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

Overview – PreludeAllemande – Courante – Sarabande – Menuet I & II – Gigue

Video in preparation


Courante (Italian dance)

Courante literally means “running” or “flowing”, like the current of a river. A baroque courante is always in triple time, but can be in the French style – slower, more expressive and usually in 3/2 – or, as here, in the Italian style which is much quicker. This should be the fastest movement of the suite before the final Gigue.

Unfortunately the videos I have seen online of people dancing a courante are all either in the French style or in duple time.

Around half the bars of this movement end with a little scale of 3 or 4 semiquavers and it’s good to bow them in a way that offers a consistent interpretation. Anna Magdalena Bach offers two different bowings in the first line of her manuscript. In bar 1 she slurs all the six semiquavers together, but in bars 3 & 4 she changes bow on the beat (presumably taking another down bow on the first pair of semiquavers):

All editors since have chosen to use Anna Magdalena’s first bowing throughout the Courante, but I think it gives the music more pulse to use the second bowing, especially when the musical line changes direction as it does in bars 1 & 3. (The preference is less clear-cut when the six semiquavers all ascend, like in bar 4, or all descend, as in bar 8.)

So throughout the movement I make sure the little scales of four semiquavers on the third beat always come on an up bow. And I do the same when they come in the cadence figure that I described in the Overview. From the Courante on, all the movements have similar harmonic structures with cadences

  • In the dominant at the first double bar
  • In the relative minor halfway through the second half
  • In the tonic at the end

In fact, in the Courante the final cadence in the tonic comes twice with a six bar codetta separating the two appearances.

One particularly attention-grabbing harmonic detail during the E minor section is Bach’s use of Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened 2nd, F natural) in bars 25-26. The long D# (the longest note in the movement other than those that end the cadences) creates suspense that leaves the listener wondering what might happen next.

The other bowing that features throughout the movement is the 3 slurred, 1 separate pattern that first comes in bar 11. All the manuscripts have this. The slur of the last 3 notes of the bar to get back to the heel is only seen sporadically in the sources but I still think it might be a good idea.

In bars 31-32 Bach suddenly introduces music based on the Prelude. It’s nice to bring that out by bowing these bars in a way that matches whatever you did in that movement. (This might be compromised if you’re playing on the bass because of the string crossings. The best way I have found of playing these bars is to have your 3rd finger on the half string harmonic and play the top A with thumb on the D string harmonic.)

Technical tips

The main difficulty with the Courante is getting it up to speed. In the Overview I suggest some crabbing fingerings that will improve fluency by removing the shifts within semiquaver runs. But like with all fast music, the main thing is not to try and play it too fast too soon. If you practise at a speed where you can play it all accurately, you will reinforce the right pathways in your brain, develop myelin around those pathways while you sleep, and find that you can take the tempo up a notch the next time you practise.

6 thoughts on “Playing Bach’s Cello Suite in G on the double bass – Courante

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