Delights of Solitude
Solo Works of Bach
Wednesday, April 27 | 8 pm
409 Prospect Street
Free; no tickets required.
Program Note by Franck Bernéde
Splendid jewels of the musical literature, the violoncello suites of J.S. Bach create an entirely distinct world unto themselves. Pure pleasure for the ear and for the heart of the listener, they are creative substance for the performer’s inner discipline. Though marvelous, the suites are filled with uncertainties with regard to the circumstances of their composition and the interpretative choices they pose. Neither their date of composition nor their addressee is known. The first copy of the suites to reach us, that of Johann Peter Kellner, was completed in 1726; therefore, the suites were composed before this date. It seems reasonable to suppose that Bach wrote the violoncello suites around 1720 in Cöthen, and furthermore that they were nearly contemporary with the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin; apart from obvious stylistic similarities, however, no tangible proof, can corroborate this conjecture.
Even the designation “pour violoncelle,” apparently self-explanatory, is in fact problematic. At the beginning of the 18th century, the term “violoncello” referred to a family of instruments of various sizes and distinct playing methods. The violoncello as we know it today appeared in Italy around the 1660s; its dimensions were relatively “standardized” by Stradivari at the beginning of the 18th century. In the time of Bach, however, the term could also have evoked the older and more imposing instruments of the family, such as the numerous varieties of the large Italian “basso di violino,” as much as smaller models like those conceived by Stradivari.
Furthermore, not all of the suites were intended for the same instrument. The sixth, for example, demands a five-string cello held between the legs (violoncello piccolo) or else an instrument “on the shoulder,” its body attached by a shoulder strap to the player’s chest (violoncello da spalla). The instruments selected for this program are two “hybrids:” in size they lie midway between the violoncello and the viola da gamba.
The baroque cello used tonight in the two Bach suites dates from the end of the 17th century and is attributed to the English luthier Nathaniel Cross. Its design pattern relies on that of Italian bass instruments from the end of the 16th century (especially those of the Amati family). The second instrument is a “tenor violoncello” realized in 2009 by the French luthier Charles Riché. Its model draws inspiration both from the violoncellos “alla Bastarda,” also from the seventeenth century, and from English viols such as those of John Rose. Tonight we will hear it in a transcription of the partita for flute. According to musicologists, this partita survives only in the form of a transcription made by a flutist of Bach’s time, and was in fact originally intended for a string instrument. In exploring this piece on a “tenor violoncello,” a smaller instrument tuned like a violin but an octave below, I propose a plausible reading of a work that transcends its original instrument family.
It has become evident, after many decades of research into the relationship between sound and music, that string mounting and tuning—as much as the actual design and production of the instrument—are of prime importance. The instant in which the bow comes into contact with the string, the “transitoire d’attaque” in French, is a decisive factor in the development of harmonics and the blossoming of resonance. It is a brief moment of time in which sound is expressed either as a consonant or as a vowel. Eloquence, liveliness, and spontaneity of interpretation all depend in part on a nuanced approach to instrumental design. Ever since the 19th century, however, luthiers have been more concerned with sheer sonic power than with the richness of tone and body that is the essence of 17th and 18th century music. The immense variety and complexity of the modern repertoire have led to the establishment of rules and norms; these have narrowed the instrument’s expression to an ever-increasing virtuosity at the expense of the poetic dimension of the sound. The very material of the strings – in this case, gut – implies a series of questions about their use, and this is the starting point of my approach. The enigma of the guiding musical line, as well as the nature of the bowing technique or “coup d’archet” on gut strings, is also dependent on written and iconographic sources. My research is not limited to a simple historical reading, but seeks to bring a timeless spirit from the past into the living present.