By Miranda Wilson | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Bach’s Cello Suites come into my life at the end of a storm. For the past week, a southerly wind from Antarctica has swept up both islands, bending the pohutukawa trees into submission, ripping sheets of corrugated iron from the roofs, howling between buildings. It’s one of those Wellington days after a storm where mist rises to the tops of the forest-covered hills, where the smell of damp earth and damp ferns makes you feel alert with possibility. My mother and I are in the car, teetering up my cello teacher’s narrow, moss-covered driveway on our way to my weekly lesson. The cello lies diagonally across the backseat in its canvas case, my music satchel stuffed between it and the door to hold it steady up hills and around corners.
My teacher, Judy, is a cellist in the New Zealand Symphony. She lives in a ghostly Victorian house in the oldest part of the city. There are fourteen-foot corniced ceilings, heavy carved doors, and dark book-lined corridors carpeted with Persian rugs—the kind of house where any of the wardrobes might transport you to Narnia.
I am a skinny nine-year-old, all eyes and elbows and teeth. I have grown out of my bright blue corduroy pinafore, which hangs too-short over white tights and white sneakers. Adults keep telling me that I’m going through a phase, using the kind of voice that implies they hope I’ll soon grow out of it. Judy never talks to me that way. Dear, twinkling Judy treats me as though I’m much older than nine. She asks me questions and takes my opinions seriously.
I twist the old-style doorbell, and Judy is there in a trice to usher my mother and me into her music studio. The room is full of antique furniture, because Judy loves old things, and because I love her, so do I. A hundred-year-old upright piano lives against the far wall, gilt candleholders on either side of its music-rack. We sit to play our cellos on heavy round-backed mahogany dining chairs. Three or four cellos stand up in their cases like mummies in sarcophaguses.
“Today,” Judy says in a reverential tone, “I think we might be ready to start Bach.”
So far, my lessons have included scales, arpeggios, and études by Dotzauer and Piatti, because Judy is strict about technique. For repertoire, we’ve worked on the Squire Tarantella, Goltermann’s concertos, and La Cinquantaine. We haven’t yet done anything by the great composers, but I know that great composers exist because my parents are musicians and they’re always taking me to concerts and operas. I can already tell the difference between Mozart and Haydn and the Shoe composers, Shoe-mann and Shoe-bert. I know who Bach is because my dad sings in Bach oratorios several times a year, and my mum plays Bach’s Partita in B-flat over and over on her piano. Sometimes they do recitals together, mostly of songs in German by one of the Shoes.
“We’ll start with Bach’s First Cello Suite, the one in G major,” says Judy, “but let’s not start with the Prelude, because it’s a bit hard, dear. We’ll start with the two Menuets, and after that the Gigue. When you’ve got those under your fingers, we’ll have a go at the Courante. The Prelude, Allemande, and Sarabande are harder, but we’ll get to them.” Her eighteenth-century Italian cello—a cello as old as Bach!—is already out of its case, and she plucks the strings to check their tuning as I go through the familiar rituals of taking out my bow, applying rosin, and finally lifting the canvas case from my own half-size cello. Sitting by the piano, mother busies herself with a lined school notebook, writing down everything Judy says.
I’m not yet very adept at sight-reading, so Judy demonstrates a few bars of Menuet I on her own cello. Suddenly I understand that this is no pedagogical work, no pretty salon piece for dutiful children. The opening arpeggio sings and dances out of Judy’s cello, and something awakens in my nine-year-old mind that changes music for me forever.
My squeaky little cello is no match for Judy’s glorious tone, but over the course of the hour I manage to stumble through the Menuets, stopping many times to write fingerings and bowings in the score. Judy explains that the Menuets are to be played da capo, that once you’ve played them both you have to repeat Menuet I. “There’s a happy one and a sad one,” she tells me. “The first one’s in G major, and the second in G minor. See how the melodic line goes up at the beginning of Menuet I and down at the beginning of Menuet II? There’s a composer who likes to make contrasts! It’s as if Menuet II is a thundercloud, and the return of Menuet I is like the sun coming out. Do you see?”
Yes, I see. And I want to know everything I can find out about this Bach, a composer who could have dreamed up such a piece for the cello alone, with no need for cute titles or plinking piano chords. A composer who wrote music for grown-ups.
Outside, the sun hasn’t yet come out, but looks as if it might be thinking about it. As my mother steers the car down the steep slopes and sharp corners of Ngaio Gorge Road, I say “Mummy?”
“I think my three favorite things in the world might be eating, sleeping, and playing the cello.”
My mother looks very, very pleased.
Twenty-one years later, I’m sitting stunned on the tiled floor of my office at the University of Idaho, music scores all around me, my right hand clapped to my temple. I’m seeing stars, like in the cartoons. Outside my window, the leafy neo-Gothic campus is abuzz with the chatter of students moving into dormitories, signing up for clubs, and planning parties. Just a few feet from them, I’m crouched in tears after a hardback volume of Beethoven’s complete string quartets has toppled from the highest level of my bookshelf, hitting me on the head and causing me to fall over.
No one outside the window has seen the accident, but I’m not just crying because of the blows to my head and my pride. It’s because I think I might be beginning, albeit a little on the early side, some kind of midlife crisis. In hitting my head, the Beethoven score has also hit my mind with an inescapable thought that I might go to my grave without playing everything within its covers.
Dante Alighieri was only in his forties when he wrote “In the middle of life’s journey, I found myself again in a dark wood, because the straightforward pathway was lost.” He knew, having lived half of his three score years and ten, that he might have seen more yesterdays than tomorrows. It seems absurd to think your time’s running out when you’re thirty, but isn’t everyone’s? Because of spending the first half of my twenties in the single-minded pursuit of advanced degrees and the second half in a string quartet, I’ve been locked in a practice room for the entire decade that people usually spend finding themselves. I have experienced none of the rites of passage that people tolerate in twentysomethings, but frown upon in those old enough to know better: hitchhiking around Europe, working on an organic farm, singing karaoke, dyeing my hair an eccentric color, or chaining myself to a tree in the name of environmental activism. Thanks to the life-eating profession of classical music, it’s now too late to try on the lives of the people I might have become and didn’t. It’s time to face up to the life I have now as a cello-playing adult.
Several other volumes besides the Beethoven quartets have fallen too, including the orchestral scores of the cello concertos by Dvořák and Schumann. Despite years of practicing these pieces, I’ve never performed them with a major symphony, or any symphony at all. Wait, hadn’t I thought I’d grow up to be the next Jacqueline du Pré? As a cello-mad teenager, I assumed my hours of practice would automatically confer greatness and fame. Some mysterious process would attract agents, managers, conductors, and recording contracts with very little extra effort from me, since talent ought to be enough, oughtn’t it?
Not one of my teachers disabused me of these notions. Why did they encourage me to aim high and dream big? Why didn’t anyone say “Look, almost no one succeeds in this profession. You aren’t going to be Yo-Yo Ma. If you persist in this, you will work yourself half to death, you’ll never make money, you won’t get to choose where you live, and most of the time you won’t get to choose the music you play. Why not qualify as a doctor or lawyer so that you can have a good income, live where you want, and buy lots of lovely things?” Whether I’d have listened is anyone’s guess, but it would have been nice if someone had so much as mentioned the realities of the profession.
For a while, I thought I’d spend my whole career in the Tasman Quartet. We had concerts, tours, and a respectable number of competition prizes. We rehearsed ten hours a day, seven days a week, with no days off. I was proud to devote my life to performing in a medium that seemed to bring out the best in composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bartók, Shostakovich. I loved it all, especially Beethoven.
What had made it so impossible to continue down this path? Mostly, the realization that I could not be in a quartet and simultaneously live a happy life. For years I’d made sacrifice after sacrifice and pretended not to have any human needs, but once I started to think about having a family I couldn’t stop. How could you have kids when you were on the road seven months of the year? Was it fair to ask my new husband to give up his career to stay home? How would I afford it when I barely made enough money to cover my own expenses?
It took me three months to find the words to tell the quartet I was leaving. I had no teaching job to go to, but I applied for anything and everything. Against the odds, I won a tenure-track professorship in Idaho. With love, and not without pain, I told them I was done.
String quartet players often compare the group dynamic to a marriage with none of the advantages and all of the disadvantages. In the weeks and months after leaving, I mourned the loss of the quartet more than I’d ever mourned a failed romance. I’m still mourning it now, sitting on this dusty floor at my new university in Idaho, where I’ve come in pursuit of a happy life.
So when am I going to start being happy?
It’s not that I’m unhappy, exactly. Compared with many of my friends who have doctorates and no jobs, I’ve hit the jackpot. And yet here I am, weeping over a book full of unplayed notes. Weeping because gradually, subtly, one by one, doors have started to close on me. At 30, I’ve aged out of most competitions. I don’t have any gigs. I don’t even have a good cello.
I sniff and wipe my face disgustingly on the sleeve of my T-shirt. And that’s when I notice the last of the fallen scores. It’s the book of facsimiles of the four eighteenth-century manuscript copies of Bach’s Six Cello Suites.
A voice in my head, my own voice, says “You’ve still got Bach.”
It’s been years since I played Bach’s Cello Suites. I learned the first two in childhood, the second two as an undergraduate, and the Fifth for a competition. Aside from some practice-room noodling, I’ve never played the Sixth. I haven’t played anything at all by Bach since being in the quartet, because for a long time I only played string-quartet repertoire and Bach’s lifetime predates the genre.
Bach’s lifetime. It’s funny, I think to myself, that I’ve always pictured Bach as an old man in a wig with a lace ruff and shiny buttons. The famous oil painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann dates from 1746, by which time he was an establishment figure, the learned Cantor of Leipzig. It occurs to me now that half a lifetime had passed between 1720, the probable year he composed the Cello Suites, and the year he sat for his portrait. Cello-Bach, the younger, thinner, pre-wig version, was in the middle of his own life’s journey when he wrote the Suites in the tiny hamlet of Cöthen in eastern Germany. Cow-Cöthen, they called it. While his job as court Capellmeister was pleasant, it compelled him to live in the middle of nowhere. And there was no use there for two of his most luminous gifts, playing the organ and composing Lutheran sacred music. Instead, his job was to provide secular entertainment, which he did with great style: his Cöthen works include the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Sonatas and Partitas for violin, and of course the Cello Suites.
Bach lived in Cow-Cöthen, and I live in Mos-Cow, Idaho. “No cows in Moscow!” we gleefully correct visitors who don’t know that it’s pronounced Moss-Co. (This isn’t true. There are lots of cows.) For the first time in my life, I start feeling a kinship with Cello-Bach. We’re of a similar age. We both live in isolated towns because of our jobs. I’m conceited enough to imagine that he and I would be friends.
The voice in my head is gathering speed. “You could do a Bach project. You could do a marathon concert of Bach’s Cello Suites.”
No I can’t. The Sixth Suite is a monster unless you have a five-string cello, and I barely have a regular four-string one. I’d make a fool of myself.
“No, you wouldn’t,” the voice persists. “You could make a CD too.”
“Nonsense,” I tell the voice. “Who wants yet another recording of one of the best-known, most-recorded pieces in the repertoire?”
The voice acts as if it hasn’t heard. “Let’s set a time limit,” it says. “You have to do it by the time you’re thirty-five.”
That’s ridiculous. Thirty-five will be the year I’m up for tenure, and by then I need to have published a book and loads of articles.
“All right then, forty. That’ll give you time to write some books. And get a new cello. And another one with five strings. Aim high! Dream big!”
Shut up, voice.
The problem with compelling ideas is that once you’ve had them, you can’t get rid of them. The idea of a Bach marathon stirs up my restlessness, my fear of professional irrelevance, and if I’m truthful, my love of showing off. I’m going to do it. I will relearn the five Suites I already know, master the Sixth, and perform them individually on other recital programs in the next few years so that I’m comfortable with them all.
I feel a huge yes welling up inside me. I scramble to my feet with the Bach facsimiles, the dropped quartet scores forgotten on the floor. I take out my cello, prop the score open at the first page of the First Cello Suite in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach, and begin to play.
This is an abridged excerpt from Miranda Wilson’s upcoming book, The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites, scheduled to be released by Fairhaven Press October 1, 2021. For more information, or to pre-order, visit fairhavenpress.com.
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