SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON J.S. BACH’S SUITES FOR VIOLONCELLO SOLO SENZA BASSO
With these words begins the first written cello method, authored by Michel Corrette and published in Paris around 1741: the cello, a bass instrument, is considered a “noble pillar of harmony”. At that time, music history was roughly in the middle of the basso continuo era, which began during Monteverdi’s lifetime with the “Seconda Pratica” and ended during Robert Schumann’s lifespan. A lot revolved around the melody of the bass line, its realisation and rendering. In Corelli’s orchestra, a large bass section comprising many instruments of different sizes, with several cellos, double basses, lutes and harpsichords, was placed just behind the concertino. Behind them were the intermediate voices, first and second violas. Only behind the latter were those who carried the melody of the upper voices, namely the violinists. Such a setting has nothing to do with today’s musical practice and sound expectations. The vast bass section determined the tempo, the character and the dynamics. Those providing the melody had to adapt; any resistance would have been pointless.
With this in mind, the title page of J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites may seem revolutionary at first glance: “6 Suites a Violoncello solo senza basso”. A musical work dedicated to an important instrument, the pillar of harmony, but “senza basso”, without bass! And this in an age in which there could be no music without bass, given the compositional method and practice of the basso continuo! In reality, the bass is clearly present in these solo suites. The designation “senza basso” is intended to warn the performer that there is no point in leafing through the pages of the score in search of the bass line. The bass is, in fact, already present in the monophonic solo part. [..]
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“They (the Cello Suites) are the quintessence of Bach’s oeuvre, and Bach himself is the quintessence of all music.” P. Casals
The emotions of today’s cellist are the same as those of an 18th-century musician. But they are of a different intensity and are intertwined in another way. In today’s stressful world, we certainly feel the emotion of satisfaction or the nuances of love somewhat differently than a devout person in the Baroque era. The context of the concert is also completely different. Today, we play the Suites in bigger halls and to much larger audiences than in the past. However, these pieces remain the most intimate chamber music ever composed. One might say that they are intended only for the performer’s ears. Those who happen to be listening to the musician tend to watch from a distance in a somewhat voyeuristic manner. The cellist hears the Suites so close to the instrument that he can perceive the whispers of the rosin, the tension exerted by the pressure on the raw gut strings, the acoustic harmonics of the notes attacked more firmly. He can spatially discern the difference between the lowest and highest-pitched sounds as if they were coming from different directions. Conversely, an audience seated several metres away only perceives the sound of the cello from a specific point. [..]
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THE MYSTERY OF NUMBERS
There are publications on the secrets of numbers in Bach’s music. Seeing this in a musical text can be exciting from an intellectual point of view. Some, for instance, see a hidden musical calendar in the Prelude to Suite No. 1 or look for the biblical name (D.A.VI.D., the note “F” (VI) as the sixth letter of the alphabet) in the Prelude to Suite No. 2. A practical-minded cellist is more fascinated by coincidences, such as the use of fingers in the Prelude in G major: first bar - one finger, second bar - two fingers, third bar - three fingers, fourth bar - but...
Another mysterious symbol is the use of the composer’s name as a sequence of notes: B-A-C-H (B flat-A-C-H in the German notation), perhaps his most intimate musical confession of the soul.
At first glance, given its complexity, it seems unlikely that such a sequence of notes would appear in a melody for a monophonic instrument, or maybe it is?
Translated from German by Michelle Bulloch - Musitext
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He grew up in a family of musicians in Marienbad (Czech Republic). His first encounter with music came from his father, who was himself a musician and cellist. After studying at the Pilsen Conservatoire, his interest in early music and historical performance practice led him to the highly respected Christoph Coin at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Petr Skalka regularly performs with renowned chamber music ensembles throughout Europe (including Café Zimmermann, La Chambre Philharmonique, the Ensemble Baroque de Limoges, Christophe Coin, Gustav Leonhardt, and Emmanuel Krivine). He has taken part in numerous recordings, which have been honoured with several prestigious prizes (Diapason d’or, Classica’s Five Stars, etc.). Petr Skalka teaches at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland.