Oh goodness, where do I begin with lessons on a French Suite?
First of all, I must say that I love Bach. His music just makes sense. It is so clean and precise, yet full of nuance and subtleties. In Bach you always have that moment of, after having worked and worked at it, crystal clear insight. The “ah-ha” moment of clarity.
The fifth French Suite is divided into the following dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, bourree, loure and gigue. One thing I needed to work through was how to make the individual dances a cohesive whole. Questions like tempos, energy levels, how much time to allow between movements, which repeats to take, etc. are all necessary and must be addressed.
When I first started studying this piece, I was very didactic. I remembered back to college days (and even high school) and the teaching of articulation within Bach. I had been taught that the longest note value in each dance should be legato, the shortest note value legato, and the mid-range note values should be detached. So I was religiously following these requirements. Of course you know where that leads – I was completely frustrated and was not making music at all, just becoming a robot.
When I discussed the articulation with my teacher, his thoughts were so liberating I could feel the burden rolling off my shoulders (and fingers!). His perspective is that there is so much freedom in Bach because of the lack of dynamic and articulation markings. Your overall goal and end result should be to make music – of course this needs to be within the bounds of good taste and in accordance with the style of the music. But matters of dynamics and articulation are fluid – you do not need to follow strict rules because Bach did not impose them. Even Bach’s son CPE Bach simply admonishes performers of his father’s music to use good taste.
This is wonderful news. My practice was instantly more joyful and creative. I was listening to the music more intently and with more discretion. I was making musical decisions.
Other ideas my teacher brought out in this piece were:
- With regard to voices – what is the spatial quality, what is the timbre
- The whole idea of unity and variety is fascinating and could be studied at length
- The issue of repeats within the individual dances – sometimes the repeated material should have variety, but it doesn’t necessarily need to change. Bach is complex and audiences welcome a second chance to hear the intricate music again.
Bach is simply a treasure-trove of musical ideas. I could play through Bach for years and years and never grow tired of it.