Meditations on Bach #5: Transcription

by Peter Saint-Andre


As I delve further into Bach's Cello Suites, I also stray further from anything like the received wisdom about how to play them (whether traditionally "classical" or "historically informed"). Take, for instance, the famous prelude from suite #1 in G major. Where I've settled for now is playing the first half at an extremely slow speed, with many sustained single and double notes (thus taking advantage of a capability of the electric bass). As I was practicing this piece at the instrument and then in my head the other day, I realized that I'm playing it at a speed that is appropriate for the breathing characteristic of meditation - half a bar inhaling, half a bar exhaling. That's slow, and perhaps the exact opposite of what Glenn Gould (one of my favorite pianists) did with Bach's keyboard works. However, after the half cadence in measure 22, I start to vary the pace somewhat, speeding up quite a bit in the bariolage of the crescendo before coming back to earth for the ending (which I've modified, too). Reading History, Imagination, and the Performance of Music by Peter Walls over the last few days has helped me to realize that, for better or worse, what I'm doing with the Cello Suites is not performance but transcription - more along the lines of, say, Ferruccio Busoni than Pablo Casals. (Indeed, this is not all that dissimilar from what I've done with my "eudaimonia suite" of books on living well: philosophy as the experience of wisdom, not as discursive argument.) I'll make a rough demo of the G major prelude soon to create a record of my current thinking, no matter how wayward it might be.


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