27 May 2013

Memorial Day in the USA. Bach’s Suite No. 2 for solo cello in D minor.

People we love; people we love and have lost.

When my mother died, I played this piece for myself and for her. Today, remembering my father, I craved the solace of the minor key, very slow... I play the Prelude and my mind wanders. It’s freeing.

I linger on the first A... That particular note, open string, no fingers, is the most banal note on a cello, the first tuned. Bach transforms it into a lament with the D and F that precede it. Each note that follows is pulled toward the minor against the tuning A. After Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Menuet I, the second Menuet moves into the more relaxed D Major but for only 32 bars. Then back to what otherwise would be the most optimistic movement, the lovely Gigue. This time in D minor it’s as wistful as Bach ever allows himself to be. Even the victorious final run of fast notes to a final D on the A string feels melancholy, not triumphant.

I played the whole thing today after not touching my instrument for a week, long fingernails and all. It felt wonderful to hear it again on this gorgeous Italian cello. I ignored the bowings, the fingerings, the dynamics, even the note lengths, and just winged it – the way, I imagine, Baroque players approached music – the notes only a faint parchment map – the music made up as one went along, according to time and place and what the room allows. I like it that way. I could rip through the rhythmic places and enjoy the underlying drumbeat, sing the sad songs slowly -- after all, unlike a human voice, the cello bow can retake endlessly without pausing for the slightest breath.

In describing the second Suite in his book The Cello Suites  Eric Siblin writes, “in March 1931, after a concert in Geneva, Casals was handed a telegram that brought news of his mother’s death.”

A month later “...elections ended the monarchy. The Second Spanish Republic, desperately desired by Casals for so long, had come into being.”

It’s a most satisfying piece to play when you’re feeling blue. It gives one hope.

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