost all of them without shifting away from thumb on the half string harmonic. (See my book on thumb position for everything you need to know from the basics right through to the most advanced techniques.)

In fact you can play the whole first half of the first Menuet using only diatonic hand shape and a couple of D harmonics. This is an excellent way to start approaching the piece, although eventually you will probably want to use a more sophisticated fingering. (See the Overview for some suggestions.)

As far as bowings are concerned, there is hardly a bar in Menuet I where all four manuscript sources agree, so there is no single correct bowing for this movement. I use four bows in most bars, splitting one of the three beats. That way there is a down bow on the first beat of each bar and the strong-weak-weak feel of the dance comes across. I particularly like separating the quaver from the pair of semiquavers whenever they occur, as is marked in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript.

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Menuet II

The second Menuet is the only movement in the Suite that is not in G major. Bach switches to G minor, but uses an archaic form of the key signature with just a single B flat. Most of the time the E flats are written in as accidentals, but there is ambiguity in the sources over the low Es at the end of bar 3 and 7. Some have them clearly marked as flats but some don’t. That suggests they might be E naturals which gives a distinctly modal flavour. Anna Magdalena marks nothing before the bottom E in bar 3 and then a definite natural sign before the one in bar 7 but that just creates even more uncertainty!

There is less doubt about the bowing for this movement. The first three notes should be slurred and the same thing should happen whenever this falling and rising motif occurs (quavers 1-3 of bars 1, 3, 5 & 7, quavers 2-4 of bars 10 & 12 and quavers 3-5 of bars 13 & 14).

By the time the motif starts on the third quaver in bar 13, it is in the same place as in the opening of the Prelude, and in fact that is the start of a succession of quotes from other movements in the Suite. Bar 15-16 imitates the major key cadences that end both halves of the Sarabande. Bar 17 quotes from the E minor section in the middle of the first Menuet, but the diminished 7th chord resolves into bar 18 the same way as bar 11 resolves into bar 12 in the Prelude. This two bar phrase is repeated twice more in sequence before the movement ends with the cadence that is used in the Allemande, the Courante, Menuet I and the Gigue. Bach has constructed the entire 12 bar passage by quoting from all six other movements. It is genius.

Playing Bach’s Cello Suite in G on the double bass – Sarabande

Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue

Video in preparation

Sarabande (Spanish Dance)

A Sarabande is a slow dance in triple time.

It’s important to find a good speed in the first bar of this movement so that all the semiquavers later on don’t sound rushed. We are aiming for a feeling of serenity throughout the piece. Although the lower notes of the second spread chord are notated as minims, I don’t believe it is necessary to slur into the final quaver of the bar. This slur is not marked in any of the manuscripts and changing bow gives more space for the music to breathe.

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One has to plan how to spread every three note chord in the piece. Is it best to play a single bass note followed by a double stop? Or two double stops that both include the middle note? Or maybe a double stop of the bottom two notes followed by the top note alone? You could even play the three notes one at a time. It’s something to think about because it won’t necessarily sound best to play them all the same way, especially on the double bass where you are having to contend with rapid changes of string length that require marked differences of speed and weight of the bow.

The three crotchet (quarter note) beats of a sarabande have the pattern weak-strong-nothing as can be seen in this video.

Bach adheres strictly to this scheme in the Sarabande in the G major suite. Apart from the three cadences the harmony never changes on the third beat of the bar. It’s possible to bow almost all the movement splitting the first beat so that you have down bows on beats one and two of each bar and up bows everywhere else. This tallies pretty closely with the manuscript sources. (In the first bar where the first beat is only one note, you just need to decide whether you want to start down-down, or to begin on an up bow.)

Even though the movement only lasts 16 bars, Bach still finds room for three cadences each lasting two bars in the same places as in all the movements of this Suite from the Courante on;

  • in the dominant at the end of the first half,
  • in the relative minor midway through the second half,
  • in the tonic at the end.

The harmony changes more often in the cadences and you need two bows to each crotchet (quarter note). You can decide how much you want to bring out the hemiola feel by contrasting the strength of the last beat of bars 7, 11 & 15 with the first beat of 8, 12 & 16.

The pattern of the cadences isn’t the only way Bach’s harmony in the Sarabande quotes from other movements. The first two bars follow the same I-IV-V-I harmony as the first four bars of the Prelude. Bach drives home the point by going round the sequence again, coming back to IV, V and I on the strong second beats of bars 3, 4 and 5.

People who are used to playing music written in later periods might think it’s necessary to join the trills on to the notes that follow. Trills in the classical era are always followed by a resolution but in this sort of music the trills are resting points, and the notes that come after are always upbeats into a new phrase. In fact, apart from the decoration in bar 3, I think it’s best never to slur the strong second beat into any other notes.

Technical tips – the Zig Zag

In this movement, you will often find you have a semiquaver down bow on the first beat of a bar with longer up bows on either side. You need to zigzag through the bow, with the semiquaver taking up a small amount of bow in the middle.

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It’s not a complicated thing to do, but for some reason many players get into problems by trying to get back to one of the ends of the bow. If you do this, the semiquaver gets too much bow. Mastering this style of bowing is essential for playing dotted rhythms in baroque music because hooked bowings are no longer thought stylish. Practise it by playing a repeated sicilienne rhythm.

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Playing Bach’s Cello Suite in G on the double bass – Prelude

Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue


Prelude

The Prelude begins with what is perhaps the most famous phrase in the cello repertoire. Everybody knows this opening. So why do I suggest that people should slur it differently?

Well, firstly it’s very common to hear it played with long slurs, 4 or 8 notes to a bow. People have been playing it like that ever since Casals first reintroduced these suites to the performing repertoire. These are the smooth performances that I referred to in the Overview, and of course they sound beautiful. Performances like these have made people fall in love with this piece so they can’t be wrong.

But I don’t believe it’s what Bach wrote or intended. None of the original sources have these long   slurs. They have one short  slur.

 

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As you can see, it’s not clear exactly where this short slur goes, but nowadays many cellists slur the first three notes as indicated in Wenzinger’s 1950 Bärenreiter edition. (If you slur two or four notes it means that every other phrase will come upside down.) And you can make a nice consistent interpretation of the first half of the movement where you slur the first three notes whenever they occur as a rising arpeggio. In this way, the rising arpeggio becomes the foreground and the rest of the bar becomes the background.

But I like a different solution. Look again at the first source above, Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript. The slur is on the other motif in the bar, the falling and rising 2nd. If you slur the third, fourth and fifth notes of the bar, this motif becomes the foreground. And once again you can make a consistent interpretation throughout the first half of the movement, but now it makes more sense in bar 11, and more importantly you are setting up this motif for the important rôle it plays in the rest of the suite.

I realise I don’t have much evidence for this point of view. After the first bar Anna Magdalena only starts the slur on the third note in one other bar (bar 11) and all the other sources start the slur from the first or second note. But when I started playing it this way, it suddenly sounded more natural than ever before. You can hear how it sounds in my video performance.

The second half of the Prelude is almost a separate piece with very few slurs apart from the falling scales. (Once again, you sometimes hear smooth performances where all the open strings are slurred in during the bariolage in bars 31-38, but that’s not in any of the sources.)

Technical tips for bass players – Contact point

In the opening, you need to get every note to sound with a good tone. The string length changes hugely between the open G string and the top notes. You have to find the right contact point for the bow on the string, playing the open string near the end of the fingerboard and then moving to the bridge for the top notes.

In the bariolage it’s a challenge playing all the recurring As and Ds on the bass because for us they are harmonics, not open strings. I like to keep the string crossings in, so I start in bar 31 by simultaneously playing a harmonic A and a stopped D with the thumb at the neck. (See page 45 of my book on thumb position.) A couple of bars later you have to switch to the other harmonic A, a bit like suddenly moving from swinging on one trapeze to catch another. It’s tricky but fun to do. In bar 38, when the notes get too far from the harmonic D I used to play it with my chin, but now I prefer to just let the open D string sound instead and I continue doing that until the end of the movement.

Playing Bach’s Cello Suite in G on the double bass – Overview

Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue


My performance of the
Prelude


Like many musicians, I have found myself drawn to playing a lot of solo Bach during these last few weird months when musicians have been unable to play together because of the coronavirus pandemic. We are fortunate to possess these masterpieces that allow you to enjoy a wholly satisfying musical experience in isolation. For me, it’s been an opportunity to return yet again to a piece I’ve been working on since my youth.

In this series of posts I’m going to give my thoughts on playing Bach’s G major Cello Suite. Now as I’m a double bass player some may think it presumptuous for me to try to tell people how to play music written for another instrument, but in my defence I would say that I’ve been trying to play this piece for nearly forty years. At Trinity Laban Conservatoire, where I’m a professor of double bass, students are required to present some unaccompanied Bach for one of their end of year exams and I always make my students learn a Bach suite at the original pitch. It’s a wonderful way to enrich your soul while stretching your technique.

For cellists, Bach’s 1st Suite is technically fairly straightforward – you can play the majority of it in first position – but for double bass players it’s a serious challenge to play these pieces at the original pitch. I’ve had to develop new techniques to play them as cleanly as I want – crabbing, new hand shapes, using my 4th finger in thumb position, etc – and my book on thumb position is full of excerpts from Bach to illustrate these unusual ways of playing. Luckily we have an open G string and harmonics on D and A to play the role of the cello open strings. If you have a C string extension it can provide a harmonic at the pitch of the cello’s bottom string. These possibilities make life easier for the left hand, but using them causes sudden changes in string length for which you need skillful bow control.

As a result, I’ve had to engage with Bach’s music very thoroughly, and I would like to think it’s given me a few insights that might have escaped the notice of someone who can more or less sightread the first suite. I also think it helps that in my day job as an orchestral bass player I have played Bach’s other masterpieces many, many times. Playing the concertos, suites and in particular the great choral works gives you a strong instinct for Bach’s style. You know that vocalists must be getting the phrasing right, because the words show them how it needs to be done.

The performances of the solo suites you most frequently hear are by full time solo cellists. These interpretations invariably sound beautiful, but they don’t play Bach the way I am used to hearing it. I suppose it’s possible that some solo cellists never play any of his other works. Very often they slur lots of notes together, producing something that’s very smooth on the ear. It’s takes great mastery of your instrument to achieve this and it’s ideal for playing melodies by Rachmaninov, Brahms or Beethoven, but I think Bach needs articulation, especially in the dance movements. Long slurs are few and far between in the original sources – generally only occuring on scales – and, on the whole, slurs only link two or three passing notes where the harmony doesn’t change. (Again, the more you play of his other music, the better you will understand how he harmonises.)

Sources and editions

There is no surviving manuscript in Bach’s own hand, so whichever edition you play of Bach’s Cello Suites, you are viewing the music through the lens of an editor. It is no easy task to discern Bach’s original intentions and I have spent a lifetime trying to approach closer to the great man, step by step.

When I was at school I used to play Samuel Sterling’s arrangements for double bass where the suites are transposed into other keys. After I heard a recording of the great French bass player François Rabbath playing a movement at cello pitch I started transposing back into the original key. I soon realised that it was pointless playing a transposition of a transposition, so I went out and bought a cello edition, edited by my favourite cellist at the time, Paul Tortelier. Later on, a fellow student told me that Bärenreiter was best for Bach, so I acquired their 1950 edition edited by August Wenzinger which is still available. It’s quite frustrating that many people think this is an Urtext edition with the same level of scholarship as Bärenreiter’s excellent Neue Mozart Ausgabe and other Urtexts, because in fact it is very old-fashioned and not at all close to Bach’s intentions. I realised that when I saw an edition by International that printed Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript opposite each movement.

However, Bärenreiter excelled themselves in 2000 when they produced a deluxe critical edition that contained no fewer than four separate manuscript sources, a facsimile of the first printed edition, and a performing part that shows all the discrepancies between these five sources. This is the part I now play from. (There is also going to be a brand new edition that puts all five sources for each movement on one page. This might be more convenient than hunting between the separate sources in the edition I own, but as it only fits two lines of music on each page it is more suitable for scholarly study than for performing from.)

Fortunately, all these early sources are now available for free on IMSLP so anybody can consult them without buying expensive editions. The five sources occasionally disagree on notes, but the bowings differ greatly from source to source and are carelessly indicated in places. In fact they vary so much that Bärenreiter wisely chose not to put any slurs in the performing part of their critical edition, leaving the individual performer to make their own decisions based on the manuscript sources. Choosing which source you believe can be very difficult, and if you accept that every source has errors in places, it may mean that there are places where they are all wrong!

General notes about the suite

Like all Bach’s cello suites, the G major suite consists of a Prelude, followed by five dance movements. It’s worth investigating these dances as the names given to the movements are the only clues we have to suggest how the music should be played. (Any tempo marks you see have been added by editors, and there are no dynamic marks in the manuscripts of the first five cello suites.) Understanding the style of the dance should give you an idea of the tempo and maybe suggest a basic bowing that would be suitable for each movement. We don’t really want any ‘upside down’ bowings where strong beats are consistently falling on up bows.

The genius of the music is that the single musician provides the melody, the harmony and the rhythm on their own. The aim is to play with light and shade to contrast the material that belongs in the foreground from the music that belongs in the background. Which notes are the real melody and which notes are there to keep the rhythm ticking along?

There are various motifs which occur throughout the suite which give the whole work a sense of unity. The very first bar has two of them. It starts with a spread G major chord followed by a falling and rising 2nd. (I might as well come clean at this point and say that I’m going to argue for a way of slurring this bar that almost nobody else does.)

This spread chord opens four of the six movements: 

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The falling and rising 2nd is a feature of the Allemande, the Courante, the second Menuet and in other places, often occurring starting on the third note of the bar.
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Another important motif with a falling scale, a rising 3rd and a falling 7th can be found at many cadence points in the suite:
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The Sarabande has a variant of it which ends with the 3rd resolving upward before dropping an octave. This variant can also be found in the second Menuet.
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To round things off nicely, the Gigue adds the falling and rising 2nd motif into the cadence:
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It fascinates me that this three note motif begins and ends the suite. It comes right at the start of the Prelude and then makes its appearance later and later in each subsequent movement. Did Bach consciously plan this? Who knows how a great composer conceives his works of genius! 

There are many other short bursts of melody which recur between movements. Noticing where they happen can influence how you interpret a particular phrase, so that you have a consistent approach across the suite. You might also find that playing a phrase in a different context gives you a solution to a technical problem that you hadn’t thought of previously. So learning the suite becomes an iterative process, where improving one movement can lead to changes in another movement. It’s a lifetime of discovery.

Technical tips for bass players – Crabbing & Minor hand shape

When I first played this suite, I played most of it with my thumb on the half string harmonic G, shifting up for the occasional top note. The more I have worked on it, the more passages I have found where it helps to crab the thumb up from harmonic D on the D string to A on the G string. This helps to remove unwanted portamenti when shifting. It enables you to obtain a clean performance that suits the music better.

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In the following posts I’ll look at the individual movements of the suite. The posts are in Bach’s order, but if you’re a double bass player learning these pieces for the first time, I would recommend beginning with the Menuets and then moving onto the Sarabande and the Gigue. Only then should you try tackling the first three longer movements.

 

Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue