Anthea Cottee will perform the Sarabande and Courante from JS Bach’s Cello Suite No 1, BWV 1007, for the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Bach Series on its digital platform, Brandenburg One. She speaks to Limelight about about Bach, psychology and how a horse-riding accident forced her to make a difficult decision about her career in music.
Anthea Cottee. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
I understand you were originally a violinist and violist – how did you come to play the cello?
I played violin from the age of five, and fell in love with the viola when I was in Year 12 at school when I was asked to play the incredibly beautiful viola part in Vaughan Williams’ Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I then went over to Adelaide to study viola and was totally committed to it. Unfortunately, a month after I arrived I fell off a horse and broke my jaw. After about six months of operations, recovery, and practicing about ten minutes a day it became clear that I was not going to be able to manage much more than that, so I faced a difficult decision of what to do from there. I thought about doing law, but it didn’t seem very enticing at the time. I played piano, so I considered that too, but in the end I decided I needed to be able to play in ensembles and orchestras, and I needed to crescendo on a note (not really possible on the piano) and I took up the cello. All of a sudden I had to really struggle with playing in a way I had not experienced before. It became clear how important it was to me to be able to play, and I think I appreciated playing so much more for losing it, and for having the struggle to find my way back. In the end, that accident gave me so much more than it took away. Resilience, determination, appreciation – all the wonderful things that you only really learn the hard way.
What fascinates you about historical performance?
I became fascinated with historical performance only after I became a bass line player. Baroque music is absolutely built from the basso continuo line up, and the bass line is played by any number and variety of bass instruments including harpsichord, organ, theorbo, guitar, cello, bass, violone, viola da gamba, base de violin and the wonderful 13-stringed lirone. After I took up the cello I developed a bit of a habit of starting new instruments, and now play a few of the instruments on that list. I love the different quality they give to the sound and the unique feeling and timbre they each have. The bass line really is the driving force to the harmony and rhetoric of the music, and can be so full of colour and interest. In earlier music there is often fewer composer directions about instrumentation, dynamics and articulation, which gives performers terrific freedom to make decisions informed by research about what would have been practiced at the time. Rather than a dry sense of historical research, I find a wonderful sense of shared humanity through connecting to the music, musicians and audiences of the past and the essential nature of the emotional experience that we share with people who had experienced this music before.
What sparked your interest in psychology?
Initially I was drawn to performance psychology. Performing was something I struggled with personally when I suddenly became a virtual beginner on cello and had to perform at university concert practice. I was fortunate enough to take part in some research to transfer sport psychology techniques to other disciplines, and it was completely transformative for me. I had a realisation that it was not just about spending all the hours in the practice room (though that’s a very big part), but also learning the internal mental skills to enable that to shine through. As I have continued along this path of study and practice (I’m now a provisional psychologist) I have become more and more fascinated by the general challenges of living a life that we all face in so many different ways, especially at the moment.
How has that fed into your career as a musician?
That is such an interesting question to think about! I did find myself thinking in a profoundly different way in how I approached my instrument, my practice time, the rehearsal process, and the way I mentally approached performances and challenges of professional life. In many ways it encouraged me to view the whole process from a different perspective and I developed an increased appreciation for the incredible complexity and emotional connectivity of music. There is so much fantastic research that has been done about the powerful benefits of engaging with music from developmental and mental health perspective. When you grow up with it as part of your life, it is your normal – it’s not that you don’t appreciate it, but it is always there. Until it’s not – like now. Playing music with other people has become like drinking a long glass of water in the desert.
What have you been up to during the pandemic shutdowns? Have you developed any Covid hobbies?
I am fortunate enough to be working as a provisional psychologist, so this keeps me quite busy with study and preparation. I’m lucky to still be able to experience a sense of connecting with people and emotions, albeit in a very different way – and remotely, of course. I have been reading, walking, and enjoying more time than ever before at home in the evenings. I haven’t written a novel, learned a language, or even baked sourdough, but I have enjoyed watching a few good series from the sofa with my family!
Anthea Cottee. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
Why did you choose the Sarabande and Courante from the first Cello Suite for your upcoming Brandenburg One performance?
It was so interesting to have a moment of choosing what to practice almost purely for the pleasure of it! So much of our time as musicians we are preparing something we need to have ready, for a rehearsal or a performance – but that all evaporated overnight at the start of lockdown. The First Suite was some of the first music I learned as a cellist and playing Bach is always deeply involving and sustaining. In baroque music the use of different temperaments or tuning systems gives each key a defined character, and G Major was described by Rameau in 1722 as “the key that is right for both tender and happy songs”, and this seemed a nurturing place to spend some of my practice time in isolation. The Courante is a lively running movement, and the Sarabande according to Mattheson (1739) “has no other emotion to express but ambition… and maintains its seriousness”. In this time of great seriousness, Bach is such a fine source of good order, tenderness and humanity.
Anthea Cottee’s performance is available on the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Brandenburg One on September 6