More than a half-century ago, I had the privilege of accompanying some of the great figures of American modern dance. On one such occasion, Doris Humphrey, whose modesty and charm belied her status as the doyenne of American dance, created an enchanting choreography set to the G major Partita of Bach. As I was the pianist, and prone to the conventional impression of Bach as the solemn traditionalist who was the curator of high morals and straight talk, I was completely shaken by the beauty of gesture, pattern, and grace displayed by the dancers. Since then I have often mimicked the observation of Schumann, who claimed that he learned more about counterpoint from the novels of Jean Paul than from his music-master; from my experience Doris Humphrey taught me more about Bach than the reputable music scholars.
But this response extended to compositions other than the dance suites. The first biographer of Bach, J. N. Forkel, suggests that Bach “knew how to introduce such variety to his performance that each piece, under his fingers, sounded just like a speech.” As such, eloquence and expression were not mere by-products. Character was intrinsic to the performance, nor should it be inhibited by predictable, overt boundaries which may tend to obscure both the inner thought and the complex counterpoint.
Pertinent to this understanding is an aphorism of Montaigne: “Most of the grounds of the world’s troubles are matters of grammar.” In fact Bach would have never endured but for the felicity and originality of his grammatical constructions. For most of his melodic lines contain within the seeds and fragments of various identifiable motives which then inhabit, adorn, and infuse the overall texture, creating a free counterpoint of both line and feeling.
The result of this process is a continuous dialogue of voices, durations, registers, colors, phrases, punctuations, and ultimately a syntax of endless gradations, shapes, and clauses finely balanced. Structure is not simply the eight-bar phrase, the A section, the B section and other such truisms. Structure is more the miraculous subdivision of motivic cells which leads to tributaries branching far off but still connected to the main stream of thought and to the principal thematic ideas.
Yet another source of grammatical intrigue arises from the vitality of the rhythmic play. Yes, the pulse and the beat have their organic rights, but the specific motives, whether ground or derived, often develop from and reinforce the weak beats which cut across the pulse in invigorating, subversive ways. Thus there is a constant tension, in perfect equilibrium between strong and weak, theme and progeny, pulse and impulse, symmetry and asymmetry.
Of the English Suites, the last five are parallel in conception and form. These five are notable for an opening Prelude which takes the form of the traditional concerto grosso, tutti and solo alternating, and with an initial statement (‘Ritornello’) that is repeated identically at the end of the movement. Each of these Preludes requires such a high degree of virtuosity and contains such a relentlessly driving momentum that both the pianist and the subsidiary motives must struggle to survive. After the Prelude the customary dances follow: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue –with more accessible, optional dances (so-called ‘galanteries’) intervening between the Sarabande and the Gigue. This latter group includes Bourées, Minuets, Passepieds, and Gavottes. By contrast, the first English Suite, after a model by the French composer Dieupart, is quite different in spirit and organization. It reflects more of the world of Couperin by its abundance or ornamentation and delicate whimsy, while featuring a more modest Prelude in the style of a gentle pastorale.
Uniquely, Bach is the one composer who sounds equally convincing on whichever instrument or combination of them that is used. (He himself was a great and chronic transcriber.) One may propose that the piano is an ideal medium, for it has no singular quality of its own. However, it can imitate all of the other instruments, including those of the keyboard family – clavichord, harpsichord, portable or grand organ – plus the violin and clarinet, as Schnabel has pointed out, and by extension, each of the remaining. For potentially, although the piano is none of these instruments, it can approximate all of them. Whether it is a question of cantabile or pizzicato, sounds massive or slender, hortatory or breathless, breathing or sighing, tambourine or tympani, the piano can be an effective, mutable agent. It is this variety of speech, these arabesques of line and gesture, these permutations of musical grammar which benefit from an instrument that is a natural chameleon and the servant of light and dark.
Anne Carson, a poet and the highly praised translator of the plays of Euripedes, offered the following testimony to her craft: “A translator is someone trying to get between a body and its shadow. Translating is a task of imitation that faces in two directions at once, for it must line itself up with the solid body of the original text and at the same time with the shadow of that text where it falls across another language.” Something similar could be said for the interpreter of music. For one must get inside the text, crawl into its very bones, and yet be fully aware of the meanings and implications of the text where it falls across other languages, centuries, composers, styles, and the changing faces and needs of humanity. The text never changes, the context always – exerting its gravitational pull.
Postscript: Why are they referred to as the English Suites? There is some speculation, but no definitive answer has emerged.
Russell Sherman, 2008