Bach cello suites

May 4, 2020, 10:24 AM · Hello,
I've recently practising Bach's cello suites on my viola (the courante and sarabande from the C major one to be exact). There are 2 problem spots (1 in each mvt). I am struggling with the string crossing in bar 29 of the Courante going from D to C (C to A string). I think there are a few other examples a bit further back. Its driving me mad haha.
The other is a double stop in bar 10 of the Sarabande. There is a G# on the bottom with an open D and first finger B. How do I do that? I've tried it and the d string is stopped by one of the 2 fingers I'm using.
Any suggestions? Would help a lot. Its something I'm learning by myself at the moment.

Replies (25)

Edited: May 4, 2020, 12:08 PM · For the string crossing, I suggest not allowing your bow to touch the G or D strings in between. (Sure, okay, that's obvious.) But there's no magic cure there. I've seen YouTube videos (perhaps even Todd Ehle) talking about how to do this, where it's suggested that you actually pull down on the neck of the violin to pull your strings away from your bow. I've never needed to do that although it's possible I'm doing it subconsciously. There should be studies that you can do on string crossings of this type. I know they exist for violin anyway (Kreutzer etc.). Also listen to cellists perform this music and see if they use "expression" at all to hide the technical problem (i.e., cheating). Consider bowing it the other way?

For the chord, you have to finger that 1-0-2 and you're just going to have to get your elbow far enough your instrument "by any means necessary" as Malcolm X used to say, so that you can stop the G# without stopping the B. Again, watch and listen to cellists so that you can get an idea how they solve this problem and how much time they spend on the G# as well.

May 4, 2020, 12:22 PM · About skipping a string: rather than pulling down your neck (how do you do that?), I recall Bruce Berg here on the forum telling us that you do that by pulling up the bow with the right-hand fingers. If you are unable to do 1-0-2 without one of these fingers still touching your open string, that means your hand position is not 100% OK? Play more on the fingertips?
May 4, 2020, 2:02 PM · Hmm. It wasn't really pulling down the neck. I'm trying to recall and I did a quick but unsuccessful youtube search for it. It was something like pushing up on the violin sharply to sort of propel the bow into the air. I'm not kidding -- I know this sounds weird but I saw a well-regarded teacher do a video on this once. I just can't remember enough to find it.
May 4, 2020, 2:14 PM · There is an excellent string crossing exercise at the beginning of Viola Suzuki Book 5, my teacher gave me this when starting out with the Bach Suites.
May 4, 2020, 2:28 PM · M I've never actually looked at Suzuki books for violin or viola. When it comes to teaching philosophies/training, its not my preferred so
May 4, 2020, 2:30 PM · I didn’t mean for you to adopt the philosophies, the exercise in question is very helpful for working on string crossings without hitting other strings.
Ultimately I find slow practice and watching other players performing these pieces is very handy for self learning.
May 4, 2020, 3:48 PM · I know what you meant haha just kinda felt the need to justify why I'd never looked at one. I always make listening to a recording of whatever piece I am doing, self learning or not, part of my practise
May 4, 2020, 11:52 PM · Skipping over strings. The obvious and tempting solution is to lift the bow, but that runs the risk of "crashing" and bouncing on the next note. If you want to skip over a string and still sound sostenuto, there is a fancy way to do that, that will seem impossible, counter-intuitive at first. Bach is full of those spots. Whenever we do a change of bow direction, with the hair staying on the strings, there is a very short moment when the bow is not moving, not producing sound. We need to synchronize that moment perfectly with the change of string. The bow will do a rocking motion in the hand. Try that rocking motion on all four open strings, without making a sound. How to practice that: In the Courante, add a written eighth rest wherever you need to skip over a string. During the rest prepare both the left hand finger and the bow-level, rocking the hand, and, most important; Leave the bow hair on the strings! Next step: replace those rests with a shorter pause, a comma between the notes. Last step; get rid of the breaks, trust your bow arm. What might happen, which is really weird, is that the left elbow will appear to be moving in the opposite direction of the change in string level! For that specific spot in ms. 29, while you playing the low D, the elbow drops, leads to the A-string level, while the hand moves up, not down towards the A string. Then the forearm whips over very quickly for the up-bow C
May 6, 2020, 8:50 AM · The string skipping? I lighten the bow with the fingers rather than disturb the smooth arm motion. I practice the transitions slowly enough to perceive (i.e. see and feel) every aspect before speeding up.

The chord? The lowest note with a finger more arched than usual; the finger playing the higher note must briefly curl and press the A string t the right rather than down on the fingerboard. The wrist can swing under the neck as soon as possible. Uncomfortable!

May 6, 2020, 8:59 AM · Mazas 11 and Kreutzer 7 are good exercises for string skipping. I have a go at them every now and then.
May 6, 2020, 10:27 AM · Paul that is the fingering I use for that already I think. By pull down do you mean with the arm or finger weight? Adrian, I will need to try that. Thanks all
Edited: May 6, 2020, 10:54 AM · Another little trick for the string crossing bit:
Put the index as a double-stopped fifth (see other thread!...); then if you do just touch the G string and the open D thy will be part of the same D7 chord..

You can also bring down the 3rd finger for the first high C of the measure: less stretch.

May 6, 2020, 10:57 AM · Jake, please forget what I said about "pull down" and accept my apology. That was just totally wrong. I was misremembering something. I don't even remember what I was trying to remember!!
May 6, 2020, 1:40 PM · Lol Paul
May 7, 2020, 6:44 AM · That happens to me often.
May 9, 2020, 1:37 PM · One more remark about the courante: Such passages where the first note is in the bass register, followed by the rest of the bar in "soprano" is supposed to represent two voices: the bass having one note per measure and the melody, made up by the other 5 notes (in the case of this example). I'd recommend to make this clearer by playing the first (bass-)note a little longer, than play the (melody-)notes as belonging together. In other words: Just take your time for the crossing. It won't surprise listeners since the interval is so large. The effect is more convincing when the "bass" is an open string which will keep ringing for a fraction of a second. At any rate, there is a danger that you play that first C (second note of the bar) too early just because you are nervous about achieving the string crossing. Make sure that does not happen; it makes the dancers stumble over their feet. But as I said I'd play that note even a little late.

In the context of this (or any other) courante the Mazas etudes quoted above are indeed good preparation. There are similar passages in other Bach works (double concerto, very first solo for example) and sometimes the context is different and you need to play a continuing melody across such a large interval. In that case the difficulty is less easy to solve. There is a sonata by Vivaldi (op. 2/2 in A) where such a passage occurs. When we were teenagers a group of us had decided to prepare some music and perform it in old folks homes and similar venues where people would be enjoying any kind of entertainment. Among other pieces I played this sonata (a piece well worth it BTW, much more inspired than the a-minor concerto). Everybody in the group nagged me about that passage, telling me that I could not possible leave a "hole" in the music. So I was forced to try and figure it out. I can't tell you exactly how I did it or how it should be done but I could do it sufficiently to at least pass in the eyes of my colleagues.

May 9, 2020, 6:19 PM · On the other hand I hate it when cellist play the first prelude in the book as though there's a huge tenuto mark over the first (or, worse, the last) note of every bar.
May 9, 2020, 7:47 PM · I'm not a fan of the G major prelude at all. I struggle with it. Its the same rhythm as a passage in a concerto I'm learning for my exam which I also struggle with a lot
Edited: May 10, 2020, 2:37 AM · The prelude is one of those overplayed pieces, so that it can be excruciating to listen to (only three or four days ago I was watching a youtube comparison of cellos which butchered it). I've got Tortelier and Rostropovich on CD, but I never play them. I think I prefer Tortelier. I agree with Paul about the tenuto, although there are some sections where the melodic value of the first note seems important. Tortelier plays it legato; R. plays it détaché. The first one I ever heard was Rost. and I hated the combination of détaché and what seemed like racing. I don't know what the speed marking is. I've mentioned the cursoriness of Anna Magdalena's slurs in other threads. It's a prelude to the suite as well as to the piece, and gentle and legato seems right to me.
May 10, 2020, 5:40 AM · Paul, every effect can easily be overdone. In the G-Major prelude (allegro moderato BTW) the bass note is touched several times again during the measure though; I think it is not the sam situation.
Anyway this prelude is musically one of the harder pieces in the set. I have heard Yo Yo Ma's version (I generally esteem him very much) and it sounds like a sawmill.

My brother liked to play it (on the cello) when we were both living at home and he played the one-slur-per-measure bowing that was commonly used in the 60s and 70s but that the HIP crowd has apparently since done away with. I still think that musically it is the best solution (because it presents the music as melody rather than chopping it up in 16ths). I may be biased by being used to it though.

Edited: May 10, 2020, 10:33 AM · How do you guys like Pieter Wispelwey's version?
Edited: May 10, 2020, 10:53 AM · When I bought it from Guivier's my viola had a Larsen A string on top of 3 Dominants. The G-major Prelude went doodle-DIddle-DIddle-DIddle, doodle DIddle...
May 10, 2020, 11:13 AM · Doodle-DIddle.. This is why I use a synthetic A (or plain gut in the '60s when I started) with a longer, lighter stroke than on the lower strings.
It's tricky to avoid bumping onto the A-string. I start with a low arm.

I like slurring in fours, but even if I slur only three notes I detach the remaining seven smoothly, with a more marked détaché whenever the arpeggios are interrupted by step-wise motifs.

I certainly avoid rubato, which destroys the flow, and ruins the contrast between murmuring arpeggios and dynamic scales.
I love the way Bach has a bit of fun in the middle (as so often) before climbing up to the the final "hanging garden" effect of the last measures.

May 11, 2020, 1:22 PM · Paul, you hate it when cellists do it, but you don't mind it when violists' do it?
When I was a kindergarten kid, a teacher who played piano for assembly used to play the Well Tempered Clavier first prelude falling on to the last semiquaver of every half bar from the previous semiquaver and then holding it, so we got de de de de de de d' Diiiii de de de de de de d' Diiii, etc. (and I think she'd lean on the piano while holding it). If someone had told me that was meant to be great music ...
If someone had tried to sing Ave Maria to it, it would have been Goon Show rather than Gounod.
If I remember rightly the theme of the last movement of Brahms Symphony No.1 sounded like music (I think someone might have fitted "Who killed Cock Robin" to it - at any rate, there must be some reason why I associated the name "Robin" with that tune).
Edited: May 11, 2020, 5:30 PM · John, what I've noticed is that violinists don't take nearly as many liberties with Bach that cellists do. Regarding the Well-Tempered Clavier, I'm with you: What you describe sounds absolutely awful.

I had a piano teacher when I was a kid who though she was a very expressive player or something and she rotated her torso around on her hips while she played, like a slow-moving top. One day she overdid it and her salt-and-pepper wig fell off.

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