Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin (2009)

If you only read one book on Bach the rest of the year, give this one a try. I missed it when it came out four years ago and serendipitously found it in a library search for something else, checked it out, and couldn't put it down.

Subtitled, "J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece," The Cello Suites carries off well what's famously difficult to do: write 300-plus pages about music, engagingly, for an intelligent lay audience. Check it out!

Siblin wrote rock concert reviews for the Montreal Gazette and happened to catch the cellist Laurence Lesser play Bach cello suites in 2000, 250 years after Bach's death. Siblin said he was listening to someone he'd never heard of play music he "knew nothing about." But he was tremendously moved by the music, did plenty of top-notch research and wrote this, his first book. I found it a refreshing middle ground between gushing Bach-worship writing and overly musicological and technical Bach writing, of which there is no end. Siblin incorporates Bach's history, the mysteries of his archives, scattered among his surviving sons, the original manuscript of the profound six Cello Suites in Bach's hand still missing and probably lost forever due to the ink he used; there's also a parallel history of Pablo Casals, who resurrected the Suites and lived 96 years, through exile from Franco's Spain. Prior to Casals's championing the Suites, they were thought of as overly-mathematical "exercises" for the cello, which, I confess, I still find difficult to understand.

I probably heard someone playing the Prelude from the G major Suite on radio KUSC in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and thought it transcendent. I bought the music and read the bass clef as if it was written in treble and worked out, measure by measure, the fingerings for my Stratocaster. To this day I am stunned by every single measure in all 36 sections of the six Suites: given the economy of the cello, the voice-leading, melodic invention, thematic development, range of emotional register, and sheer bravura in even the slow movements - I make hundreds of mistakes; these pieces are deceptively difficult and yet a source of never-ending joy to even attempt to play! - seems like a miracle to me. Siblin, who plays guitar, writes about learning the G major Prelude with a tone of wonderment that hits home with me, and resonates with the experiences of my fellow rock guitarists who've tried to take on Bach.

Siblin does something I never tried: he takes cello lessons! For awhile. Hat's off to him for even trying!

What a delightful book; his love for the Cello Suites is infectious and the reader will probably feel a strong need to watch some of the Suites played live on You Tube, or even go out and buy one of the very many versions. I own Yo Yo Ma's version, but have listened to many from the library, and Rostropovich really floored me, I recall. Siblin tells us that Janos Starker probably holds the record with five different recordings of the Suites. Because the source was Anna Magdalena's copy and she didn't know bowing techniques or dynamics for the cello (or an arcane five-string cello-like thing that Bach may have written the Suites for, just one of many  Siblin relates), so, as Siblin writes, "The Cello Suites are a blank slate, a Rorschach test that allow cellists to put their own stamp on Bach and interpret the music as they see fit - or as they think Bach would have wanted his music played."

I felt a twinge of vindication when Siblin noted how, early in the Gigue from the 3rd Suite, there's a section that could've been written by Jimmy Page: "It is a bold, churning phrase that would not be out of place on a Gibson Les Paul wielded by, say, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Bach's audience, two centuries before the electric guitar was invented, could not have heard the notes in remotely the same way. Historical faithfulness has its limits."

In this, Siblin makes the case that those who insist Bach only be played on "period" instruments to ensure "authenticity" have their place, but their viewpoint is by no means the "one true correct one." On the contrary, Siblin seems the ecumenical Bach listener, and enjoys (or notes with amusement) versions of Bach played on xylophone, or African salsa-style Bach. He mentions Procul Harem and Walter/Wendy Carlos....and Glenn Gould, who actually liked the Swingle Sisters' early 1960s 8-voice chorus, and who had two best-sellers, singing Bach (Bach's Greatest Hits and Going Baroque), swinging the 8th notes. Siblin tells us the Swingle Singers covered some of the cello Suites, which I really must go out of my way to hear now. Glenn Gould is quoted about the Swingles, "When I first heard them I felt like lying on the floor and kicking my heels, that's how good I thought they were."

In addition to Zeppelinesque metal, Siblin hears in Bach's solo Cello Suites: jazz-funk riffs, a country fiddler in a beer hall cranking out tunes, sudden explosions of seemingly impossible polyphony on a four-stringed instrument in which chords must be arpeggiated, sections of almost Philip Glass-ian proto-minimalism, and the doleful expression of deep sorrow of death, probably of his first wife Maria Barbara. There are wonderful stretches of phenomenological-impressionistic observations about the listening of music that I found impressive in Siblin's writing, amid the discussions of Bach's lifelong quest to find a better-paying job, Casals rising to become a world leader in the peace movement in the 20th century, and the peccadilloes of backwater German royalty, among other things.

The ecumenical Siblin: "When I hear violinist Lara St. John play the solo violin works to the rhythms of the tabla, I can't help but want to hear the Cello Suites in a similar setting. 'MarimBach,' Bach To Africa, and Jacques Loussier all turn my crank a great deal."

A formal device that Siblin used I found delightful: he writes six basic chapters, one for each Suite, and divides those chapters up by starting with an epigraph of quotes about each of the formal dance-movements Bach used, for example: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, Gavotte, and Gigue. Examples: for the Sarabande section of Suite number four, we get a quote from James Talbot in 1690 regarding the character of a Sarabande: "Apt to move the Passions and to disturb the tranquility of the Mind." Jules Ecorcheville on a Courante: "The transformations of the courante might be compared to the frolicking of a fish who plunges, disappears, and returns again to the surface of the water." Dimitri Markevitch says of the Gigue: "Produces an almost satanic effect with its repetitions of similar motifs." (And yet I see no parental warning stickers on the CD for Matt Haimovitz's version of the six solo Cello Suites. Did the God Squad mess up?)

Going back to the Prelude of the first Suite, Siblin gives his impression of the feeling of movement at the beginning, then notes that Robert Johnson, the seminal blues guitarist, seems to share something with the beginning of this Prelude, and that Bach's broken chords could power a rock anthem, and once again he cites Led Zeppelin. I wish I could have explained to Siblin that, indeed: those first chords that Bach uses (you've all heard them: see/hear below) ARE the basis of blues and rock: they're the I-IV-V progression that forms almost all blues tunes and exerted a tremendous influence on rock and roll. Here: this progression seems to be in the musical DNA of every Western listener; we get it like mother's milk.  Pause the recording after the third broken chord, then notice that you expect a return to the main chord, and indeed, Bach provides it before going off in a long strandentwining unfurling of seemingly foreordained and perpetually mobile pumping out of 16ths notes, before finally ending with an incredible build-up, climax, and gesticulated G major chord. (Bach had 20 children.)

                                      Nova Scotian Denise Djokic elegantly playing 
                                      through the G major Prelude

Yes, there is the occult-mathematical kabbalistic Bach in Siblin's book too, but not too much. (Those of who who geeked out on this aspect of Bach as related in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach won't find the same buzz here.) In kabbalah his name, J. S. Bach, adds up to 41, and there are 41 measures in this first Prelude; he was known to encode his last name in sequences. In German the B stands for B-flat, while the H represents B. Out of this quasi-chromatic sequence he spun motifs and combinations that flowed like a brook on the first days of a German Spring.

All in all, Siblin's book has a catchy melody and a rhythm I can dance to - like a Gigue that "ends in an atmosphere of optimism and cheerfulness," as Dimitri Markevitch said - and I give it a ten...or a 14, which is "Bach"'s value in gematria, and 14 was the number of fugues based on a single theme that Bach was writing when he died.

The Cello Suites seems an underrated book to me.


Eric Wagner said...

Great piece. I remember reading Stanley Clarke saying how much he learned from playing the Bach Cello Suites on electric bass. My bass violin teacher Dan Swaim saw those suites as central, and he insisted I see Janos Starker play them in 1979 or 1980.

michael said...

Albert Schweitzer said something like "Bach is always composing for some ideal instrument." My musical mind is a plenum with only the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and the Cello Suites. It's beyond me how someone can sit at a keyboard and play the Art of Fugue, but I still listen to that regularly.

Siblin barely touches on how extensive Bach has influenced Western jazz and pop music. I still remember when I first learned scales. I was playing a G major scale up and down, then in little sequences and basic arpeggios...and suddenly I started playing a melody from a pop song I heard as a kid when the radio was on all day on top of the refrigerator. It was "Lover's Concerto" from The Toys...but the melody was from the Little Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, a Minuet:


There's tons of Bach in metal. And remember Jethro Tull's "Bouree"?

Django had a Bach piece, and there's a shredding jazz guitarist named Frank Vignola who absolutely kills swinging on a solo violin piece in B minor.

On and on. I always thought Bach would be open to all of this, including this:


One of the most valuable things a guitarist can learn by working out the solo violin and cello pieces is, in my opinion, triads and 7th chords that are open-voiced; far too many rock guitarists stick to the close-voiced versions of common chords. You start working on Bach and immediately you're learning how voice chords like some hot jazz dude. It really opens up your playing.

By the way: the idea of a rock guitar virtuoso is obviously in the ears of the beholder. My idea of one would be Eric Johnson, who uses open-voiced triads extensively, esp when he's ascending the neck. Here he is from earlier this year, playing in a small club in Paris:

Roman Tsivkin said...

My father bought a Swingle Singers (I think you called them "Sisters") Bach album at some point in the mid-'80s when I was a teen. I listened to it over and over and over; 25 years later, I still "sing" some of their stuff in the shower. The jazzy beat works so well with Bach. Wish Thelonious Monk had recorded a Bach album.

Eric Wagner said...

So much to read, so much to listen to. One of these years I want to read Goedel Escher Bach and reread Kerman's Art of Fugue, paying more attention this time.

Bach permeates Zukofsky's "A". I also enjoy the Modern Jazz Quartet's Blues on Bach. From 2000 - 2005 I listened to a ton of MJQ.

michael said...

@ Roman Tsivkin: you're right: 'tis Singers, not Sisters. Fixed it. Sometimes I type too quickly and edit myself poorly. Thanks for pointing this error out.

I just found them on YT doing the "Mission Impossible" theme:

Monk's syncopations combined with Bach's tap-your feet baroque motor-like rhythms would've been really interesting.

I always loved that MJQ album, Blues On Bach. They swing the 8ths and groove slowly and elegantly.

michael said...


I mentioned MJQ when responding to Roman's comment before I read yours.

I'd like to get into "A" at some point. Had a look into Kerman's book on Fugues and...it was filled with math-like stuff I could really make use of. Reverse retrograde inversion? Was Bach's brain hotwired into chaos math? His philosophical outlook was almost medieval (in the best sense), but the music stuff seems timeless and sorta futuristic to me.

Eric Wagner said...

I have found "A" very rewarding. B. H. Fairchild said, "Guy Davenport has written better on Z. than almost anyone." Davenport wrote, "When enough people become familiar with 'A' so that it can be discussed, the first wonder will be how so many subjects got built into such unlikely patterns, and what a harmony they all make." This sounds like your comments on Bach.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

After I read your post (and the comments) I decided to download the three Bach cello suites available among the Gardner recordings:


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Forgot to point out that at the end of the Robert Anton Wilson and Karl Hess video, the two are asked to name the greatest man who ever lived. RAW picks Bach.

michael said...

@Eric: Jeez, will I ever get to Davenport (I like his writings on Pound especially) on Zukofsky? You make it sound very enticing..._A_, I mean...and then Davenport on it.

@Tom Jackson: I recently found Mischa Maisky's version of the Suites (Siblin met him and describes him as a very colorful character) in the public library, and they were the first thing I ever "stole" digitally (that I know of): I downloaded the CD to my iPod. (Yes, I finally got an iPod!)

When I hung out with RAW, I wanted to bring him a gift, and I gave him YoYo Ma's Bach cello suites...which didn't seem to impress him at all. The present, that is. I guess he already had it. Later that day he said he'd really love to hear Pound's friend George Antheil's wild recording for the Ballet Mecanique. I should've got him THAT!

Eric Wagner said...

I hope you decided to dive into "A". I suspect you will find it worthwhile. Last year I read a section of "A" 1 - 23 each day for the first 23 days of December. I may do that again this year.

michael said...

I'll check into it if only to try to grok the form, and chase down the Vico refs you once mentioned were in there.

Eric Wagner said...

Howdy, MIchael. I hope all goes well. I finally read the Siblin, and I enjoyed it. i have Maurcie Gendron's version of the first suite playing right now. I also enjoyed rereading your wonderful blog post on the book.