Bach’s “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello” seem to be the best known and most recorded music for the cello. Eric Siblin’s excellent book The Cello Suites weaves biographies of Bach and cellist Pablo Casals with the story of the suites, composed around 1717-1723. The book is constructed in the same form as the suites – six “suites” of six chapters each, though Siblin does not attempt to align the text with the music too rigorously. He does successfully propose historical and personal settings for the compositions, most poignantly the groaning sadness of the second Suite and the death of Bach’s beloved first wife Maria. Bach married again the next year, and with his two wives fathered 20 children, which does correspond with his prodigious output of music, and perhaps the frenetic pace of some of the pieces in the Suites!
I discovered the Suites in this wonderful YouTube video of a youthful Mischa Maisky playing the Sarabande from the first Suite. I’ve since listened to several other famous cellist’s interpretations of this piece and still like Maisky’s the best. Is that because his was the first I heard and the others just don’t seem to play it “right”? I’m guessing that might be a common experience. I also discovered the Sarabande in Jiji’s Cello Playing book and I try to play it sometimes. It’s peppered with double stops, trills, scales and accidentals, but it’s not that hard to play slowly.
At Christmas, my sister gave me CDs of the full Suites by Yo-Yo Ma. At first, the music seemed monotonous and repetitive, a common problem I have when listening to too much new music in one go. But as I began to distinguish the individual movements in my mind and pay attention to their moods and modes, I’ve come to appreciate them much more. Bach explores a broad sweep of emotion, while simultaneously exploring the endless expressive possibilities of the cello. No wonder the pieces were often considered etudes, or practice exercises, and rarely performed publicly before Casals discovered them and made them famous.
I found the complete sheet music at the International Music Score Library Project and tried playing the Prelude of the first Suite. I haven’t gotten past the first measure yet. It is deceptively simple, but involves a kind of irregular synchronization of fingering and bowing that’s too challenging for my 51 year old hands (or brain). It’s rather like playing a piano rag, where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. I’ve never attempted one of those. I can play the first measure slowly, but approaching the right tempo it’s been impossible for me to make those sixteenth notes all sound alike. That little phrase is not so different in sound from some Irish jigs I’ve attempted, but the jigs were obviously designed to be playable by less-than-virtuoso fiddlers and the finger motions are more regular.
I believe I’ll get it someday. I’ve found that after trying a difficult phrase over and over for days or weeks, I will suddenly and accidentally do it right, and if I announce the fact loudly to my brain, it seems to be able to repeat the thing. It’s like some sort of programmable robot – if you lead it through the right motions once, it will be able to do it again. The difficulty lies in doing it the first time. Some days when I practice, perhaps because of fatigue, stress or depression, nothing seems to sound good and I want to throw the cello out the window. Other days, I’m feeling good, and relaxed and I just pretend that I know how to play. Those are usually the days I play something nicely for the first time. Playing real slowly and concentrating on getting it all correct just doesn’t work.
In The Cello Suites, Siblin tells about Pablo Casals mountain climbing while on a tour of the U.S. A large boulder fell on Casals’ left hand. Gazing at the crushed fingers, he declared “Thank God, I’ll never have to play the cello again!” Siblin calls it a “curious reaction” but I don’t find it curious at all. Abigail McHugh, a local cello teacher, refers to the cello as “the instrument that continues to alternately delight and aggravate her.” It’s easy to play the cello. It’s very hard indeed to play it well. I guess that’s what keeps us coming back for more. Like a video game, we keep pressing on, to feel the flush of satisfaction when we get to that next level. Though I haven’t gone very far, I suspect the same instinct continues to propel even the greatest cellists.
(Update – May 21, 2010) Today I played the first measure successfully, but not because my hands suddenly and mysteriously found the groove. That measure was never meant to played in first position! My impossible string crossing and fingering problem goes away if I play all but the low G on the D string. I have been shifting for parts of some other songs that were impossible in first position, but it’s still too easy to stay in the rut of thinking that higher positions are harder, or more advanced. Oh well, chalk up another reason for having a teacher!