FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Solo Bach: Phrasing, Rhetoric, and the Sewing Machine

In much of the music of Bach the lines of music often seem almost endless. In contrast to the dance movements, which usually have clearer phrasing, in the Preludes especially the music’s phrasing is often not clearly evident. Sometimes, hundreds and hundreds of notes of the same rhythmic value follow each other uninterruptedly. Bach was a champion of this type of music, and the Preludes of his Solo Cello Suites provide some very good examples of this rhythmic “monotony” that so desperately needs to be structured, organised, broken up into phrases:

  • In the Prelude of Suite I, of the total of 657 notes, only 3 are not consecutive semiquavers.
  • In the Prelude of Suite III, from bars 2.5 – 77 (i.e. the entire main section, between the introduction and coda) we have 895 uninterrupted semiquavers.
  • The Preludes of Suites IV and VI start respectively with 384 and 950 uninterrupted quavers.
  • In the Prelude of the E major Violin Partita, of the total of 1629 notes, 1618 are semiquavers

Even some of the dance movements are only slightly more varied rhythmically. Of the 84 total bars in the Courante of Suite III, 78 are composed of uninterrupted quavers (in sections with 43, 162, 90 and 138 of them respectively). The only interruptions to this constant quaver movement are found in 6 solitary bars, in which we find a total of 8 semiquavers, 4 dotted crotchets and 2 minims (compared to the 477 total quavers in the movement).

In Bach’s b minor Partita for Solo Violin for example (here transcribed for cello), five of the eight movements run a serious risk of sounding like the dreaded sewing machine because of the uninterrupted flow of equal note values as shown in the following table:

SEWING MACHINE RHYTHMS IN BACH B MINOR PARTITA FOR SOLO VIOLIN

MOVEMENT

TOTAL NUMBER OF NOTES

NUMBER OF NOTES OF EQUAL RHYTHMIC VALUE

Double I

380

378 (semiquavers/16th notes)

Courante

476

474 (quavers/8th notes)

Double II

956

953 (semiquavers)

Double III

300

298 (quavers)

Double IV

532

531 (quavers)

 

This is why in Bach, more than in most other composers, we have to really search for and create the phrases, using dynamics, articulations, bowings and the rhythmical micro-freedoms of Rhetorical Delivery to give more structure and make more sense out of the ceaseless flow of notes. Playing the notes “well” is not usually enough and can sound like a boring teacher just reading a textbook aloud to the class. In order to be really effective  – to get the most out of the music – we need  to apply a considerable amount of intelligence to the phrasing.

The music of Bach, especially for solo melody instrument, and even more especially the Preludes, is/are a wonderful test of phrasing ability for performers. Not only do the notes come in constant succession with little rhythmic variety, but also Bach gives almost no phrasing instructions at all apart from the occasional bowing. In fact, playing Bach is almost like an IQ test for musicians in which we are asked to “make as much sense as you can” out of long sequences of rhythmically identical sounds on a page.