That famous cello prelude, deconstructed
January 31, 2020 11:01 AM   Subscribe

That famous cello prelude, deconstructedWhy Bach’s G major prelude is the perfect piece of music. Vox's Estelle Caswell (previously on MetaFilter) and cellist Alisa Weilerstein detail why the piece is so popular and captivating.
posted by tonycpsu (38 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's cap'n Jack Aubrey's go-to tune in the Master and Commander movie, but I only recently put it together that he would have never known about this piece prior to its resurrection unless his music teacher had an especially deep library.

Sticky Notes did a deep dive if you like this sort of thing, and Yo Yo Ma did all six in a single performance for Proms in 2015. I don't think he does that very often because they are so demanding.
posted by Think_Long at 11:21 AM on January 31 [8 favorites]


I attempted a performance of this once. Once.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:32 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Was just about to post this! Wonderful video.
posted by gwint at 11:35 AM on January 31


That's a very good breakdown! I've been vaguely familiar with this piece for long time because, yeah, just super ubiquitous in media usage, but I've listened to it a whole bunch in the last year as I've found myself putting on Bach cello suites during times of stress where I needed some music that wasn't going to have a heavy beat or lyrics or a busy arrangement. The cello has such a nice warm sonorous range; I tried some violin and some piano and harpsichord in the same Bach et al territory and none of them got out of the way for me like it does.

And I sort of expected to get sick of the prelude as the first track and something I already half knew, but...it's just a really good composition. I'm a sucker for pedal point and I love the shifts in frame that Bach pulled off playing between the tonic and the dominant, and that chromatic run up at the end is just fuckin' aces. I should listen with more attention to more of his stuff because I really enjoy the mathematical, structured reasoning behind a lot of especially baroche-era compositional tactics and he was really good at making that sound good.

I've been listening in particular to Yo-Yo Ma's "Six Evolutions" from a couple years ago, and there was a nice Song Exploder episode with him where he talks about that most recent recording in contrast to one or two recordings of the same prelude he'd made earlier in his career, if you want a more interpretive rather than structural take on the approach to playing the piece. That fermata that Weilerstein talks about comes up there as well.

Small tangent on the pedal point thing: the song Higher Beams, off New Pornographers' latest album, does a very nice job of playing that to the hilt, with a simple pulsing bass line that never moves off the tonic even as the song itself shifts around harmonically from the tonic to the subdominant and dominant.
posted by cortex at 11:59 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]


Did Derrida die before people started calling any act of analyzing anything "deconstructing"?
posted by thelonius at 12:01 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Now I'm listening to Higher Beams on speakers with poor low-end and having trouble figuring out if the bass-line really never moves off the tonic or just is really stubborn about it during the verses.
posted by cortex at 12:01 PM on January 31


It's not that I'm not very fond of the piece, but I think that at least part of its popularity must be attributed to the way it fits the vague lay notion of What Classy Music Sounds Like.
posted by praemunire at 12:23 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Sticky Notes did a deep dive if you like this sort of thing

Sticky Notes, incidentally, is hosted by Alisa Weilerstein's brother, the conductor Joshua Weilerstein.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:27 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


This CD used to be in my alarm clock so I came to detest it even though it is actually wonderful. Just suggesting to anyone reading that if you love some piece of music, don't make it your wake-up music.
posted by hypnogogue at 12:37 PM on January 31 [9 favorites]


> Did Derrida die before people started calling any act of analyzing anything "deconstructing"?

Surely somebody calling a thing a thing is the way he would have wanted to go. So here's hoping.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 12:43 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


It's cap'n Jack Aubrey's go-to tune in the Master and Commander movie, but I only recently put it together that he would have never known about this piece prior to its resurrection unless his music teacher had an especially deep library.

In fact, in one of the books Jack happens to stumble across some "strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste" written by some antediluvian German father of the much more famous London Bach.
posted by theodolite at 12:56 PM on January 31 [7 favorites]


"...an instrument that only has four strings."

Mike Marshall says you can use eight.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:40 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


There is a case that it sounds better when upgraded for viola. At the very least, it's different?

Hugely enjoyable piece to play, and well within the abilities of a competent amateur.
posted by plonkee at 2:50 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]


Did Derrida die before people started calling any act of analyzing anything "deconstructing"?

Presumably this is an essay examining the ways the "Jello Sweet" encourages us to read it more as a desert recipe than instructions for making sounds with a cello.
posted by straight at 2:52 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Love this! The 1985 Mischa Maisky recording of the Bach cello suites is one of my favorite recordings of anything, ever (Spotify link).
posted by STFUDonnie at 3:22 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


This was one of my ABRSM Grade 8 'cello pieces way back in 1998 or something.

I see it's still on the syllabus and I can't imagine it ever coming off.

It is fucking sublime. Once I could passably play it, it wasn't like I was done with the instrument, but I really, really felt like I'd accomplished something.
posted by danhon at 3:30 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]


Edit-to-add:

It's one thing to listen to it and I love listening to Yo-Yo Ma's recording, but to play it and for it to not sound horrible... I swear Bach feels like a religious experience to me, an atheist.
posted by danhon at 3:49 PM on January 31 [5 favorites]


Mstislav Rostropovich's recording of the Cello Suites was one of the first CDs I owned. I listened to it all the time in my first apartment.

One day I passed my neighbor who said, "I've heard you practicing, and your cello playing is incredible."

(I loaned her the CD rather than try to be a bad sit-com character.)
posted by straight at 5:49 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]


I was a cellist. I must have played the G major prelude thousands of times. It remains an audition standard. As a music professor now (albeit one who has almost nothing to do with classical music by definite choice) I still hear it waiting through the halls in the week of orchestra auditions.

I always preferred playing the more expressive D minor and C major preludes (and entire suites). The G major feels like an etude by comparison, or a harmonic exercise.

I first learned the G major under a teacher who had studied with Leonard Rose (a Casals student). I then completely redid the suites with my second teacher, a Casals student himself. He impressed on me how much Casals’ interpretation was the modern idea of what this music was supposed to sound like.

Later I came to find Janos Starker’s versions the most compelling.

I don’t think I’ve consciously listened to any classical music for fun and by choice (as opposed to for work because I wanted to support a student group or was attending a concert honoring a composer colleague or whatever) in 30 years. But about once every three or four years I get the cello out of its case and tune it up and play .... the D minor or G major or C major preludes (all of which I remember in muscle memory like I played them every day) just to assess where my chops are. I’m still a working professional musician (a rock guitarist) so my fingers work fine, but the cello is an unforgiving lover if you abandon her (substitute the gender of your choice) for long. The last few times I’ve stopped 20 bars in and quit in disgust. I have vague plans to get back to it in retirement just because.

But not before I get proficient on the pedal steel guitar.
posted by spitbull at 7:39 PM on January 31 [10 favorites]


Oh how lovely, there’s a Wikipedia article on my major teacher, a Casals student named Christopher Bunting, and it describes his detailed pedagogy as I remember it.

I loved him but he used to examine my left thumb and if it wasn’t bleeding tell me I wasn’t practicing enough.
posted by spitbull at 7:56 PM on January 31


I swear Bach feels like a religious experience to me, an atheist.

Same here. Not a religious bone in my body and no idea what the religious are talking about when they describe the 'religious experience'.

Except when I listen to Bach, and the cello suites are up the top of that list, along with Gould's recording of the Well Tempered Clavier.

Recently acquired Ma's Six Evolutions version of the cello suites, and it is sublime to the point of tears.

One or two other pieces of music do it too. Such as 'My Sweet Lord' by George Harrison, especially the version sung by Billy Fields at Harrison's memorial concert. But almost exclusively Bach.

Bach did say he wrote all his music for the glory of God, so maybe he knew something I don't.

However, a confirmed atheist I remain, albeit one grateful for the good stuff that was inspired by religious belief.

*shrugs*

The guitar has almost exactly the same range as the cello – that is, the range of the human voice – and also lends itself very well to both arpeggios and transcriptions of cello pieces. So the cello suites work well on guitar, albeit without the sheer power a cello has, resulting in a more delicate sound. Still moves me though.

Bach's lute suites are good too. Such as BWV 999, which has a prelude similar in style to the cello prelude under discussion. Plenty of versions on YT.

There is a case that it sounds better when upgraded for viola. At the very least, it's different?

That is pretty good. Really fills that venue (perhaps a touch too much at times, but...). There is a lightness to it that is hard to get on the cello. Thanks. :)
posted by Pouteria at 10:11 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Such as BWV 999, which has a prelude similar in style to the cello prelude under discussion. Plenty of versions on YT.

And BWV 998.
posted by Pouteria at 12:53 AM on February 1


Your favourite cellist sucks.

You all need to give Janos Starker and/or Maurice Gendron a spin.
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:39 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


So most recordings of this piece have quite a lot of rubato, often starting with the very first note. But the scores I have seen, like the Dover edition, have no indication of this. So is this just a convention concerning how this kind of Baroque music is supposed to be played? How do they know that? We of course have no recordings of Bach's contemporaries playing his music. I know I saw once a reproduction of a C.P. E. Bach manuscript in which he notated what the various shorthands for keyboard ornaments should sound like - is there something like that from a contemporary source, discussing interpretation of solo string pieces? Or is this actually oral tradition going back 300 years?
posted by thelonius at 3:19 AM on February 1


The degree of rubato is the major variable in performing these. Casals laid it on thick. Ever since so do most cellists. It is unlikely that bears any relationship to how they were played in Bach’s time.

I’ll just say the “religious experience” rhetoric is a major reason I abandoned classical music. You have to also think about it as t he sound of white supremacy and colonialism, very elaborately built up (only since t he 19th century) as “pure music” above politics and meant to be preserved in amber for all time. Just saying such things appalls people who were committed to the “religious experience” of “absolute music” and see Bach as its pinnacle.

Few composers are cited more as evidence of western culture/“civilization’s” inherent superiority, maybe Beethoven wins by a hair. But yeah definitely the best music ever made and never since equaled has to have been written by a German man working for a prince or a church 300 years ago. No one else on earth has ever been as good.

I mean have you ever heard Mbaka polyphony? Or a superb performance of Hindustani khyal? Or Aretha Franklin sing? There’s no best music evah.
posted by spitbull at 3:38 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]


My favorite recording of the cello suites is by Canadian cellist Matt Haimovitch. Many modern players of Baroque music, such as Haimovitch, don't use much rubato or vibrato, and I prefer to hear Bach played that way. I agree with spitbull about the Đ-minor suite. The initial suite in G is just an introduction, like the initial Aria in the Goldberg Variations.
posted by Agave at 5:54 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


I have always thought that the climax of this piece was like, you know, actually supposed to sound like having a climax.
posted by illongruci at 8:05 AM on February 1


So the cello suites work well on guitar, albeit without the sheer power a cello has, resulting in a more delicate sound.

I have pretty rudimentary classical skills on guitar, but there are some pretty easy transcriptions of the Gavottes (from the C minor and D major Suites) for guitar that are beautiful and wonderfully satisfying to play.
posted by straight at 8:12 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


I’ll just say the “religious experience” rhetoric is a major reason I abandoned classical music. You have to also think about it as t he sound of white supremacy and colonialism, very elaborately built up (only since t he 19th century) as “pure music” above politics and meant to be preserved in amber for all time. Just saying such things appalls people who were committed to the “religious experience” of “absolute music” and see Bach as its pinnacle.

This kind of reductive take on music seems to ignore too much about people's experience of it. I don't deny that classical music has been used that way by white supremacy, but there's a lot more going on than that. It doesn't explain why these particular pieces by Bach are so widely loved more than his other music or other European art music.
posted by straight at 8:38 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


i mean this bach stuff is fine but he’s no lofi hip hop radio - beats to study/relax to
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:36 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


I spent a good chunk of time trying to play the cello suites (well, specifically suite number two in d minor) on the pedal steel guitar. I pretty much gave up when about every two measures I had to climb under the guitar and modify what one of the pedals or knee levers did.

So I learned them poorly on my double bass.
posted by stet at 10:59 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Here is a very good interview with violist Kim Kashkashian about her recent recording of the Six Suites.

“No one can ever play that music adequately, and also no one can play it badly.”
posted by spacewaitress at 7:46 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


For me, Bach’s best music for solo instrument is the legendary d minor chaconne from his 2nd violin partita. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms wrote:
On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:09 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]


Yep. I first heard the Chaconne transcribed for guitar on a Christopher Parkening album. Fell in love immediately, but didn't realize its true power until I heard Nathan Milstein's version.

And then there's the amazing Morimur by The Hilliard Ensemble with Christoph Poppen.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:44 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Stop saying stuff like this is "perfect"! Just say it's good and tell me why! Yay Bach! Boo cult of genius!
posted by speicus at 12:09 PM on February 2 [2 favorites]


Stop saying stuff like this is "perfect"! Just say it's good and tell me why!

That's what the video did. If you watch it, it's a good explanation, at a level that beginners can understand, of why the Prelude is so amazing.
posted by Lexica at 9:44 AM on February 3


This is the piece I'm working toward while thumb-fingering my way through a bunch of arpeggios and somehow getting involved in a project that relies heavily on me being much better at cello. So this is hugely inspiring and timely.

I have been playing for just under a year and feel like I will probably be doing this for the rest of my life. If I can half-ass it by next year I will be very satisfied with myself.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:06 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


There is a case that it sounds better when upgraded for viola. At the very least, it's different?

Yes. It also sounds pretty good on double-bass.
posted by straight at 3:57 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


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