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.


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.

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