The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: What makes J.S. Bach’s solo cello suites masterpieces? Ask Benjamin Whitcomb,who performs all six of them Friday night for FREE

August 16, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

What better way is there to wind down the summer and prepare for the fall concert season than to hear a whole cycle of masterpieces?

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m., in the crisply beautiful Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb will perform all six of J.S. Bach’s solo Cello Suites, musical masterpieces that were discovered at the turn of the 20th-century in a used bookstore by Pablo Casals and first thought by many to be merely technique exercises.

Admission is FREE, although donations will be accepted for the UW-Whitewater Music Scholarship Fund.

Benjamin Whitcomb (below), cellist and music theorist, has earned a national reputation as a highly skilled performer and teacher of music. An active recitalist and chamber musician, he performs more than 20 concerts a year.

He appears regularly on the “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” concert series broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio. He collaborates with pianist Vincent de Vries in frequent recitals around the country, and he is a member of the Ancora String Quartet and the UW-Whitewater Piano Trio.

He has produced several CDs of his recordings, including his 2007 release of solo cello works by Bach and Gabrieli on the MSR Classics label.  

Whitcomb (below) is Associate Professor of Cello and Music Theory at the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater, where he initiated and continues to coordinate the Theory/History Colloquium speaker series, the Musical Mosaics Faculty Concert Series, and the UW-Whitewater String Chamber Music Camp.

He recently granted an e-mail Q&A to The Ear:

When did you first started learning the Cello Suites?

Like many cellists, I started learning the first three suites back in junior high and high school. I learned suites 4 and 5 as an undergraduate, and suite 6 while working on my doctoral degree.

I have performed them each many times, but I have only performed them as a cycle once before, back in early 2002 (this coming January will mark the 10th anniversary of that performance).

At that time, I performed them as a series in three concerts of two suites each and with all repeats. This time, I will be playing them all one sitting (albeit with a short intermission) and without repeats. It takes right around 90 minutes for me to perform them, including some time for talking about them to the audience.

This time around, I decided I want to play the cycle at least 10 times and for at least 1,000 people. (I just chose those because they are round numbers, not because it’s the 10th anniversary of my having performed the suites!)

My performance at FUS will be number four.

How hard are the cello suites to play technically and musically?

From a technical standpoint, suites one through five are difficult in the same way that Mozart is difficult—they must be “just so”; there is nowhere to hide! The bow arm has to manage the bow distribution and the string crossings very well to deliver an effective performance. The sixth suite is in a category of its own: since it was written for a five-string instrument and the cello has only four, it is just plain hard.

There is also the technical difficulty of performing unaccompanied works in general. On the one hand, you don’t have anyone else to have to cue or follow, but on the other hand, there’s also nowhere to hide! Also, since you are playing constantly, unaccompanied pieces can be fairly taxing.

From a musical standpoint, these pieces are like many masterpieces in that there is no limit to the amount of thought, effort, and attention you can put into performing them as well as possible. They are bottomless wells in this respect.

For example, these suites are full of compound melodies — multiple melodic lines being implied by one voice. You know, as a performer, that you need to voice them and differentiate them (i.e., bring out the hidden stepwise motion), but how much? Similarly, once you figure out all of the locations where you intend to breathe between phrases, again the question is how much?

You don’t want to do them the same every time, and you want decisions such as these to contribute to the aural impression that the movement is organic and that it has a life and integrity to it.

Do you have favorites suites and movements?

It sounds cheesy, but to a certain extent the movement I am playing at the time is my favorite. My teachers, especially Evan Tonsing, instilled in me the need for each movement to have its own, distinct character. Whether the audience agrees with my character choices or not, I know I have given them each their own personality, and I really do look forward to bringing out these roles every time I start a movement.

Having said that, suites 5 and 6 tie for being the best of the best. Out of the individual movements, there too I would have to say it is a tie, between the Allemande of suite 5 and the Courante of suite 6.

What do the cello suite they mean to you personally?

I don’t have any special attachment to them beyond their status as masterpieces and their significance in the cello repertoire, which I address in your next question.

How do you place them in the overall cello repertoire and in the history of music?

There is simply no more significant set of pieces in the cello repertoire than these suites. No cellist doubts why it was these works that Pablo Casals (below)  singled out for playing on a daily basis. Thank goodness Casals popularized them as concert pieces (starting about 100 years ago!). In addition, these suites seem to be the only component of the cello repertoire that is better known than its violinistic equivalent.

And what does Bach’s music, cello or otherwise, mean to you personally and as a professional chamber musician?

I am extremely partial to Bach — he is my favorite composer of all, and that is saying a lot. He is a consummate master of the most fundamental aspects of music: melody, harmony (and modulation), rhythm, form, counterpoint, and even development (think of what he does to a motive throughout the course of a fugue, for example).

He was a brilliant improviser. He had an amazing sense of emotion, drama, and time in music. (All of these skills can be found at work in the cello suites, by the way.)

Textbooks or classes on 18th-century counterpoint are usually based more on Bach’s compositions than those of any other composer. Similarly in the case of harmony, for what theory textbook’s material on voice leading (which is often a substantial component of the book) does not essentially teach the rules that we find and point to in the music of Bach?

In other words, when there is a “rule” (or what would otherwise have been a rule) that Bach breaks, we simply rationalize those situations as being OK. Also, think of how much Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and other composers benefitted from studying Bach’s works.

So, I daresay that Bach plays as significant a role as possible in my life as a musician!

Posted in Classical music

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