The first time I ran across Bach’s Cello Suites was a few years ago, when I was preparing for an audition with the Bern Orchestra that required a performance of the whole third suite in C major. What I have left of the time spent preparing an audition I never got to do (long story…) is the video of the Prelude to the Suite.
I had never studied the Prelude from the first Suite in G major, possibly the most performed piece on marimba in the world, until a couple of years ago, when I thought it could make a great piece for my students to practice the four mallets technique. The problem is that the piece is so simple from a technical point of view that it is rarely studied in depth from a musical point of view.
This is why today I decided to analyze it further and hopefully help students who are studying it for the first time as well as teachers who want to share with their pupils an interpretation not just from a technical perspective.
The first step when preparing to perform a music piece like this one is knowing approximately when it was composed and therefore being able to place it in a specific historical and interpretative context. Well, so that you know, Bach composed his cello suites around 1720.
At this point, the greatest issue at hand is which version of this piece would be preferable, since we don’t have an original copy signed by Bach but only some manuscripts signed by other people. The most important is the one from Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, from which we have been able to publish an urtext edition of the Suites.
We could spend lot of words on this issue, but I’ll cut short and I just tell you that for my short analysis, I’ll use the edition by Julius Klengel for Breitkopf und Hartel that you can find on this link at imslp.org.
This piece is organized in two main parts divided by a fermata on D in measure 22.
The first four measures coincide with a progression of arpeggios – the “pattern” on which the piece is composed – on a pedal in G and provide an introduction to the whole prelude. After these four measures, the pattern gradually becomes more and more complex with the addition of scales and chromatic passages that transition from one harmony to another (for ex. a C# between measure 5 and 6).
At this point, when a C sharp is added between measure 5 and 10, we transition into the harmony of the dominant note, D major. The initial subject changes into a progression II- V – I. Measures 9 through 10 introduce new material that, although seems to interrupt the music pattern, also completes the repetition of the harmonic progression.
At measure 16 the G bass reappears and the harmony gradually returns to the tonality of the tonic. The harmony of measures 17, 18, and 19 reflects the one of measures 2, 3, and 4. Halfway through measure 22, there is a pause that signals the beginning of a long progression of the dominant tonality, D major.
From measure 22 to 29, various configurations with few localised chromatisms and a harmonious melody sequence flow rather freely and closely resemble the “fantasia” model. From measure 29 to 31, a progression beginning and ending with D major, develops throughout a circle of fifths and subsequently switches to a pedal on D, that is briefly interrupted by a pedal in A minor, and then returns to D major at measure 37 to accompany an ascending chromatic scale (a climax) that culminates at measure 39 with the return of the tonic.
However, with the “mezzo forte” tempo of the third sixteenth, D completely retains its harmony of dominant through an effect of “harmonious illusionism” typical of Bach. These last 4 measures somehow resemble the first four measures but have a structure, movement and character completely different from the beginning.
As far as the mallets, it is a relatively easy choice. It’s obvious that you need to use soft mallets to obtain a decent sound during the marimba’s bass part. However, as in most of the tempos of all six suites, notes need to be clearly expressed and articulated.
The question I asked myself when I had to choose which mallets to use, was whether I should actually use an even softer grade for the external mallet. This because the music pattern of this prelude often evolves into a series of arpeggio harmonies, which start with the lower note. This note should therefore have a deeper sound than the others.
The mallets I have been using for quite a long time to play the marimba are Vic Firth – model Ney Rosauro. To record this piece, I therefore chose to use a M221 for the outside and three M222.
In closing, I’d like to say a few words about interpretation, an issue on which many books have been written through the centuries and many more will be written in the future (this is what musicologists do).
Personally, I reached a few conclusions:
- A correct procedure, intended in absolute terms, to perform this music does not exist. At the time it was composed, recorders did not exist and therefore we don’t know how these pieces were performed. Even if clear written indications about the interpretative technique of the time existed, we would still not be sure whether Bach would have approved, since we do not have his signed manuscripts.
- Interpreation, by its definition, cannot be tied to a series of rules and written techniques. Performing is always and regardless “interpretative freedom”.
- Finally, we are talking about a piece written around 1720 for cello, an instrument that has those two – three fundamental differences from the marimba… And you worry about the interpretative philology of this piece? Ok, then keep this in mind: by choosing to play Bach’s music on the marimba, you just threw the interpretative issue in the toilet, defecated on it, and then flushed. Is this a clear enough metaphor for you?
Question: do you want to contribute anything to my brief summary of this Bach’s piece? Or do you have any suggestions, doubts, uncertainties about performing this piece on the marimba? Leave a comment.