Yesterday I went to a writing workshop offered by my friend, Karen Littleton, poet and writer in residence at Westbury Arts Centre. Titled ‘Time to Write,’ the workshop was an afternoon in a tranquil setting with other writers, each of us working on different projects. Lately, I’ve been wanting to write about the Prelude to J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Cello. I went down to Westbury a bit early and brought my cello along because I wanted to play the piece in the acoustic where I was going to write about it. In the atmosphere created by Karen, I found space for my thoughts to become words and sentences.
The Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are well-loved and well-known. I especially love the second suite, but for years never felt brave enough to perform any of it. I have frequently taken it out and learned a line here, a line there. I’ve bowed and fingered my way through the movements, enjoying them, but not quite getting a sense of the whole. Over time, I learned the Prelude well enough to play the notes, but they just formed a mesh of sound, a collection of tones. When finished, I would feel exhausted, as if I had been holding my breath for five minutes, hoping I was doing it right. I wasn’t making a music that I could understand, I was playing to prove a point, execute an exercise. My renditions didn’t recreate the structure, the inner story of the piece.
And yet, I knew it had to have one. This spring, I decided to engage with the Prelude on its own terms. To listen and see if I could understand what it had to say to me.
I think one of the reasons that the piece can seem opaque is that it is deeply nuanced, subtly coloured. Unlike its nearest siblings, the Preludes to the first and third suites, it doesn’t fly a flag of direct intention in the first two bars. It neither radiates the unambiguous optimism of the first suite or the confident jubilation of the third. To say that the second suite is simply tragic is to mishear the overtones and richness; there is a somber celebration throughout. To begin to fathom this, one must trace its lines in a spirit of introspection.
I began to approach the Prelude as a labyrinth, guided by questions. The initial tones are like footsteps. We know not where these paths will lead, only that these steps must be taken. Each rising arpeggio asks a different question, the kind of question that leads to more questions. Some questions turn back on themselves in the sinuous lines of the answering phrases. Some uncover wellsprings of grief. Some point towards unexpected shafts of light, flooding in from unknown sources. As the music continues, both listener and performer come to trust that, like all labyrinths, each note, each passage, brings us closer to the centre of the piece, even when it seems like we are moving away.
There are progressions that leave the ears longing for resolution. Again and again, Bach slyly slips in another twist, another turn before the short-lived solace of a perfect cadence. Along this musical path-making, the Prelude builds to a rhythmic sequence that mirrors the opening but with deeper notes and larger intervals, as if the purpose of listening is to expand our troughs and peaks of experience. Now the music seems to ask the most difficult questions: the ones we can barely whisper, but which resonate through our bodies with their import. The responses rise towards the climax of the piece, releasing that particular strain of hope born from loss, despair, transformation. These are not answers, but songs to live by, in spite of the questions, because of the questions.
At the centre of this sonic labyrinth we find silence.
In this moment, Bach makes a decision. Each time we encounter the Prelude, this silence reminds us of the gravitas of his decision. He chooses not to end the piece at the point of enlightenment gained after an uneasy and uncertain journey. Instead he asks the musician and the listener to do something even more difficult: to return from the depths of the labyrinth.
On retracing our steps, we are struck by how much the way out differs from the way in, although it is the same path. The final section brings us back to the topside world. Having made the decision to return, the voice has a different quality. Our steps are surer and the musical lines travel more directly. Underlying progressions move towards resolution, towards strength. The final five measures were written simply as chords, with an understanding that the player can improvise around the chord structure. It is an invitation for the musician to express insights from this pilgrimage in her own notes, and for the listener to know that the final lines and phrases that punctuate the Prelude can differ with each performance and each performer.
I believe music begins when the composer first writes the notes down. It starts to grow as musicians learn the notes and approach technical mastery. And it becomes vibrantly alive when musicians and listeners come into communion in a shared space.
At the end of yesterday’s workshop, we had the opportunity to share some of our work from the afternoon. I read the first draft of this piece and played the Prelude. It was a delight and a gift to share words and music with others. Heartfelt thanks to them all.
There are many recordings of this piece to listen to. Interestingly, Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma both choose to play the final 5 measures as full, unornamented chords. Their tempos are strikingly different. Anner Bylsma, who specialises in the Baroque style, includes an interesting arpeggiation of the chords. Janos Starker (the version I have) differs yet again. Many will endlessly about whether or not one should ‘touch’ what Bach did. I think it’s interesting that the possibility is there.