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Bowing and bow distribution

Bowing can be challenging in some of the complex movements of Bach's Suites. It is a good idea to do some practice with separate bows, which will make it easier to concentrate on the harmonic structure, and will improve the fluidity of your separate bow strokes.

We do not have an 'autograph' manuscript of the Cello Suites (a manuscript in Bach's handwriting). Different eighteenth-century manuscripts and later editions vary over positioning of the slurs. There are so many different editions that you are spoilt for choice! It is worthwhile, however, looking at the manuscript by Anna Magdalene (Bach's wife) to help you decide which slurs to add. Bear in mind that it is not always clear where the slurs begin and end, and some may be missing or assumed (for example, the transcriber may only write the slurs in at the beginning of a sequence or repeated passage, and assume that the performer will apply the same slurring throughout the passage).

In bars 26 - 29 there are broken chords in quavers, which add some punctuation to the otherwise almost relentless semiquaver movement. If we make these shorter than full length, it injects some 'oxygen' into the dense texture of the movement.

Different movements of the Cello Suites require different styles of bowing. The Gigue in the D-minor Suite, for example, requires a more energetic, weightier down-bow but a light up-bow, rather like a bouncing ball.

Try to save the heel of the bow for special emphasis, chords, trills and significant harmonic events. Semiquavers need a lighter, more fluid and travelling bow stroke. You will need your 'best bow hold' to manage the intricacies of the phrasing.

Using a modern bow

Modern bows are very good at sustaining and producing an even 'singing' tone through the whole stick. When performing in a historically informed baroque style, however, we are aiming to make the bow 'speak' (i.e. imitate the inflection of the spoken voice) rather than 'sing'. This requires a more articulated way of playing, where we allow sounds to phrase off in the way our voices do when we speak.

To get used to playing in this style with a modern bow, try some of the following:

  • Practise playing some relatively short down-bow strokes on open strings, using the lower half of the bow. Then introduce some up-beats on up-bows, using the up-bow to bring you back to the heel for the next down-bow. Helen demonstrates this on the violin in the following clip:

  • Practise semi-quaver passages in all parts of the bow, keeping the bow on the string rather than throwing it.
  • Add inequality to semi-quaver passagese.g. ta ra ra ra, ta ra ra ra, or ta ra ta ra ta ra, (emphasising the ta)
  • Practise changing between a really smooth fluid semiquaver (or quaver) stroke useful for phrases of conjunct (scalic) notes, to a more articulated, but not thrown, stroke useful for notes a 3rd or more apart.
  • Practise a long 'messa di voce' where you swell to the middle of the note and die away again. Try on up- and down-bows.
  • If all this feels unwieldy at first you can re-create the feel of a lighter baroque bow by holding your modern bow a few inches up the stick rather than at the heel. Work your way back to the frog as it becomes more comfortable.

The clip below is an extract from a masterclass session on baroque bowing given by Rachel Podger. It contains a number of exercises that can help you practise bowing techniques.

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