For those of you non-cellists who don’t already breathe this conundrum day in, day out, here’s the problem (in as few words as I can muster):
There is no surviving autograph of the Suites, so we have to choose one of the four surviving contemporary manuscript copies. Two of them are by anonymous copyists (both from the second half of the 18th century) who may or may not have been copying from Bach’s original. One of them is by Peter Kellner (dated 1726), an acquaintance of Bach’s, and one is in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. It seems intuitive to trust Bach’s own spouse, under the assumption that she was highly experienced and dedicated to reproducing Johann Sebastian’s scores. BUT: faced with her copy, you will quickly realize that it will take A LOT of intuition to decipher what most of her bowing markings mean. Most of the slurs are floating squiggles resembling dropped spaghetti or misshapen eyebrows, and one can only guess the notes they belong to. Others are so far above the stave they might fly away at any moment.
You have to feel for poor Anna Magdalena: imagine her at home with scores of kids, rocking yet another newborn to sleep while copying dozens of already scraggly scores under dim, flickering candlelight with a scratchy quill. Her copy of the solo violin partitas and sonatas, in contrast, is crisp and clean. Whatever happened with the Cello Suites – 300 years later, we are still paying the price ($78.95 for the complete Bärenreiter edition, or free on imslp.org).
So, with no authoritative source out there, the result is frustrating and exciting alike: every cellist essentially has to make her own version of the Suites (or else follow one of the hundreds of editions published by wiser cellists). In the process of scrounging for solutions, certain archetypes of the Bow-losophist emerge:
The Conformist: Blindly buys the edition insisted upon by her teacher and follows all of the printed bowings.
The Antagonist: Does what she wants, to spite the whole discussion or out of laziness.
The Analogist: Likes to use the same bowing for reoccurring figures and analogous passages.
The Symmetrist: Chooses bowings that are essentially mirrored within a phrase, leading her naturally back to the same, most comfortable part of the bow by the end of the phrase.
The Fencer: Works out elaborate, inconsistent bowings, based on one of the aforementioned manuscripts – stubbornly, loosely, or not really at all.
I was naturally a Conformist growing up, and bought the edition my teacher told everyone to buy. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with it, and everyone needs a starting point. Practically speaking, this edition was amazing: it was readable! Larger than most editions, it fit the Prelude of the 6th suite onto two pages, rather than the usual four (no page-turns!). The downside to the oversized format was that after many years of stuffing it in my backpack I was left with only tatters of disintegrating music.
Later, my perspective changed. A few years ago I had the privilege of studying with one of the greatest, most inspiring Fencing Masters, Anner Bylsma, for one year in Amsterdam. Anner’s affinity for Fencing seems to have grown out of a combination of healthy, good-hearted Antagonism as well as a stubborn infatuation with Anna Magdalena. I always got the impression that Fencing in the Bach Suites is his way of saying “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (one of my favorite R.W. Emerson quotes). “After all,” he would tell me repeatedly, “the Italians bowed any way they wanted”, or “mal so, mal so,” as the Germans say. Anna Magdalena’s slurs may be unclear, but that reminds us not to fall into rigid patterns. “In the end,” I heard him conclude with a generously mischievous smile on his face, “you will always do what you like best.” Now, that's what I'm talking about!
Once, I arrived at his house in the Vondelstraat mid-afternoon. As usual, he went to the kitchen to make coffee (which I choked down even though I don’t like coffee...later he would make tea, thankfully).
“Go to the bookshelf,” he demanded, “and bring back any book.”
I had learned some basic Dutch, but I dove for something in English, scared of what might happen next.
“Open the book anywhere!” he ordered.
“Now, read the first sentence!”
I did as told. It was a long sentence.
“Now read it again and conduct.”
After following this directive, as well, albeit with a slight struggle, he said:
“Now you know what rhetoric is.”
Simple, but Music is related to (or rather, is) Language. For me, this is the point (not being right, not being ‘authentic’, not being efficient or practical). Throughout the bowing hysteria, this is useful to remember. Slurs are punctuation. They create syntax within the music and determine the meaning of the phrase as understood by the listener.
Full disclosure: I have to out myself as the resident grammar police in my family and with anyone who will listen. Poor syntax can obscure the meaning of a sentence! A lack of clear groupings can make a phrase sound nonsensical!!! Check out this sentence, for instance:
After the police stopped the car drove off at top speed.
This is what linguists call a "garden path" sentence: grammatically correct, but the reader is likely to misinterpret it at first sight. Why? Our brain processes the information in successive increments and we arrive at the wrong interpretation of the sentence before hearing the end.
This can happen with musical phrases, too, which I think is what Anner was getting at.
Another common phenomenon is the run-on sentence which occurs when there is a distinct lack of punctuation which can manifest itself in music when you play without any kind of phrasing or grouping whereby one big factor is the bowings which need to be chosen wisely under consideration of the phrasing this is why we are talking about bowings it is important for the phrasing and fun!
Finally: bad phrasing – or, rather. Bad punctuation. (or bowings); can completely turn upside down, the meaning of a phrase...
I wonder which punctuation Anna Magdalena would have preferred for the following sentence:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Or, another twist: how to inadvertently turn nouns into unrelated verbs. So much fun omg!
A panda eats shoots and leaves.
A panda eats, shoots and leaves.*
(Imagine a panda walking into a saloon. Not so cute anymore, right?)
If you have read this far in hopes of hearing a solution to the bowings in the Bach Suites, I have to disappoint you. The century-old mystery remains unsolved.
At least now we know what it’s all about. Right?
Friday, June 13 – 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm
Five Boroughs Music Festival presents: “A Suite Ride Through the Boroughs”
Part of the inaugural Early Music Festival: New York City, June 13-19
Early Music Festival: New York City 2014
Five Boroughs Music Festival