Repeats on Bach cello suites and other "classical/baroque" music

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Chris Fitzgerald, Oct 29, 2016.

  1. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I've always been fascinated with conventions regarding repeats in performance practice. As stated in This sample from an article by Hugh MacDonald, a careful listener would be hard pressed not to notice that some repeats typically get taken, while others do not. Sometimes there seems to be a "rule" in place, while other times it seems like dealer's choice.

    My current interest in this topic relates to the cello suites, since I am preparing a pizzicato edition of the first suite (for jazz bassists looking to improve their technique, phrasing, and intonation) and recording the movements as part of an ongoing video technique series. I am finding that in the context that I am using them, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of point to taking the repeats as an absolute principle.

    When listening to recordings of the suites, the only reason I sometimes like them is that I get to enjoy listening to the movement for longer before the track is over, but I don't feel the need to hear each section twice... I think i would rather just replay the recording if that were what I was after. I would be curious to hear the thoughts of some of the classical/orchestral bassists on the forum about this matter. Thoughts?
  2. Personally, when it comes to Bach, I'd listen to repeats all day long. As you note, however, for situations like auditions or instruction, repeats are redundant.

    I'm not aware of any conventions or rules, other than trying to facilitate what the music is trying to express. In a lot of cases, dropping a repeat doesn't seem to do any musical disservice. And in some instances, a repeat, IMHO, can water down the impact of a powerful musical statement. At worst, repeats can dull an audience, but a good musician will prevent that from happening.

    Take the first movement of the Eccles Sonata as an example. You have the A section with its melancholy statement, typically repeated with a contrasting dynamic. Then, in the B section, you get the modulation to relative major; the sun comes out, and it comes to a very satisfying, musical conclusion. I think repeating that second section can be somewhat of a buzz kill. (Although if a player adds some really interesting improvisation or ornamentation on a repeat, I'm game to hear it a second time.)

    Kind of a half-baked response, but that's my thought. ;-)
    coldtrain and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  3. thehindteet


    Jan 15, 2013
    I wondered if the repeats might be for the benefit of the dancers in pieces like the bourrées. Some of them would be pretty short otherwise so I suppose it's like a modern bandleader adding choruses when its clear from the dancing that the tune is going over well.
  4. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    On most professional classical recordings of the Bach suites or partitas they play all the repeats. They might do different phrasings or dynamics the second time to keep it interesting. But I agree with you that the repeat of the second part of the pieces is superfluous (to me) most of the time unless you do something different on the repeat.
  5. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I was practicing the first suite the other day while thinking about this. The movements with shorter phrases - like the allemande and minuet - feel like they lose something when the repeats are omitted. The movements with more substance seem to stand better without the repeats without feeling odd.

    There's a nice article by Tim Janof Here that addresses some of the issues that I have struggled with over the years with regard to the suites.

    On repeats:

    The issue of whether to play all repeats is a perennial controversy. The safe and more pious answer is to do all repeats, since that's what Bach wrote, and it preserves the symmetry of the binary form of the dances.

    There is some dissension amongst cellists, however, who consider other factors, like the overall balance between the two halves of each movement, and the average audience's attention span. Though Janos Starker plays all repeats in his recent recording of the Bach Suites, in earlier recordings he doesn't. In "some of the Bach movements, the first section is 16 bars and the second one is 32 bars, so I find that the 16 bars should be repeated while the 32 bars should not. I think it was sort of a mechanical gesture on the part of the composer to put in the repeat marks. Sometimes I choose not to repeat the second half because it's too long." [13]

    Nathaniel Rosen agrees, "In the early Bach suites I took more repeats, while in the late suites I generally took fewer. They were starting to feel a little long ... For instance, ... I think the Allemande [of the D Major Suite] is like Bach's Air on the G String without the accompaniment. The absence of the accompaniment makes it a little bit long if you take all the repeats." [14]

    On playing the movements as a dance:
    Dance Forms

    Each Suite is composed of movements that are patterned after 16th or 17th Century dances (except the preludes), though some dance forms become more obscured in the later Suites. There are allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, minuets, gigues, etc., and each has a characteristic rhythmic feel. For example, typical Sarabandes are in a dignified three with an emphasis upon the second beat. If you haven't already, I suggest you read the descriptions of each dance form in a good music dictionary. But is one obligated to bring out the "defined" dance characteristic of each movement, or is it acceptable to play each movement with little regard for these "rules"? Does a sarabande have to be played in three beats per measure, or is it acceptable to play it in six?

    Nathaniel Rosen prefers a freer approach, "People often talk about these pieces as dance movements. They're not dance movements! They are works for unaccompanied cello which have, with the exception of the Preludes, titles of dance movements .... Some of the movements are more dance-like, and some ... less dance-like. It isn't dance music!" [11]

    Paul Tortelier thought of each suite as a whole, and how each movement relates to the other. Each dance "retains its basic rhythmic character...[and] has its distinguishing tempo.... By respecting the inherent nature of each dance, the interpreter will find the contrast of tempos which brings variety within the suite." [12] He describes a thought process that is useful for any multi-movement piece, to consider each movement's place in the overall work. Each movement should have a distinct character, otherwise the performance will be bland.

    I also like his final conclusion, which is open ended:
    Many questions surface when one chooses to play Bach. Given the tremendous variety of performances on record, it should come as no surprise that there is little agreement on the answers, which probably means that there is no "right" answer. It seems that the best one can do is learn as much as one can about the outstanding issues, and then make informed choices. My hunch is that a hybrid of the two approaches is appropriate, and realistic.

    If you decide to play in an 'authentic' manner, then do so with great conviction! You may annoy some Performers, but perhaps you've just tapped into their guilt about not playing more 'authentically'. And if you choose to play Bach in a "romantic" manner, then also do so with great conviction! You may anger some Scholars, but maybe you've merely accessed their self-judgment about not being more expressive players. Whatever you choose, do what's right for you. The infinity of Bach will endure.
  6. robobass


    Aug 1, 2005
    Cologne, Germany
    Private Inventor - Bass Capos
    It may just be what I am used to, but I feel that the form just seems imbalanced if you don't repeat both sections. Like hearing an AABA standard played just ABA. If you know the tune, it just sounds wrong. Also, I think that if you know the piece well and are thinking about the whole form and not just the bars you are in at the moment, then you can't help but contrast the first and second iterations of each section. And...aren't we bassists the form police? If we of all musicians start letting things slide, then who knows what might happen?
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2016
  7. Primary

    Primary TB Assistant

    Here are some related products that TB members are talking about. Clicking on a product will take you to TB’s partner, Primary, where you can find links to TB discussions about these products.

    Jun 24, 2021

Share This Page