Writing and Performing a Cello Suite
This year as part of some of my university work, I set myself the task of writing a suite for solo cello which, to be honest, was a massive task. As part of the work, I was required to analyse previously existing cello suites by Bach and Britten (and others) and incorporate some of their techniques into my own work, creating something entirely original as I go. So as I said, a massive task...
I began by thinking about the ways in which the cello is actually used in these pieces, and came to the conclusion that in order for a piece to sound like an actual cello 'suite' rather than just a tune played on the cello, the cello has to in effect accompany itself. It does this by playing melodies which incorporate upper and lower registers of the instrument, so that even if both registers are not being played at the same time, they are interacting with each other in some way. For a lot of the melodies in Bach's work especially, the 'upper' and 'lower' parts of the melody can be isolated and heard as separate tunes or melodic progressions in their own right. I tried to include this in my music, as well as think about how two or more notes can be played at once to achieve the effect of the cello accompanying itself.
I also had to think about the structure of the work. Bach always had a Prélude, followed by an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, something in the form of a Minuet and then a Gigue. I didn't want to copy this exactly, and Britten certainly didn't. He had different structures to each of his three suites. I decided to incorporate a Prélude, as well as some Bourées (in minuet form - section 1, then section 2, then section 1 again without any repeats) and a March (as Britten did) as well as a Gigue to finish (but in 7/8 rather than 6/8, to add my own touch to things). I also included a new type of movement, the Bhimpalasi. This came about because I Sarabandes were initially inspired by Spanish guitar music, so I put a new twist on things and did something inspired by the way guitar playing has begun to incorporate elements of Indian music. On top of this, I needed to unify the suite as an entire piece rather than it feeling like simply a collection of pieces. Bach did this by keeping things in a key and using the same chords and patterns across movements. I have done this in a way by repeating the first theme you hear in the suite in a number of different ways across all movements, and keeping the same notes but changing the key (for example, in the last movement). I've also done what Britten did in his first suite and used interludes to connect themes and ideas between movements. Some of the movements go directly into each other, and others have the traditional 'pause' between them.
In terms of how it would sound, working out what key I was going to be in was important. Often this is very clear with Bach - but less so with Britten, although they do make sense in terms of key and tonality internally. I decided to be quite clear with tonality, but I don't end in the key I start in - something Bach would never have done. In the penultimate movement - an interlude - I sort of 'migrate' permanently from C major to D major (even though the keys of the other movements have been different) which I think gives the piece a sense of trajectory. Also, this is all part of what I want to do as a composer - sort of gently poke fun in a loving way at the music of the past and do something a little bit more with it.
Another great thing about the cello suites of the past is how well they are written for the instrument, rather than just any bass instrument. Both composers have really thought about hand positions, how things will actually be played and how they will resonate, which I've also tried to do. As part of the composition process, I would regularly play bits to see how realistic they were in performance, and change them accordingly so that the piece is as enjoyable for everyone as it can be.
Of course, I'm not just copying Bach and Britten here - that would be ridiculous! I'm simply incorporating some of their ideas for what makes a cello suite and composing my own original material around that. Sure, Bourée 1 sounds like Bach, and perhaps 2 sounds like Britten, but I've stuck them together into one movement to create a bit of an element of contrast and surprise. In other movements, I've totally done my own thing with the music and had a lot of fun doing it! You can see the performance below.
In order, the movements are:
Interlude 1 (straight into:)
3. March (of the cellist)
Interlude 2 (straight into:)
4. Bourées 1 and 2