Reality & Illusion, part 2: Bach's Invisible Cello

In my last blog post I remarked that listening to the pianist András Schiff playing the music of J. S. Bach got me meditating about reality and illusion.

I first studied Bach’s music as a 14-year-old cellist, growing up in São Paulo, Brazil. Bach composed six suites for solo cello. The sixth of them he wrote for a five-stringed instrument tuned like a standard cello (from the bottom up, C G D A) with an added E string. Some well-trained minds speculate that Bach never meant his pieces for the cello as we know the instrument today, but for a large viola-like instrument held from the player’s shoulder by a strap. This instrument is called by some people a violoncello da spalla . . . and by other people a violoncello piccolo da spalla or violoncello da span . . . and by some other people a viola da spalla. It’s said that Bach and other composers of the time (three centuries ago) called this instrument violoncello.

Here's a spirited violoncello da spalla performance of a movement from Bach's Sixth Suite. The performer is Sergey Malov.

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Now let's go back to the 14-year-old kid in Brazil. Playing a modern cello made from materials that didn’t exist in Bach’s time, the kid buys a score for a piece composed for some other instrument; and the score is in fact a Frenchman’s heavy-handed interpretation of Bach’s wife’s dictation of the piece, and no one can be sure how she ever went about taking down that dictation in the first place. Reality or illusion? Was I really playing Bach's actual cello suites? Or was I having some sort of rather subjective head trip?

Over the centuries since their composition, these pieces went through multiple transformations in the minds and hearts of musicians. After Bach’s death most of his music “disappeared” from public awareness for a while, until (as all students in music history classes learn) the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn “rediscovered” Bach and advocated his music anew—some of the music anyway, which was then performed in the fashion of Mendelssohn’s time.

The cello suites stayed out of public awareness for much longer. From time to time they were used as technical studies, and very occasionally some fool would play a movement or two in performance. I say a “fool” because the suites weren’t really considered “music.” (Reality and illusion, anyone?)

Pablo Casals finally brought the suites out from oblivion, studying them in depth, performing them in public as works of art, and recording them as a complete set in 1938 and 1939. Here's the great man, performing the First Suite in 1954.

Since Casals’s time, the Suites have become an integral part of the canonic repertory. Thousands of cellists of all ages and abilities have performed the pieces hundreds of thousands of times all over the world. These cellists practiced passages from the pieces hundreds of millions of times. Some notes in some suites have been played more than a billion times. I myself made a modest contribution to these statistics, adding roughly five thousand attempts at playing some of the suites in my practice room and in public from 1972 to 2013. Or ten thousand attempts, maybe. But certainly not more than fifty thousand attempts, at most.

Besides the thousands of cellists, tens of thousands of other musicians also studied or performed the suites, in whole or in part—including violists, trombonists, flutists, guitarists, lute players, marimba players, you name it.

According to an Internet source, there are over 80 printed editions of the suites, some claiming to be as close to Bach’s intended ideas as possible, others making no claims of any sort. I don’t know how many commercially available recordings there are, but a quick search of “Bach cello suites” on Amazon.com shows 1,482 choices as of January 14, 2013, with the top two spots being the complete CD sets by Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovitch.

Here’s a nifty thing as regards our discussion. This is how these top spots are listed at Amazon:

The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites Complete by Yo-Yo Ma and J. S. Bach (2010) 

Bach: Cello Suites by Mstislav Rostropovich and Johann Sebastian Bach (1995)

The players’ names are listed before the composer’s. The Suites are as if “by Yo-Yo Ma first and foremost, and also by J. S. Bach.” It could be a simple matter of information display, or a simple matter of marketing considerations. Or it could be food for thought if you’re interested in figuring out reality from illusion. Other choices in information display are available. The #4 item on Amazon’s page, for instance, is listed as “Bach: Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (2003)”, with the name of the performer not shown at all. (You can find out easily, of course. Click on the link for details. All right, I’ll tell you anyway: It’s Pablo Casals.)

Is it crazy for Yo-Yo Ma to be listed as a co-creator of the Bach Suites, or is it crazy for Pablo Casals not to acknowledge that he’s a co-creator of the Bach Suites?

To put it differently, do the 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, by Johann Sebastian Bach (born 1685, died 1750) exist? Are they “real,” or are they “illusory”?

Does Bach himself exist?

Stay tuned.

Reality & Illusion, part 1: J. S. Bach at McDonald's

The other night I spent some time on YouTube watching the pianist András Schiff playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I’ve never seen Schiff perform live, and until now I wasn’t that familiar with his playing. I enjoyed it tremendously. His Bach sparkles and swings; his Bach speaks, laughs, and cries. It’s quite something.

Watching and listening to him got me thinking about reality and illusion.

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I first studied Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello in my adolescence. I was probably 14 when I sight-read the first suite, working from the one edition I was able to buy in my native São Paulo, in the classical-music backwater that Brazil was then (and, to a good degree, still is now). The edition was signed by Paul Bazelaire, a French cellist who was born in 1886 and died in 1958 (that's him on the cute photo). To Bach’s music, Bazelaire added dynamics, phrase markings, fingerings, metronome markings, and a thousand other indications. Later I bought several other editions of the suites. Over the decades I studied all the suites and performed several of them. I know them by heart, and like most cellists I only need to hear three notes from any excerpt to recognize which movement in which suite those three notes come from.

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What is reality, what is illusion? The metaphysicians have been debating this for millennia. There are many viewpoints on the issue. A minority—a tiny minority—believes that reality is an objective situation shared by everyone. Some say that the whole of humanity is someone’s huge dream, with no objective existence. Others claim that reality is what you make of it. A guy and his girlfriend sitting quietly across each other at a Macdonald’s are in two distinct, separate, and perhaps even mutually exclusive realities. The girl is having feelings, thoughts, thoughts about her feelings, and feelings about her thoughts—some of which involve the guy, or a version of the guy she imagines day by day. The guy is communing with the salt, fat, and sugar, and he’d be surprised if the girl suddenly entered his awareness and addressed him. “Don’t interrupt me,” he’d say. And his using these many words would deplete his energies and justify his ordering another Big Mac.

The idea that the guy and his girlfriend share a single, objective reality is ludicrous.

When a performer views a score, metaphysical questions regarding illusion and reality are in fact not only pertinent but downright urgent. Three hundred years ago, a human being called Johann Sebastian Bach, living in a country that today is called Germany but that back then didn’t actually exist as a country in the modern conception of the world, composed a piece for solo cello. He seems never to have written the piece down, but his wife wrote it down for him, and so did a couple of his students. How? Did they hear Bach play it on the cello? Or did Bach play the notes on the clavichord, and the wife and the students wrote down the notes as if for the cello?

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How come the scores came out a little different—in pitches, flats and sharps, slurs and articulations? If the versions differ (and remember, no version is in Bach’s hand), is one right and the others wrong? How can we tell? Is it important for us to be able to tell? How did Bach intend his piece to be played? And if he had specifics in mind, must we try to obey him? Does that mean that there’s only one way to play the piece—one legitimate, approved, sanctioned, sanctified way that renders all other ways criminal or sinful?

Nobody agrees on the questions—or on the answers. Watch this space for further developments.