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Bach to the Future

The world within one piece of music

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By KATE LIGHT
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That’s a passage about Bach meeting his future second wife, Anna Magdalena. While many will agree that the opening of the Prelude is declamatory, in Baroque traditions C Major is more often a heroic key rather than an amorous one, one of the keys associated with the (valveless) trumpets of the day. (C Major’s relative minor, A minor, was considered an amorous key, and the movement does spend time there but not in the opening passage of which Siblin speaks.) The fact is that the historical traditions are as rich and as interesting as these misdirections, if not more so.

A fine feature of Cello Suites is an accounting of the fates of the surviving Bach children, some of whom were composers, especially as this affected Bach’s legacy. Given the lack of a unified means to deposit or preserve manuscripts, not to mention the destruction that befell Europe, it is amazing that as many survived as they did. Debts of gratitude are also owed to Mendelssohn and Beethoven for bringing Bach out of obscurity and back to the public ear. The closest to an original manuscript of the complete suites is one copied by Anna Magdalena: Her hand was similar to Bach’s, and none of his own has survived. Only the Fifth Suite, in a lute transcription, exists in Bach’s hand. To Siblin’s credit, even a reader new to musicology comes to understand the significance of this absence and to care about the urgency of the search. 

Curiously, for a book intended for general readers, including nonclassical nonmusicians (it spent weeks as Canada’s number-one nonfiction bestseller), Siblin leaves undefined some crucial terms. One such, “period performances,” is not essential here or may be divined from context; but he also does not define viola da gamba (the Anglification that he prefers of the Italian term viola more appropriate to Bach), an important term to the book’s central search. Siblin posits the question of why Bach had written these pieces for the cello rather than the viola da gamba—but without saying what the viola da gamba actually is. 

The cello was a background instrument in 1720, expected to hug the shore line of a tune’s progression, not an adventurous solo vessel. The viola da gamba was a more popular, exciting instrument in the same range as the cello. So why did Bach write the solo string works for the cello, and not the gamba? 

This bears parsing. It is a common misconception that the gamba lies “in the same range as the cello,” but actually viole da gamba (this is the Italian plural) were a family of instruments parallel to the violin family we know today. The gamba family contained instruments corresponding in range with each member of the violin family, and so only the bass gamba is in the same range as the cello. Next, the question of relative popularity and excitement is not so simple. Gambas were originally courtly instruments by reputation, accompanying singing and other court music, while the violin family was developed in Italy to play dance music, the popular folk-type music of the time. The violin family, though, quickly became courtly, eventually displacing the gambas, first in Italy, then in Germany, and finally in France. By 1720, when Bach was writing the cello suites, gambas were almost out of use and out of fashion in Germany, though Bach included them in some of his great choral works to create an “antique,” or archaic, cast. 

As to what a gamba actually is: They are six-stringed, fretted instruments, while the members of the violin family are four-stringed and fretless. The violin family was originally called viole da brazzo, meaning (in Old Italian) “of the arm,” as the smaller instruments were played held on the arm, whereas members of the da gamba (“of the leg”) family were generally played vertically on the knee. 

Bach’s vision for the cello may have been in flux, as the Sixth Suite is written for a mysterious five-stringed instrument, and the Fifth involves scordatura (unusual tunings of the strings). It is certainly possible that Bach wrote the suites with a specific player in mind. Here Siblin is back on track, with the information that the court employing Bach at the time had the finest of players. It is also likely that, at the time, the pieces were mainly intended to be pedagogical. The question of what Bach was aiming for is not a simple one, otherwise those smart musicologists would have figured it out a long time ago.

The search referred to in the title is not fully resolved in this volume, or in any other, as yet; nor perhaps need it be. But certainly the Suites are worthy of Siblin’s extraordinary efforts and syntheses, and vice versa.


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