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/ Bach cello suits

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Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018

Might be a bit of an odd one to ask on a climbing forum, but there's some great wisdom on UKC in a surprising breadth of fields.

I'm a novice at listening to and understanding classical (OK, and baroque, romantic etc) music, but once I've got a "way in" to understanding a particular genre or piece I get a great deal of pleasure and stimulation from it. I have a general feel for stuff that I like, but I find it hard to really get into a piece of complicated music until I understand it well enough to follow what's going on. 

This is where I am with the Bach cello suites. I like the sound and feel of the music, but I just don't get what is going on and so I struggle to concentrate sufficiently to get much out of them. And it's obvious that there's a huge amount to get out, I just need a bit of guidance in *how* to listen to them.

I've done some online courses in "concert music", that are fairly light and cover a bit of history and context, basic stuff about how the music is structured, and some splashes of analysis, and really enjoyed them. The knowledge has totally transformed my relationship with pieces of music I was already partly familiar with - I'm a great believer that understanding enhances wonder rather than diminishes it. But I haven't found anything that's opened up the world of the Bach cello suites. I had a quick look at a course on Bach but just couldn't get through the churchy organ stuff (clever, my god yes, but what a horrible sound!) and there weren't any lectures on the cello suites so I gave up.

Does anyone know where I could look for something at a "for dummies" level that would enable me to appreciate these things? I know I could just listen to them again and again until I got it, but I really like learning about the structure and compositional techniques, as once I know what's going on, I can concentrate fully on the content, see more of the beauty and feel more of the expression.

Edit. Spelling mistake in thread title. Oh the shame!

Edit. Also, interested in anyone's views about the different ways we can appreciate this kind of very rich art, stuff that's not instantly accessible, at least not for everyone. Some might say that if you need it explained, you're missing the point...

Post edited at 14:23
MG - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Sorry can't help but could you  link to the online courses you have done?

Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to MG:

https://www.thegreatcourses.co.uk/

A month for free, then subscription. Awesome, courses on everything. Bit cheesy and American style but the lectures by Bob Greenberg are great. He's a really witty chap and certainly knows his coconuts.

If you like chamber music, then Bruce Adolphe's lectures are great. Here's the one on my favourite piece of classical music:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_h65g_WnQTU

MG - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Thanks!

Thrudge on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

I'm afraid I can't help with your question, but I'm so pleased to see a mention of the Cello Suites that I feel compelled to chime in.

I come at it from a different angle to you - I am musically ignorant, having zero knowledge or understanding of musical structure except for the vague idea that baroque is layered and the layers 'talk' to each other, whereas classical flows and changes as a whole.  (Poorly expressed, I'm sure, but I know what I mean).

For me, the Cello Suites just seem to speak to me and move me in ways I can't articulate.  They seem sad and profound while at the same time I get a powerful feeling of the depth and strength of the human spirit - heavy stuff.  I first heard part of them playing as background music on a documentary I've long since forgotten.  At the time, I was a youth on a steady diet of Motorhead, Sabbath, and The Dead Kennedys.  The Cello Suites blew me away with their power and I've been enamoured of them ever since.

In fact the first CD I ever bought was the Paul Tortellier recording.  If you haven't heard it, I'd highly recommend it.  He plays with tremendous feeling.

Also, if you haven't tried the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the Arthur Grumiaux recording is a belter.

Thanks for posting.

nickh1964 - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Yes, they are extraordinary pieces, very moving. I have no formal musical education, but used to play the cello, so I can think about how technically hard they are but rarely do. 

One of the most useful quotes In can share is that John Carey ( i think ) who was prof of English at Oxford wrote of T S Eliot that one should not try to analyse and understand it too much, just let it flow over you. I think thats the way I listen to most classical music.

Probably not what you wanted, but hey ho.

  

Rigid Raider - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

I'm in the same boat as the OP, not a musician but love classical and many other kinds of music.

One of my best Christmas presents ever was Year of Wonder by the talented R3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill: 

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/getting-classical-music-one-a-day/

I'm steadily working my way through, listening to one piece every morning while I eat breakfast, and thoroughly enjoying the book and CBH's interesting commentaries.

If music theory interests you you must read the books of Howard Goodall, who was in my class at school. Start with Big Bangs and also see if you can watch it on DVD because his explanations are excellent.

Bjartur i Sumarhus on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

A friend of mine is a secret pianist, as in he tells barely anyone that he is incredibly good. 

He wanted to play his favourite piece at his own wedding as a gift to his new wife so he learned it secretly and played it flawlessy without any sheet music. It was Un Sospiro by Franz Liszt. Check it out,

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSHwX2O7j2w

As you say, a story gives a piece of music much more resonance as the above did for me. 

MB42 - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Theres some great stuff on various radio 3 programmes and the archive is handily linked by composer here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3cjHdZlXwL7W41XGB77X3S0/composers-a-to-z

Nothing on the Bach cello suites but stuff on the concerti and violin sonatas.

For more general Baroque:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p012fwtk

Doug Hughes - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

It's worth reading any background on baroque music in general, because if you've only heard the 'classical' music from later periods, it's pretty different, particularly in the way it just seems to flow, without much apparent light and shade, and take one idea and stay with it through different keys for a whole piece. The preludes to the cello suites are rather like that. The other movements, though, are based on dances - sarabande, gigue (jig), etc. So if you can't find information on the cello suites, you may be able to learn about the various dance styles, particularly as they also come up in other Bach pieces, such as the English Suites for keyboard. 

So glad you've discovered this fantastic music.

mbh - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

These have been favourites of mine for over thirty years ever since I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber play them at Kettle's Yard, from about five yards away.. 

As a postgrad, I struck very lucky with lodgings and got a garden flat in a nice part of town at my first try. As I settled in I played a tape of these suites and my my new landlord told me how relieved he was to hear this music drifting up from among the roses, as opposed to what he had feared I might play (which I did at other times, Powerage and Who's Next being favourites). He was Boris Ford the literary editor, whose daughter, married to Roger Vignoles the accompanist,  played in John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Boris moved in musical circles and told me of how at one weekend gathering he was at, Rostropovich ended up playing the Suite number one just for him, in a barn.

That suite remains my favourite, particularly the prelude, which I think Rostropovich plays too fast in his recording. There's a part near the end where the cello seems to be playing with two voices at once. It is simply magical. I have heard a few versions, but my favourite remains the first that I heard, Fournier's, the one on that garden flat tape.

cb294 - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Bach's music is almost mathematically or geometrically constructed. This is particularly evident in the works he composed either as training or teaching pieces or as state-of-the-art demonstrations or legacy pieces(Art of Fugue, Well Tempered Piano, Goldberg Variations, Mass in B minor, St. Matthew's Passion). 

If you do not like organ music (which can indeed be an acquired taste), you may try a piano adaptation of the Art of Fugue, my favourite recording would be the one by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

You can print out the sheet music, or follow commented performances on youtube, up to full lectures like this one (unfortunately quite organy....): 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl8M1VyASvk

The logic underlying Bach's composing style can also be found in other pieces such as his Cello suites, except that in this case he tried to construct archetypical versions of various dances.

CB

Andy Clarke - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Have you looked at Eric Siblin's book on the Cello Suites from a few years ago? That might do the job.

With reference to the Partitas for solo violin, a few days ago I was lucky enough to be sat in the front row at Birmingham Town Hall while Nicola Benedetti, performing 'in the round,' played two of them about six feet in front of me. Trance-like intensity and virtuosity. One of the most moving live music experiences I've ever had. Up there with Springsteen at Hammersmith Odeon on his first UK tour in 1975!

Dave Garnett - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Thrudge:

> In fact the first CD I ever bought was the Paul Tortellier recording.

I have this too. I think the sleeve notes have exactly information the OP asked for, i.e. What They All Mean.  I'm not at home or else I'd go and check.

As I recall, it was something drearily religious he might be better off not knowing, mind.

 

 

Gordon Stainforth - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

The trouble is that 'getting into' classical music takes a long time ... but the beauty then is that the great pieces last all your life, and never stop giving you more. Bach is one of the more difficult, more acquired tastes; but he's arguably the profoundest, purest, deepest composer who's ever lived. My route into classical music from the age of 16 was roughly, the big landmarks in sequence: Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Bartok, then quite a lot of modern classical when I was a music editor (particularly Penderecki), and finally Bach. [I've missed out loads, of course). My all time favourites remain Beethoven and Bach - I think they are equally great in their different ways (i.e. in joint number one position). One way into it, even if you don't read music, is to get the scores ... you can get very neat little pocket score books. This helps you see all the layers of the music, particularly when it's very fugal like Bach. After a while, you'll get the feel of how the pieces are constructed, and it'll help you hear the different levels/layers and not just the predominant melodie/s. The fascinating thing about sound is just how 'transparent' it is - something one learns a lot about as a music editor. In music, there is the whole extra dimension of harmony. Of course, the Bach Cello Suites are a lot simpler in that it's just the melodic line (albeit with a lot of 'double stopping'), but there's a lot going on harmonically and the music is both very complex and very subtle. I love the way almost every movement gains energy as it progresses, usually to an amazing climax. They all have an immense 'shape' like a great arch. Some of those movements bring tears to my eyes. How and why the great composers have the power to move like that, I just don't know. Don't be put off by the 'learning curve' with some pieces. You can listen to some classical pieces quite a few times, sometimes many times, before they suddenly 'click'. 

cb294 - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Gordon Stainforth:

>  Don't be put off by the 'learning curve' with some pieces. You can listen to some classical pieces quite a few times, sometimes many times, before they suddenly 'click'. 

This, and even more, try to listen to recordings with different conductors, to understand what each one found in the score and tries to emphasize in his interpretation. I find it particularly interesting to compare recordings from different periods (listen to, say, the same Beethoven concerto with Furtwängler, Karajan, Thielemann, and Jansons conducting, and they almost sound like different pieces).

Some composers may never click for you, for me Bartok would be one example of a composer with whose music I could never connect.

CB

 

Gordon Stainforth - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to cb294:

Absolutely agree re different recordings and interpretations. It's one of the wonders of YouTube to be able to see some v early classic recordings. Bartok ... my main interest in him stemmed from using it in 'a certain movie' ...

Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to all:

Heartening to see all these interesting and enthusiastic responses!

I have a bit of background knowledge about the baroque and how the style relates to more familiar classical era music; and how the ideas around at the time influenced the music. 

A few responses refer to the "story" or "meaning" of a piece - which is a different approach to lisening. What I find really allows me to get to grips with complex instrumental music is understanding the structure (e.g. sonata form, fugue, passacaglia, etc). 

Bach's fugues just totally boggle my brain - maybe one day I'll get a handle on some of them (being played on something other than the bloody organ would be a start - and no, not on a harpsichord either) but for now I'll leave them alone. 

I gather that the Cello Suites take existing dance forms and then probably do something unbelievably clever and complicated with them that's not only intellectually mind boggling but simultaneously has tremendous expressive impact. For me, the structure and how it's used expressively is a big part of the beauty. I'm particularly keen on getting to know the cello suites because with only one voice involved, I stand more of a chance! 

Post edited at 22:01
Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Gordon Stainforth:

> One way into it, even if you don't read music, is to get the scores ... you can get very neat little pocket score books. This helps you see all the layers of the music, particularly when it's very fugal like Bach. After a while, you'll get the feel of how the pieces are constructed, and it'll help you hear the different levels/layers and not just the predominant melodie/s.

Have you seen these before?

WARNING: IF YOU ARE BUSY DO NOT CLICK ON THIS LINK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcH2HdbOdfE

(Another favourite movement - Mozart chamber music, so much easier to grasp than Bach and thoroughly satisfying.)

The trouble is that there are mainly only single movements rather than whole works, but I've found them a fantastic way to fully engage with the music.

 

Edit - I can only find the famous Suite 1, Mvt 1 (all 3 mins of it) on the channel. He should pull his finger out and put the whole lot up, pronto.

Post edited at 22:03
Gordon Stainforth - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Yes, I have. They're very well done ... a clever way of making a score simpler to 'read'.

felt - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Get one of those YouTube recordings that shows the score as well. Then follow the patterns, the maths, the design. Even if you don't read music, it might help clarify things. Bach is very visual.

> churchy organ stuff (clever, my god yes, but what a horrible sound!) 

Then again, maybe there's no hope.

Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to felt:

> > churchy organ stuff (clever, my god yes, but what a horrible sound!) 

> Then again, maybe there's no hope.

Probably not!

Gordon Stainforth - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Your last paragraph is a very good summary of the merits of the music. The thing about Bach's instrumental music is it's very pure; there isn't a 'story' or 'programme'. The music itself becomes the 'story'. Of course his oratorios, cantatas and masses tell stories, and here he is incredibly expressive. I think the St John Passion is even greater than the St Matthew, and one of the greatest things that's ever been written. It's fantastically powerful, moving, dramatic and beautiful. Certainly, I don't think 'bereavement', for example, has ever been quite so powerfully or movingly expressed.

MG - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Have you ever read Godel Escher Bach?, Nerdy, quirky, zeitgeisty computer science book, but with some excellent discussion of Bach's music.

felt - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Gordon Stainforth:

Sorry, just read one of your posts above and seen that I've repeated what you said re the score.

Gordon Stainforth - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

> > churchy organ stuff (clever, my god yes, but what a horrible sound!) 

I don't see how anyone could ever find the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor 'a horrible sound'. It's just mindbogglingly powerful ... almost throwing out a challenge for all time to anyone to try and exceed it in virtuosity and power. I never tire of the moment about half-way through when he completely freaks out. Written in the 18th century but somehow timeless, for all time, even futuristic.

 

 
MG - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

> Have you seen these before?

> WARNING: IF YOU ARE BUSY DO NOT CLICK ON THIS LINK

 You had to write that didn't you? Bastard!!!

Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to MG:

> Have you ever read Godel Escher Bach?, Nerdy, quirky, zeitgeisty computer science book, but with some excellent discussion of Bach's music.

Heard of it, but never dared. I might just go and get it onto the Kindle where it can sit with a load of other half-read and unread works.

Gordon Stainforth - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

I found Godel Escher Bach very pretentious, I'll have to confess. 

Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to MG:

>  You had to write that didn't you? Bastard!!!

Haha, gotcha!

Time well spent though. I hope you've got it through decent speakers and on a proper screen (drink in hand too) so you can get irretrievably absorbed and fail to discharge even the most basic and necessary responsibilities.

Thrudge on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Have you had a listen to Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations?  Beautiful, delicate music and as a bonus you get the very special sing-along-a-Glenn performance 

Jon Stewart - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Gordon Stainforth:

> I don't see how anyone could ever find the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor 'a horrible sound'.

It's a genuinely interesting question. I'm joking when I say "horrible". But all the same it's not a lot of fun. The sound of the organ as an instrument is instinctively unappealing to me, it has all the wrong associations for enjoyment. The tonality of the music is of course dark and foreboding (the Hammer Horror association doesn't help!), but more than anything, it's mind-screwing complex. All in all, it's obviously incredible art, but it's not a lot of fun. In climbing metaphors, it's an extreme grade overhanging offwidth on a north facing gully  wall - it ain't a delightful, exposed sunny VS wall with an expansive view of the valley.

 

 

planetmarshall on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to cb294:

> Bach's music is almost mathematically or geometrically constructed. This is particularly evident in the works he composed either as training or teaching pieces or as state-of-the-art demonstrations or legacy pieces.

I'm not sure I agree with this. Certainly Bach was interested in structure, but there's no reason to believe there's anything more intrinsically mathematical to that structure than in any of the other musical forms popular at the time. Because something succumbs to mathematical analysis, does not necessarily mean that it was mathematically constructed.

planetmarshall on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to Gordon Stainforth:

> I don't see how anyone could ever find the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor 'a horrible sound'. It's just mindbogglingly powerful ... almost throwing out a challenge for all time to anyone to try and exceed it in virtuosity and power. 

Indeed, but there's no evidence that it was actually the work of Bach.

Gordon Stainforth - on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

If you're talking about the Toccata and Fugue, I couldn't disagree with you more, I'm afraid. 

Gordon Stainforth - on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

... If you don't like it played on the organ, this is quite a fun version, surely:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgbgUrp1a70

Philip on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

There are a lot of links to YouTube, but the audio quality is not always good.

Spotify is very popular with fans of "classical". With the subscription (possibly without now too, I don't know as I've subscribed for 7 years) you get no adverts, extreme quality (a higher quality stream) and a massive back catalogue of different recordings. Also the playlists, and the similar artists to help find related work.

I quite like the Yo-Yo Ma recordings of the cello suites, number 1 is my and by the looks of things, most people's favourite. But there is also Pablo Casals recordings, which I think are the earliest recordings.

 

cb294 - on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to planetmarshall:

Of course Bach was not the only counterpoint composer using maths based composition rules, there had been books written on that style since Palestrina.

However, Bach clearly constructed his works around principles like symmetry, which will pop out easily looking at the score, but are harder to discern just by hearing (and in any case, by the time you will have trained your ears sufficiently you will have been told what to look for).

Have a look at the lecture I linked to above, or even better, visit the Bach house in Eisenach, where there is a main room dedicated to his composition principles. You can move from booth to booth, looking at example scores while hearing the corresponding music through headphones, gradually working your way up in complexity. A couple of years ago we visited Eisenach and I spent several hours in that room alone until friends and family eventually wandered off....

CB

nickh1964 - on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Totally agree about listening to different versions of the same piece under different conductors, the Radio three "Building a collection" on Saturday mornings is always fascinating, lots of different versions of a work with expert commentary, its on the i Player so you can listen whenever.

jcw on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

i find this interesting for another reason. Many many years ago when working in Qatar I had a Lebanese clerk. One day I found him waiting for me in my house. He'd put on my record of these unaccompanied suites. He had no knowledge of Western music but was absolutely dumb struck by what he was listening to. That universality may be part of the explanation.

 

nickh1964 - on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

Thats wonderful, thank you for the link.

fimm on 14 Mar 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

> WARNING: IF YOU ARE BUSY DO NOT CLICK ON THIS LINK

Should have headed the warning... those are brilliant. Especially Pachalbel's Canon.

On the original subject; learning a bit more about baroque dance suites in general would give you some context, I think (it has been a long time since I knew this stuff, and that was only GCSE music). There's a little bit on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suite_(music)

deepsoup - on 09 Apr 2018
In reply to Jon Stewart:

When I saw this topic, not being very highbrow, I thought of the 1990 film "Truly, Madly, Deeply". 

By a very mildly odd coincidence, I just discovered it's been released (finally!) on DVD just a few weeks ago.  The DVD turned up in the supermarket for a fiver.

People tend to either hate it or love it.  I think if you can sit dry-eyed through that last scene with the ghosts in the window you must have a heart of flint.  Juliet Stevenson is astonishing in this. There is Bach cello music and we see a much softer side to Hans Gruber.


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