Sound Theology by Colleen Butcher

Holy Week

As we come to the end of Lent, we also complete our adventures through the six Suites for Solo Cello, written in the early 1700s by J.S. Bach.

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Lent 5

This week’s Suite #5 in C minor echoes a journey of pain or worry, sadness or contemplation. Unlike the D minor suite (#2), which sometimes feely jaunty, C minor settles into the weightiness of the minor key. In this suite, Bach uses a special technique to emphasize the resonance and depth of the music. The musician is instructed to retune the cello (called scordatura), to bring the pitch of the A string (the highest string on the instrument) down one whole step to a G, resulting in these open strings: C-G-D-G. This tuning causes the cello to vibrate and resonate quite differently from the way it does with the normal C-G-D-A setup; one can easily hear the dark pureness that this tuning provides.

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Lent 4

Sound Theology #183 – Lent 4

In the fourth Cello Suite, Bach takes us on an unexpected journey. The suite is nominally in the key of E-flat major throughout its seven movements, returning to the home key at the end of each movement. It is grounded and solid, exhibiting the characteristic ‘heroic’ feeling of many works written in E-flat. But between double bar lines, the instrumentalist follows Bach through a rugged terrain.

Of the suites so far, this is the most challenging. The harmonic foundation of double-stops and repetition of the ‘home’ key that are crucial in a solo suite are missing through most of this work. Because of this, the music can feel disjointed or angular. The focus on the single melodic line gives the performer artistic license to emphasize different parts of the melody. If you listen to different performances, you will find a wide variety of tempos and interpretations; each unique yet convincing.

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Lent 3

The simple but powerful descending line in the opening of Bach’s Cello Suite #3 invites us into a journey of driving, flowing passages. The key of C major provides maximum resonance as the open strings are used freely to ground and harmonize with the constantly moving melody.

This week’s playlist features cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the most revered cellists of the 20th century. Rostropovich was a soloist, recording artist, and the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC for 17 years, where he presented the best musicians from around the world. His contributions to the cello repertoire are legendary: he performed the premier of over 100 works for cello, many of which he had personally commissioned.

Rostropovich’s interpretation of the 3rd suite is unique among the many recordings of this work: he gives the middle movements fresh energy, taking time to draw out the music to tell the story in his own way. read more…