Bach After 40

January 28, 2016, 9:03 PM · When I started studying viola again after a 25+ year hiatus, I re-started with the Bach Cello Suites with the goal of being able to play them all with some level of competancy before I turned 40. Needless to say "some level of competancy" was a stretch of the imagination at the time for some of the movements, especially the 6th Suite. For many years after reaching my initial goal, I put intense study of the Suites aside for the most part, only pulling them out once a year over the winter holidays to keep them under my hand, and to delve into a movement or two every few years.

Flash forward half a decade later...

The teacher of the violinist in the piano quartet I play with puts on a studio recital for her adult students every few months. Over the past year or so it has morphed into a "adult students and friends of the students" studio recital. OK OK.... it is an excuse for us older folks to get together, play some music and socialize.

The latest recital just before Christmas was right about the time when I do my yearly "dusting off of the Suites", so I thought I'd do a "Bingo Bach" for the recital. I wrote on note cards a Suite number in one batch and a movement number on a second batch. The audience then would pick a Suite and then a movement that I would play. Luckily the 6th Suite wasn't pulled. My lucky escape from embarassing myself got me thinking that it was time to finally do the 6th Suite musical justice.

The first major decision was what key to play it in - G or the original D. I decided on G as it was difficult enough and generally sounds better in the transposed G without resorting to buying a 5-string viola.

The second major decision was what edition to work from. I have a total of 5 in my library ranging from a "urtext" for cello to IMH and everywhere in between. I decided upon the Peter's edition, but have kept all the others out for comparison. It is interesting to see how different editors have interpreted this Suite for a 4-stringed instrument as interpretaion can vary quite widely in both bowing and even notes!

My third major decison was how I wanted to interpret the piece. I've been inspired by Lillian Fuch's and Rostropovich's interpretations for years and wanted to take a bit of both and make them my own.

Rostropovich:

Lillian Fuch playing in original D on viola:

With such a lofty goal, I started slowly and to be honest quite painfully. Bach leaves no room for intonation nor other technical errors. For me there have been three major challenges in this piece: the octave arpeggios (intonation), dynamics (forte-piano-forte within a beat), and phrasing. To my (an my teacher's) surprise and delight, the chords in the final measures were spot-on intonation-wise and only needed a bit of extra oomph.

It took several weeks to get the octave arpeggios in-tune and another week or so to get the dynamic changes closer to where I (and my teacher) want them to be. The phrasing in places still baffle me on how to execute, but I think I'm starting to understand a bit more on how to make it happen.

More than a decade later after first trying this piece, I think I'm finally starting to do it some justice.

Replies

January 30, 2016 at 07:16 PM · I'm guessing you probably know what the great cellist Pablo Casals said, in his 90s, when someone asked, why do you keep practicing solo Bach on a daily basis?

"Because I think I'm starting to make some progress!"

January 31, 2016 at 05:43 PM · Thank you for this post, Mendy. I am new to the viola but am determined to do it justice. I'm always on the lookout for music that will prove to certain other people that the viola has merit. Of course, it will be a long time before I can do ANY of the Cello Suites justice.

January 31, 2016 at 10:15 PM · A couple of months ago I bought a viola and I wanted an edition of the Bach Suites. Ideally I would have bought Valerie Arsenault's edition if it were available for viola, but as far as I know, it's only for violin.

When I was at Shar in December, I browsed their editions, and the one by William Primrose caught my eye, simply because he's a famous violist. This edition contains the first five suites. In the notes, Primrose explains that the sixth suite is "totally unsuited to the viola" and "as far as the viola is concerned it is imprudent to attempt it, for the results are usually deplorable."

So, if your playing of the sixth suite is any better than deplorable, you're likely in fine company.

Even on the four-string cello, Primrose writes, "The outcome of the struggle is predictable, while arousing Aristotelian terror and pity in the beholder..."

Primrose suggests transposing the 6th suite into G Major as a workaround, as you are doing.

February 1, 2016 at 11:35 AM · I was just wondering why you would dive into cello music,especially written by someone like JSB, when your instrument was viola?

February 3, 2016 at 06:14 PM · Lovely post, thank you!

I'm with Primrose. Not that it can't be played on viola but it sounds like a virtuoso showpiece instead of the sweet, calm, dance-like quality it should have.

Bach wrote it for a 5 string instrument and it really should be played on 5 strings. (And BTW 5 string violas can be bought from China on ebay quite inexpensively -- it may be worth owning one just for this piece!).

Moreover, if one is going to make the musical sacrifice to play on 4 strings, I would argue that playing it on a violin and transposing notes at the bottom of the range is the better choice.

It can be played much more gently and musically on the violin; it sounds bright and clean and effortless on a violin. On a viola it is simply tedious to subject people to so many notes high on the A string in 6th-8th position.

I say this as someone who plays both violin and viola; I love the viola and I love the suites. But the 6th really belongs to either a 5 string instrument or the violin.

February 3, 2016 at 06:14 PM · I'm with Primrose. Not that it can't be played on viola but it sounds like a virtuoso showpiece instead of the sweet, calm, dance-like quality it should have.

Bach wrote it for a 5 string instrument and it really should be played on 5 strings. (And BTW 5 string violas can be bought from China on ebay quite inexpensively -- it may be worth owning one just for this piece!).

Moreover, if one is going to make the musical sacrifice to play on 4 strings, I would argue that playing it on a violin and transposing notes at the bottom of the range is the better choice.

It can be played much more gently and musically on the violin; it sounds bright and clean and effortless on a violin. On a viola it is simply tedious to subject people to so many notes high on the A string in 6th-8th position.

I say this as someone who plays both violin and viola; I love the viola and I love the suites. But the 6th really belongs to either a 5 string instrument or the violin.

February 3, 2016 at 09:40 PM · 81.152.152.70 I'll try to take a stab at an answer to your question. Bear in mind that I haven't been playing viola for very long. Anyone else is welcome to add their own comments.

1. Beautiful music is always subject to transcription. There isn't nearly as much music written for the viola as for the cello and violin, say.

2. Bach's music in particular begs for transcription. Just think of all the Bach transcriptions that you hear on a regular basis.

3. The bowing and speed of response of the viola are similar to those of the cello. Hence transcribing cello music has particular merit.

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