Johann Sebastian Bach - Suite 1 pour violoncelle seul BWV 1007
Johann Sebastian Bach
Suite BWV 1007 for Solo Violoncello
"10" de Répertoire n°58
Prix d'interprétation de La Nouvelle Académie du Disque
"In no other art did the Bach miracle occur. To strip human nature down to its divine core; to endow with spiritual fervour that is most universally human; to give divine wings to the flight of the ethereal; to render the human divine, and the divine human; this is Bach : the highest, purest musical pinnacle of all time." Pablo Casals
The art of Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most impressive phenomena in the history of western music. Although we have long been aware of this, we are reminded of it anew with each thrust of an opus continuously revealing fresh insights through its infinite diversity and profound capacity to instruct.
Bach was a man of his time, the 18th century : firmly rooted in his own era, yet capable of surpassing the previous century’s "baroque" culmination and of consigning it to antiquity. His analytic mind extracted the substance from tradition, subjected it to rational scrutiny, and devised new rules for it. Thus it was that Bach came to pioneer a new style, "classicism", that his sons and pupils were subsequently to spread throughout Europe. Bach did not reject the forms established by his predecessors, however; rather, he breathed new life into them and preserved them from oblivion. Bach was a master craftsman coveting neither present glory nor everlasting fame who, in his Italian Concerto, Well-Tempered Clavichord, Violin Sonatas and Partitas and Violoncello Suites, cast a clear eye into the future.
A New Instrumental Art
The second half of the 16th century gave birth to an autonomous instrumental art based on transcriptions of songs. When instruments began to be used for playing Gabrieli’s Canzonas and Frescobaldi’s Toccatas, they quickly moved to centre stage. The following century was a time of experimentation. The limitations of existing instruments such as lutes, viols and flutes were stretched to their utmost just as newcomers - violins and keyboards - were gaining ground.
The 18th century was not only the Age of Reason, but also the Age of Universality. The barriers segregating the French from the Italian styles crumbled, a development to which Bach’s contribution was crucial. Bach strove constantly to free individual instruments from restrictive formal models, divorcing the suite from the lute and the viol, and composing polyphonically for traditionally monophonic instruments such as the violin, the violoncello, and the flute.
It is impossible to ascribe an exact date to the invention of the violin, but we do know that over an initial span of some fifty years the new instrument gained overwhelming popularity, first through opera and dance, and then through a rich repertoire composed specifically of it and placing it at the nerve-centre of contemporary musical development. Although the violoncello was invented at approximately the same time, it was not so readily accepted. The violoncello was included in early 18th century orchestras, but the viola da gamba was still preferred for continuo parts. On the other hand, the violoncello was not really favoured as a solo instrument, either. This is explained in part by the fact that for many years violoncellists performed standing, with their instruments resting on a stool - as illustrated in the famous engraving of Corelli conducting one of his concerts in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. This position made it almost impossible to move the left hand along the unsupported neck of the instrument. Further, although the violoncello’s tone was more powerful than of the viol, it was difficult to control and relatively incompatible with "sweet-sounding" instruments such as the flute, or with the human voice.
In a 1740 pamphlet entitled "In defence of the bass viol against the inroads of the violin and the pretensions of the violoncello," Frenchman Hubert Le Blanc wrote : "its dissonance must be fought with vigour; it demands a subservient art; he who would master the wild vibrations of it's string, which are like ship’s cable, must wear boots on his fingers". During the same period, however, two works - the first violoncello-method books - gave amateurs some invaluable pointers. These were Lanzetti’s 1736 "Principles of Violoncello Fingering in All Keys" and Corrette’s 1741 "Theoretical and Practical Method For Rapid and Perfect Mastery of the Cello". Michel Corrette was the first to advise playing the instrument in a sitting position, which (in his words) "gives greater ease for the execution of difficult passages". And yet Bach’s Suites were composed long before in about 1720...
Bach’s Violoncello Suites
Are we to surmise from the foregoing that when Bach composed his set of Suites for the violoncello, the instrument was virtually non-existent? Not quite. A few well-known musicians were already playing and composing for it : Ariosti, who performed about 1698 in Berlin; and Jacchini and Domenico Gabrielli. However, it is unlikely that Bach knew any of them. The only violoncello players with whom he was in regular contact were Linigke and Abel, both actually celebrated viol specialists who occasionally performed on the violoncello.
Bach’s violin Sonatas and Partitas were also composed at this time, and here we do find existing models : Vivaldi’s Opus 3 and - especially - Heinrich Biber’s Sonatas. But there are no such models for the violoncello, since even the above-mentioned works by virtuosos Jacchini and Gabrielli were rudimentary. And Vivaldi’s own violoncello works are not relevant here, since they are either atypical - being also suitable for the bassoon - or unpublished.
We may therefore deduce that, during a period when Bach was attempting to demonstrate his skills as a composer in any style and for any instrument, from the traditional lute and viola da gamba to the newly invented violin and violoncello, he simply extrapolated from violin to violoncello, thus proving that this "bass violin" was as suitable as the bass viol for performing polyphonic pieces.
The only primary sources available today are a manuscript copied by Anna Magdalena Bach and a copy belonging to Johann Peter Kellner, an organist friend of Bach’s. Although the Six Suites form a structurally consistent whole (Prélude; Allemande; Courante; Sarabande; Menuets, Bourrées or Gavottes; Gigue), we will see later (vol. 2) that they fall naturally into two groups - four in one, two in the other : four Suites for violoncello; and two for somewhat different instruments.
Internally, each suite contains three separate pieces (Prélude, Sarabande, and Gigue with the Sarabande constituting the suite’s central pivot); and two "paired" pieces Allemande, Courante and Menuets (or Bourrées or Gavottes) l and ll.
Suite I in G Major BWV 1007
The two-part Prélude with its central climax is relatively brief. The first part is constructed around an arpeggio motif based on a two-voice pedal figure, and the second part embellishes a contrasting theme, broken by a long harmonic sequence leading into the conclusion and built on a variation of the initial arpeggio.
The Allemande is in two symmetrical parts, variations on a motif from the prelude. The chords indicate to the alert listener a polyphonic progression that is more hinted-at than real.
The Courante is also in two symmetrical parts, here contrasting two rhythmic figures, one in eight-notes, the other in sixteenths. The two figures are later treated to a number of variations which lend this Courante its characteristic exuberance.
The Sarabande is one of the shortest in all the suites : two parts containing eight measures. Here again, the chords are more a suggestion to the listener of how the polyphony might progress than an indication of the dance beat.
The next two dance movements are the only ones that vary depending on the pair of suites in which they appear : Menuets in N° 1 and 2; Bourrées in N° 3 and 4; Gavottes in N° 5 and 6. This is also the sole concession to French taste, since, with rare exceptions, most of the Suites are in the Italian style.
The two Menuets, which are played in alternation, with a da capo recapitulation of the first, stand in relative contrast to the other dance movements due to a simplicity that is almost rustic. The second Menuet, although written in 3/4 time, is constructed in half-measures, thus somewhat attenuating the inherent Menuet rhythm.
The concluding Gigue is unquestionably the lightest and most animated of all, barely overshadowed by two minor-key passages : D-minor in the first part; G-minor in the second.
Alain Meunier was born in 1942 and received his training at the French National Conservatory of Music in Paris, where he won four first Prizes : Violoncello, Instrumental Ensemble, Professional Chamber Music, and Theory of Music.
An accomplished soloist specializing in the classical and romantic repertoire, with an emphasis on chamber music, Alain Meunier is also a fervent supporter of new music. Numerous contemporary composers have written for him, including Georges Aperghis, Alain Bancquart, Franco Donatoni, Pascal Dusapin, Marc Monnet, and Maurice Ohana.
Teacher, during 28 years, first at the "Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse" in Lyon, then in Paris, he has also taught for more than 35 years at "Accademia Musicale" in Siena (Italy). He shares the direction of "Quatuors à Bordeaux" which associate the International String Quartet competition and the Chamber Music Festival. He heads the "Festival d’Entrecasteaux" (Var, France) and the "Serate Internazionali di Musica da Camera di Napoli" (Italy). He is frequently invited to perform in music festivals world-wide.
Menuet l et Menuet ll
Review"10" de Répertoire n°58
Prix d'interprétation de La Nouvelle Académie du Disque