The 6 Cello Suites and 3 Violin Partitas – unlike the 3 Solo Violin Sonatas – are collections of dance movements.
Each of the 6 Cello Suites has 6 movements which always follow the same order of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, two short contrasting dances in A-B-A form (collectively called Galanteries: Minuets for Suites 1 and 2, Bourees for Suites 3 and 4 and Gavottes for Suites 5 and 6), and a Gigue to finish off with. The Violin Partitas are more varied in their movements. Only the E major Partita starts with a Prelude, the other two start directly with an Allemande. All three have as their standard components an Allemande, Courante and Gigue, but with various additional movements not found in the Cello Suites such as Loure (instead of the Sarabande in the E major Partita), Doubles (B Minor Partita) and of course the epic Chaconne in the D Minor Partita.
Normally when we work on our Bach, we practice (or think about it) “in Suites”: one Suite at a time. It is, however, also interesting and useful to change our approach completely by choosing to work sometimes not on one particular Suite, but rather on one particular movement type – for example “the Allemandes”, “the Courantes”, “the Sarabandes” etc. We have six of each to choose from (actually we have 9 of each if we include the Violin Partitas) and although this way of working requires a lot more searching through the many pages, it gives us both a very good idea of the character of each movement type, and a different, wider, global perspective of the Suites in general.
Let’s look now at the structure of the Suites and the characteristics of each of these movement types in more detail. None of the following observations are in any way based on musicology, but are all rather based on the simple experience of playing, listening to, and studying the music.
THE PRELUDES: RHETORIC AND DECLAMATION
In each Suite, there is one movement that is not a dance movement. In the Cello Suites, this is always the first movement, the Prelude. Whereas the five dance movements of each Suite usually have a clear sense of phrasing and a certain obligatory momentum, the Preludes are in another world. Rather than singing and dancing, the Preludes tell stories – often very long philosophical ones. These are the sermons – often serious, epic and monumental – before the festivities commence. Even though they are “sung” by us at the instrument, they actually have more in common with speech, theatre and declamation than with the conventional idea of music.
Sometimes in these Preludes, hundreds and hundreds of notes of the same rhythmic value follow each other uninterruptedly as illustrated in the following examples:
- 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. 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 if we play all the notes perfectly well, if we just play them “in time”, the story we are telling will sound a little monotonous. For the slower movements, this can be like somebody reading aloud from a book without any interest or understanding. For the faster movements, this can be like a sewing machine. As there is no accompaniment, no dancing (real or imagined), and very little melodic singing in the Preludes we can – and probably even should – feel free to take improvisatory, declamatory, rhythmic freedoms, as if, alone on stage, we were an actor telling their life story (see Sing or Speak? Rhetoric in Performance).
But making sense out of these Preludes, making them communicate more than just the notes, by assembling these notes into phrases, requires not just well-chosen doses of rhythmic freedom (rhetoric) but also the well-chosen application of all the other interpretative tools that we have at our disposition: dynamics, articulations, bowings and colour. Bach gives us no help with any of this. For all these reasons, the Preludes of the Bach Solo Suites are possibly some of the best examples in the cello repertoire of the need for interpretative thought. See Phrasing.
All the other movements in the Suites are dances. Even though they may not have actually been danced to in Bach’s time, if we listen carefully it is easy to imagine a scene – and the dancing – for each movement type. We are in a Germanic court festivity, 300 years ago with royalty and high society: formal, overdressed, serious, restrained, polite etc. (at least at the beginning!). This is not the jet set, the Carnival of Rio or a Techno-Rave party, but the music does dance in its old Germanic, Baroque style, and we should never forget that!! Listening to this music we should want to dance, and playing this music, our listeners should at least want to sway …..
An upbeat is often associated with dance music as it is the upbeat that acts as an introduction and gives the tempo that the dancers need in order to prepare themselves. None of the Preludes have upbeats and neither do any of the movements of the three Solo Violin Sonatas. The way we play our upbeat immediately sets not only the tempo but also the atmosphere and character for each of the dance movements. The upbeat is one of the principal elements that characterise each type of dance.
The Allemandes are the first dance in every Suite. Here, the ice is not yet broken, and stately formality, politeness, delicacy and gracefulness are at their height. In 4/4 time, these are normally very unhurried dances with long flowing phrases and irrelevant barlines. Poised, refined, mannered, and full of gentle curtsies, bows and perhaps even hand-kissing, it is as though in these dances, the evening’s participants were graciously presenting themselves to each other before the real festivities (and drinking) commence. The Allemandes of the first five suites have a quarter-note speed of around 60-70 bpm but, curiously, with the bizarre notation (use of tiny note values) of the Sixth Suite Allemande, suddenly this speed becomes the eighth-note speed.
Here, the energy level rises and the real dancing starts. The music has three beats to the bar and is not only faster but also jumpier (in terms of both pitch intervals and the bow). Surprisingly, all of the Courantes (except perhaps in Suite V) seem to benefit from having a long, completely legato upbeat, which functions as though we were pulling on a rubber band before letting it fly off.
Bach’s rhythmic notation choice for the Courante of the Fifth Suite is quite curious. Whereas in the other five suites, it is the quarter-note speed that gives the principal three-in-a-bar pulse, the Courante of the Fifth Suite is notated in 3/2 and it is the half-note that gives this pulse. Another curiosity is that although the Courante of the Third Suite has a considerably faster three-in-a-bar speed than all the other Courantes (170 versus 100, very approximately), if this Courante was notated in 3/8 instead of 3/4, the 16th-note speed would be quite similar to those four “standard” Courantes. Likewise, if the 5th Suite Courante had been notated in 3/4 instead of 3/2 then its 16th-note speed would also have been more or less comparable to the other cello Courantes.
After the fast, energetic Courante, what could be better than “a slow” number to relax and catch our breath. The Sarabande was imported to Europe with great success from Central America where it was originally danced by the indigenous peoples. The agogic accent on the second beat (or on the third beat in the case of the Fifth Suite) that characterises this dance form, was considered so sensual by the catholic church that Sarabande was (sara)banned in Spain in 1583 for being “obscene” ! In Bach’s case, there is absolutely no risk of obscenity: his Sarabandes are the spiritual and philosophical centrepieces – we could even say “the prayers” – not just of his Suites and Partitas but of many of his other compositions as well (Goldberg Variations etc.). All of these Sarabandes seem to want a speed of approximately 50-60 bpm, with that of the Sixth Suite being perhaps even slower.
THE MINUETS, BOUREES AND GAVOTTES
These movements were called the “Galanteries” – a little bit of light relief after the profundity of the Sarabandes. They always come in highly contrasting pairs and the first is always repeated again after the second (A-B-A form). The Minuets are in 3/4 and never have an upbeat. The Gavottes and Bourées are in 4/4. The Gavottes always have a two beat upbeat which doesn’t sound like an upbeat (it sounds confusingly as though the music starts on the first beat of the bar) whereas the Bourées always have a one beat upbeat.
The Gigues are the Grand Slam to finish the party with a blast. By now people are a little (or a lot) drunk, the formality of royal manners dissolves and everybody lets their hair down in a skipping, jumping, rollicking, energetic, laughing free for all. We are a long way (and at the other end of the Suite) from the exaggerated politeness, delicacy and grace of the Allemandes. Some passages are quite wild and sound like hard rock (especially in the Second Suite). All of the Gigues are in compound time (3/8, 6/8, 12/8). This use of ternary rhythms (grouped in threes) gives them this skipping, rolling, light-hearted nature as does their almost unanimous use of the short spiccato upbeat (with the exception of the Fourth Cello Suite).
There are four of these interspersed throughout the b Minor Violin Partita. They have a “moto perpetuo” character that lends itself to sewing machine impersonations when not played with large doses of imagination in phrasing, articulation and rhythmic micro-freedoms.
THE LOURE (E Major Partita)
CONTRASTS BETWEEN MOVEMENTS
Let’s look at some of the principal contrasts that we can find – and need to bring out – in adjacent movements in the Suites
The Sarabandes are always restful after the fast Courantes
The “Galanterie” movements (between the Sarabandes and Gigues) come in pairs which are always greatly contrasting. For example in Suite V the Gavottes are total stylistic opposites (Gavotte I is all chopped accents, chords and string crossings while Gavotte II is all slurred, scalic and with no accents nor chords).