Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Mysterious Popularity of Bach's Cello Prelude

A guy has just done a version of the prelude to the First Cello Suite by Bach for eight cellos. Like Paul McCartney in the early days after the Beatles, he is playing them all himself, over-dubbed many times.

This is a demonstration of how to destroy a good piece of music by goofing around, by adding as much redundancy as possible and let's not forget the backbeat! OK, that does it. I'm officially puzzled. Now don't get me wrong. I love the G major prelude. I have played it on guitar for many years, first in the usual D major arrangement and for the last couple of decades, in my own version in A major. I play the whole suite, actually. I also love the other suites and preludes to them: the D minor prelude is riveting in its solemnity, the C major in its simplicity and breadth.

But it seems as if the G major prelude is becoming a Hit. A Top-Pop Golden Oldie. It is kind of fascinating to watch this happen. Now this prelude has always been well-liked and better known than the other ones for cello. But it has never been the kind of widely-known prelude that say the C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier is. Let alone as hugely popular as the E minor prelude by Chopin. And very far from the kind of universal recognition that the Moonlight Sonata has. But more and more it seems to be creeping into the popular consciousness. One big step was probably its use in the Galapagos sequences of the film Master and Commander a few years ago. Yo-Yo Ma's frequent performance of it in a variety of venues probably had an effect as well. So right now I'm betting that the stock in the G major prelude is going to keep going up. That is, if it were a stock. Alas, Bach himself can no longer collect the royalties. Instead they will go to that grinning fool who did the version for eight cellos.

In composition, as in life, no good deed goes unpunished. But there is still Rostropovich:

UPDATE: I see on Alex Ross' blog that part of the Make Music Winter festival going on in New York right now consists of stationing members of a chamber music orchestra at all the stops on the F line, all playing, you guessed it, the G major prelude from the first cello suite. This sounds very much like something Cage would do. But I really would prefer they didn't do it to Bach... What is it about this piece? Is it the simplicity of it that appeals to us in these dumbed-down times?


JoelLo Observador said...

I've just found your blog and I'm loving it but there's a problem... there's a lot to read! and I barely have the time hahaha. Anyway, I'm already a follower. I found you at Greg Sandow's blog, I'm a reader of him as well. So... Steven Sharp Nelson's Cello song. For me it's no more than a pop song, like any other product of the so-called classical crossover. The problem is that they really try to tag it as "New version of Bach" (like saying "this is completely Bach" but for today). And that's soooo false. For me, It could be something like: "I have to make a instrumental pop song but I can't compose something new so, I take a classical melody and make it 'more cool'. Since it's classical no one could say its 'bad music'..." and that's what happens with most classical crossovers. "Make it more cool" it's so easy for these guys, cause that's their job!, they're experts. And because it comes from "classical" oooohh you can't criticize... The result is obvious. A song that can be heard by the masses (and sound beautiful) but for those who LISTEN music... its' just an abusive and opportuniste pop song. Well, that's what I think. Greetings from Mexico!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joel,

I think you have captured very well the method of the 'crossover' artists. I was talking about that in another post, but didn't describe the method nearly as well as you have!

It really is formulaic: pick a classical piece that is familiar, choose some techniques from pop music, (typically drums and a back-beat), perhaps add some melodramatic touches and voila, you have a crossover hit!

Rickard Dahl said...

It's pretty terrible what he did to the piece. Their other videos are just as terrible or worse.

Bryan Townsend said...

I never quite had the incentive to look at anything else he has done. But did you expect anything different?

I think this is a case of gilding the lily, then bronzing it, then encasing it in plexiglass!

Poor lily...

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, I came across "ThePianoGuys" channel a few weeks back and I checked some of their videos. It's pretty much the same boring style in all of them. For instance:

I don't see what's Mozart with that video. It just sounds like boring pointless pop trying to be cool but failing because of the completely lackluster musical content. Your lily comparison suits well.