Overview – Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue
Video in preparation
Allemande (German dance)
Allemande literally means “German”. A baroque Allemande is a stately dance in duple time.
It’s quite hard to get the speed of this movement right. The preceding Prelude has four beats to the bar, but this Allemande is definitely in 2/2. There must never be heavy beats on the second and fourth crotchets of the bar. In all recordings I have ever heard of the suite, the Allemande is by far the longest movement (sometimes over twice the length of the others!), but watching the video of people dancing makes me wonder whether it could be played much faster to make the length more comparable to the other movements. It’s true that an allemande is a slow dance, but Bach has already limited the speed by subdividing each beat into eight; you don’t have to slow down the semiquavers themselves.
This movement modulates to more distant keys than the other dance movements in the suite which all follow a similar harmonic structure. I don’t mind admitting that I have always found this the most elusive movement in the suite to understand, but after nearly forty years I think it is finally starting to reveal its secrets.
After the first spread chord, Bach states a four note motif A-G-F#-G. It’s based on the falling and rising 2nd that comes at the start of the Prelude, but in this movement it nearly always has the additional note attached (as it has when it occurs near the start of the second half of the Prelude). To prove it was no accident, Bach hides the motif at the same pitch in bar 3, and again twice more in bar 5. (The end of bar 4 has it transposed up a 2nd).
Most of the second half of the Allemande is constructed from this motif. I count no less than eighteen appearances between bars 18 and 28. And because you can make it sound stylish by playing it separate, by slurring the first three notes, or by slurring the last three notes, it gives you a mind boggling number of choices. It doesn’t sound good if you slur all four notes together. (The 1950 Bärenreiter edition continually opts for slurring one bow to a beat but this bears no relation to any of the original sources. I feel it blurs the harmony and is not the sort of interpretation I am searching for.)
Most of the manuscripts slur A-G-F# in the opening statement of the motif, but I like Kellner’s version where the motif is played separate and then there is a slur over the rising scale that fills the rest of the bar. It helps the motif to stand out. Slurring G-F#-G in the midst of separate notes in bars 3 & 5 has the same effect in reverse. The cheeky slur across the beat in bar 3 is almost the only example where that happens in the sources. Syncopations are not usually a feature of allemandes.
I used to think that there wasn’t much thematic material shared between the Allemande and the other movements in the G major suite, but now I think that bar 8 and subsequent bars are based on the bariolage music in the Prelude. All of a sudden the falling thirds that come in the middle of bars 8 and 9, and a beat later in bars 10-12, become the foreground, rather than the filler they seemed to be previously.
And now I realise the falling thirds come twice in the Sarabande and again in bars 18 & 20 of Menuet I:
Another passage from the Allemande that crops up elsewhere is the end of bar 21 into bar 22 which reappears without alteration in bar 14 of the Sarabande. In fact, by the time you take into account that bar 15 is the first appearance of the cadence I described in the Overview, and bars 26-28 are rhythmically reminiscent of the Courante, it’s clear that the Allemande is just as tightly weaved into the rest of the suite as any of the other movements.
I don’t think I have any particular technical tips to offer to double bass players learning this movement, other than to say you should get to grips with all the other movements first. Once you have tackled the challenges in those pieces, the Allemande doesn’t present much that’s new technically for the left hand, but the demands on your bow control and your interpretative insights make it the hardest movement to play.
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