Very rarely in the history of music has there been a development that did not grow out of established practices and traditions. Changes to the status-quo always seem to come about either as an elaboration of what is being done and taking it one step further, or else reacting to it and rebelling against it. For example, much of what evolved in the twentieth century in art and music was a reaction against romanticism. In fact, the early-music movement in the twentieth century largely came about as a reaction against romanticism, as well. On the other hand, many of the musical developments in the Romantic Era were a result of composers taking harmony one step further, insofar as their use of chromaticism and modulations to distantly related keys. Following that, the atonal and then the avant-garde music in the early twentieth century pushed that envelope to the point of destruction.
But in 1602, when Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) published his “Le nuove musiche,” a collection of monodies with basso continuo, along with an introduction that stated his aims in rather polemic terms, this landed on the musical world in Italy like a clap of thunder in a clear blue sky; We take it so much for granted now, that we may not stop to realize that we could have gone in a different direction, and that many aspects of classical music, romantic art-songs, and even much of avant-garde music were a direct result of Caccini’s publication. Our popular music definitely grew out of this as well.
What Caccini was calling for, was that music should follow the text. This seems so obvious to us now, but not all cultures have this in their musical traditions, and much of Western music did not have it either, before Caccini’s “new music.”
Listening to certain madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), specifically the ones that were written before Caccini’s collection of monodies, the words are often so obscured by all the other lines that we can’t make them out. The music conveys the emotion of the text (we can thank theorist Gioseffo Zarlino [1517–1590], some fifty years earlier for that); however, the words in these madrigals––as entities in themselves with their own sonic qualities––are not married to the music.
Caccini proposed that “a modern composer listen to people of high and low conditions speaking with each other, in all real life situations, taking note of how the conversation unfolds, sonically.” (It is not clear whether the word “condition" translates as “mood" or "social class"; however, both of those could likely have been what he meant).
Now Caccini, as influential a musical figure as he was, was not a composer of the same stature as Monteverdi. Caccini’s manifesto (which is really what it was), in its most narrow terms, proclaimed that monody with figured bass was the only way to achieve the aims set out in “le nuove musiche.” The instrumental accompaniment must have no interest that would detract from the text, which should be sung without ornamentation, unless the singer was "so uninspired [by the accompaniment] that he or she needed to add interest for the listener’s sake."
Although Monteverdi did not espouse Caccini’s publication in its most narrow terms, he and Caccini, along with Zarlino, systematically began to dissect the language and to codify its fragments. Words and phrases were ascribed individual musical figures, which mirrored the actual sounds of the spoken language. In the end, an immense vocabulary of figures with pre-determined meanings and which were familiar to every cultivated listener, was born. It is surely not a coincidence that the proponents of this new music were Italians; the language is already so musical. (But wait a minute: Do we consider the Italian language so musical, precisely because of the work of Caccini and his colleagues? That is to say, is Italian a musical language? –Or is music an Italian language? –Italy was the main influence throughout Europe during the Baroque period, largely because the great violins as well as violinist/composers were imported from Italy, and the work of Vivaldi and Corelli was so widely disseminated throughout all of Europe.) Regardless of all that, in much of the monody and recitative that followed, it was hard to tell if the music was meant to imply a sung text or a spoken song. Italian is so rhythmic and melodious that it was simply a matter of exaggerating it a little. And Monteverdi was able to use these ideas with the mind and heart of a genius––not only were his subsequent madrigals hugely influential in spurring on the Baroque period, but his work continues to sound new and fresh, and to challenge us, even today.
Now, musicians have always enjoyed playing the tunes of well-known songs on their instruments, and so it was not long before instrumental music also made use of this repertory of figures that were associated with speech, and which were familiar to educated listeners. Popular tunes were used in ricercares and then in fugues; this is well documented. But also, what is important to realize is that, eventually, as a direct outgrowth of the work of Caccini and his colleagues, instrumental music also became like a discourse––a conversation that could be listened to on its own terms.
And thus musical rhetoric came to be. This all happened in a time when people were reviving everything they could about ancient Greek culture. Rhetoric, and the art of delivery was a big part of that trend, and, for Caccini to bring it into the musical world, may not really have been such “a clap of thunder in a clear blue sky” after all.
One may examine Bach’s music and find isolated figures that clearly have their origins as speech figures. It really is a matter of an evolution, in a sense, i.e., taking those figures that were discovered in monody, and in a “spoken” type of singing––the recitativo secco––and having attached them to instrumental music. Also, Bach worked with the classical rhetorical principles that had been studied for centuries as part of the Greek revival of the Renaissance, and which he himself taught in school and consciously applied to his own music. Thus, we find a very refined sonic vocabulary, born in Italy but transposed to the German language; that is to say, with more incisive accentuation. What is particularly striking with Bach, is how he has incorporated the whole arsenal of counterpoint into these rhetorical principles.
This concludes the first part of The Birth of Rhetoric in Music. Part-two will discuss how we can approach Bach’s music, and especially the Sonatas and Partitas, with a keener awareness of the rhetorical principles at play.
https://www.uco.edu/cfad/files/music/caccini.pdf (accessed 20 August 2019).
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Musik als Klangrede: Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis. Salzburg and Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1982. Trans. Dennis Collins as Le discours musical: pour une nouvelle conception de la musique (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984), 178.
See this video about the BWV 1001 presto, which shows how Bach has used these figures, and also has drawn from a more archaic writing style, perhaps tipping a hat to his predecessors.
This week’s newsletter/blog presents a video about the Presto from Sonata I in G-minor. The performance notes in our edition have a short discussion about the Presto, mentioning that the first sonata has several features that stem from an earlier era, and this presto, in particular, uses more archaic techniques than was typical of Bach’s writing.
We have had positive responses to this tutorial, we think because it discusses the presto in this new light, showing specifically how Bach is using little figures strung together linearly. The video also presents an interesting perspective, not only on how the piece is held together, but also how the presto can be seen as tying the whole sonata together. Additionally, there are some good tips on how guitarists can manage some of the fingerwork involved, in what may at first seem like difficult passages. We hope you will enjoy it and recommend it to other musicians who may be playing this wonderful Presto.
As always, please feel free to comment, or ask questions.
With best wishes,
Frank and Heather
This week we are sharing the second video of a two-part series about the Siciliana in B-flat, from the first Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001. The concluding section of this Siciliana is different from anything else in all of the Sonatas and Partitas. We came across some questions there, which we likely would not have run into had we only been playing Bach’s notes. While arranging this section, we saw that there were phrases in which the harmonies seemed so ambiguous, we could only assume that we were missing something. For seven years we kept revisiting those measures, and finally were led to a most interesting answer by Robert Gjerdingen, a wonderful musician and brilliant theorist who is very knowledgeable about the music of the Style Galant composers.
It became apparent very early on in our work on the arrangements that this process was bringing us closer to the heart of the music, and in a way that was not attainable when learning to play only the notes that Bach himself wrote. The process of adding notes demands that one be constantly asking: “What was his purpose here?” or “What did Bach mean by this?” The impetus for us creating the Sonatas and Partitas website was to share some of our discoveries with all musicians who love to play Bach, whether it be on the violin or the guitar or keyboard, or any instrument. There are many videos and blog articles on the website already, with more being added regularly. Have a look at it and, as always, let us know what you think either on the website's contact form, or by replying to this newsletter.
This week we are sharing another video, the first of a two-part series about the third movement in the first Sonata, the Siciliana in B-flat. While the Baroque Sonata da Chiesa typically had four contrasting movements, alternating slow-fast-slow-fast (Corelli’s sonatas sometimes had as many as eight movements), one might think of Bach’s violin sonatas as being a prelude and fugue, followed by a song and dance.
In each of these sonatas, the third movement is particularly beautiful and very lyrical. This movement is where we hear most prominently how Bach’s sonatas are derived first and foremost from vocal music, and, in this regard, the Siciliana is a very touching song for three or four voices.
In case you have not yet seen it, we have a blog article from May 16th on the website that discusses Bach’s use of vocal music in the Sonata da Chiesa.
The video this week explores a particularly beautiful aspect of Bach’s use of choral technique in the Siciliana, and it also discusses the architecture of this deceptively simple masterwork. Part-one deals only with the sections in which Bach establishes his key and then leaves it; part-two will discuss the return home, and then the denouement that follows.
As always, feel free to send us your thoughts and questions.
With best wishes,
Frank and Heather
This week we are sharing the fourth and final video about the G-minor Fuga. This video discusses only the closing section of the piece, and gives some helpful tips about how to use the suggested fingerings in our edition.
As is necessary in a piece of monumental proportions, after Bach has arrived back to the home-key, there needs be a little time for winding down. These sections can vary greatly in length; in the C-major fugue, BWV 1005, for example, that section takes 110 measures, but in this piece Bach only uses eight. Typically, and as is the case here, the writing gives the performer a chance for a show of bravura.
When Frank and I were arranging this, and when he first sent me his suggested fingerings for mm 91-92, I answered that I found it difficult to do all those shifts.
His response: “Don't shift; walk.” Similarly, when teaching this piece, my students invariably would trip over that fingering, until I showed them how to use it properly: You cross finger 2 over finger 1 (so that both fingers are momentarily on the same fret), by “walking” on 1. Then you shift with 2 (as shown by the guide-finger dash). This way, you do not have back-to-back shifts. For example in the second group of sixteenths, when playing the last two notes, A and C, do not shift between the A and C. Instead, after playing A, cross 2 over 1, having both fingers momentarily on the fifth fret, and then shift from C down to B (see the video for a hands on explanation).
Now, I may be biased about Frank because he is a friend and colleague, but I think the world of him, and I don’t think there are many people out there who understand the hands as well as he does ––especially the left hand. In an earlier blog, I wrote about how it seemed like Frank sometimes had X-ray vision, because he can tell exactly how someone is using their hand or even how they are hearing (or missing) the counterpoint, simply by looking at a score with their fingerings.
In the first few weeks that we were working on the scores (we began with the Chaconne), there were times when I would say “I don’t like that jump” and he’d answer: “Don’t jump; walk.”
I asked Frank if he would explain this more clearly, and here was his answer, copied from an old email:
See the attachment. Example 1 is jumping; example 2 is walking.
In example 1, from the last note of the first measure to the first beat of the second, there is no intervening note on which to walk (alternate fingers). Your only recourse with this fingering, is to jump the fourth finger across a string in one movement. In example 2, which you yourself suggested, you walk on 4 (as though you are making a step) to different fingers that are used for the following chord. Because 4 is attached, it supports the hand and provides a reference point to judge the distance when walking to the other fingers. It is like walking upstairs instead of running upstairs. When you walk, with one foot remaining on the ground, you know exactly how far to step. When running, however, both feet come off the ground, and you can easily lose your perspective of where you are, and then you may stumble.
To further explain, here is an excerpt from “Left-Hand movement: A Bag of Tricks,” an article by Frank that can be viewed on his website at:
https://www.frankkoonce.com/articles/A Bag of Tricks.pdf
Back to his email response to me:
I also think most guitarists over-use guide fingers in places where walking would be better (as just shown in the article above). In example 3 below, from the allemande of BWV 996, I don't slide (or jump) with 2 from the last beat of measure 7 to the downbeat of measure 8 as many would do. Instead, I transfer the weight of my hand to 1, the last A in measure 7 (like from one foot to another), and I walk on 1 to move 2 to the E in measure 8.
Similarly, in example 4, at measure 53 of the Ciaccona, you can keep all the fingers down for the d minor chord on beat one, but, while or just after after you play the A, you relax 2 and 4 and walk on 1 (as though you are making a step) to move 2 to the second string. Because 1 is attached, it supports the hand and provides a reference point to judge the distance when walking to the second string.
I hope these examples and explanations help.
With best wishes,
Frank and I worked and RE-worked the fingerings in the book. We have played the fingerings ourselves and have also given them to our students, and made changes whenever there was a fingering that did not work for a wide range of players. All this notwithstanding, I realize that I am predisposed to being partisan to the fingerings in our book; on the other hand, I know there is always room for refinement. Still, I’d like to suggest that if a fingering seems odd or awkward to you––ESPECIALLY if it feels odd or awkward––before changing it to something else, please try to understand our possible musical and/or technical reasons for choosing that fingering. It may be there to allow a voice to sustain, or to support the phrasing implied by Bach’s slur. It may require you to use your hand in a more relaxed manner, as our little email exchange shows. Being an advanced player does not simply mean that one can play difficult things; it means that he or she has found ways to use the hands so that things are no longer difficult. If there is a fingering you are not sure about, please ask. Part of the reason for this website is to help players and teachers with these kinds of concerns, and for musicians to learn from each other.
As always, we wish you the very best,
Frank and Heather
This week's newsletter does not have a separate blog article. Here is a copy of the newsletter that went out, along with two suggested videos. I have received enthusiastic feedback from this video, I think because it gives a new and very clear perspective on a much loved piece of music. Enjoy!
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Dear friends and colleagues,
First, I would like to extend a heartfelt congratulations to Frank and Leanne for the birth of their grandson Rowan. He’s such a beautiful baby, and with PERFECT little guitar fingers! Very best wishes to Frank and Leanne and their family!
In the last newsletter, we shared two videos, parts one and two of a four-part series, about the G-minor fugue. The first discussed the exposition in terms of the Rule of the Octave and the second was a short video that brought to light some of the amazing writing in the introductory section of the fugue: simple compositional devices, which Bach uses to great effect but that may be overlooked by some of us as we perform this well-known music, simply by virtue of the fact that we have heard it so many times. These videos are still available to view on the sontasandpartitas.com website.
The video this week discusses the main body of the fugue. I feel passionate about sharing this video because it answers the questions: “How can I play a long and intricate piece and still have it hold together? –How can I learn to understand larger forms, and how can I apply this directly to my own performances?” I do think the video will help players interpret this particular piece better, but my hope is also that performers can use the concepts in the video to help understand all of Bach’s music more deeply.
There is another video on the website, an introduction that may be very helpful, if you have not already seen it, as it presents some concepts that are discussed in many of the videos on the website. This was made so that the same subject matter did not need to be repeated over and over, and so the assumption is that people have understood the material in this introductory video as it applies to the others that follow.
As always, feel free to let us know what you think in the comment section of this website, or by replying to this newsletter.
With best wishes,
Heather DeRome and Frank Koonce
By Heather DeRome
Revised by Frank Koonce
Thanks to all of you who responded with questions and comments after last week’s blog. Your feedback gives us ideas for future discussions, and so it is always appreciated.
The videos this week are parts one and two of a four-part series about the well known and much loved G-minor Fuga, BWV 1001. Part one discusses only the exposition of the fugue, from the point of view of the Rule of the Octave. If you have read the performance notes in our book and want to know more about how the Rule of the Octave works, in an actual musical example, this video will help. Part two discusses the rest of the introductory section of the fugue, where Bach establishes his key. The video also has a look at some of the magical moments in this section, which may sometimes be overlooked, because we have heard the piece played so many times.
I keep these videos short, so that people can absorb the concepts, and then try to incorporate them, with perhaps a new way of hearing and interpreting, into their playing. I suggest watching the videos and playing the exposition and the rest of that section of the fugue, until you can really hear how the lines are working contrapuntally, and how the chords and non-chord tones work together to set up the tension/resolution motif that permeates the whole work.
Since we are discussing the First Sonata, I would like to mention here that it is interesting to ponder Bach's alternating of the sonatas, which were based on music from the church, with the partitas, which were based on stylized dance movements. People usually realize that each of the various dance types has its own historical background as well as its specific characteristic rhythms and affects. But what of the devotional music? What is Bach alluding to in these movements from the sonatas? The answer to this, in a large part, is that they take from the vocal music of Bach’s forefathers, both the sacred polyphony and the secular songs. Secular songs, in fact, had been played in church services either as instrumental arrangements or else sung with newly written sacred words, since time immemorial, and this ancient tradition was still alive in Bach’s era.
For example, this fugue’s subject has its original roots in an old Renaissance canzona. Also, as discussed in the performance notes of our book, Giussepi Colombi (born in 1635 –fifty years before Bach), used the same canzona material in a sonata for violin with bass. Colombi may have been being slightly modern in his choice of this particular canzona, by virtue of his use of repeated notes in instrumental music. Repeated notes were not actually “invented” until 1624, when Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) discovered that they could be used to portray the affects of extreme agitation and anger for his combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. “I thus explored rapid tempi" he said, “which, the best philosophers agree, were born in an agitated climate of war … And I found the effect I was looking for, by dividing the long whole note into sixteenths, which would be separately attacked beneath a text that expressed anger.” –I am not sure when repeated notes were first used in vocal music, but there are none to be found in the madrigals that precede il combattimento. In later music, perhaps from the classical period and forward, repeated notes were often more jovial and humorous, but this was not their original affect.
With regard to Bach’s G-minor Fuga, it would be very interesting to find the text for that canzona; I believe it must deal with some sort of strife. The original canzona, as used in Colombi’s sonata, actually only has three repeated notes, not four. As shown in the video, Bach’s fourth repeated note is part of an ornament, an appoggiatura, which he has written into the melody. The way that Bach has set those repeated notes with the added appoggiatura creates another layer of harmonic intensity to a tune with which people of that era were already familiar. In fact, it is quite possible that the same appoggiatura may have been performed by some singers as well, as a matter of course, as an improvised ornament.
It is unclear whether Bach ever heard Colombi’s sonata; however, the point here is that even though the sonata da chiesa was conceived for an instrumental idiom, it was very strongly influenced by vocal polyphony as well as by the wealth of simple songs that were passed down in an oral tradition through the ages. Accordingly, even though fugues do have a strong rhythmic drive, it is important to realize that their thematic material often evolved from lyrical music, and that their references to well known songs – as well as their deviations from them, were very recognizable to the people who were listening to these works, when they were new.
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Le discours musical [Musical Discourse], (Residenz Salzburg and Wien, 1984; French translation: Editions Gallimard, 1984), 180, 181.
Written by Heather DeRome
Revised and edited by Frank Koonce
I always make a point of inviting questions and comments regarding the blogs and videos that are posted on the Sonatas and Partitas website and YouTube channel. By far, the most common question or comment goes something like: “I want to learn more about theory for Bach” or “I want to understand chords more” or... “I am bad at theory” – which gets me every time, because I refuse to believe it. In my early days as a student, the prevailing mindset was that those people who were theorists were the “musiciens manqués,” the musicians who had somehow missed the boat. But really, it seems to me now that the most musical players usually are the ones who have a deeper understanding of the music. What I have found is that there is no such thing as being bad at theory; it’s just a matter of having it explained a little more hands-on.
In this blog and in the attached video, I will start addressing some of your questions. First, I need to point out that talking about Bach’s music in terms of chords is a little ahead of Bach’s time because, in fact, Bach was not trained in harmony in the same way as we now are trained. Our system was developed when Bach was in his thirties by J.P. Rameau, and even though it did describe Bach's work, it was, at that time, absolutely revolutionary. Its assimilation did not come about without resistance and strife.
For example, if we see a stack of notes, E/C/G, we would call this a first-inversion chord with the root being C. And if that chord were in the key of C, we would label it a “I” (or “tonic”) chord. This was not Bach’s musical language. Instead, Bach was trained to use “the rule of the octave” and “partimenti”: he essentially had a bass line as a foundation, and wrote intervals above it, combining the voices into counterpoint. For him, that E is the third scale degree, and therefore it usually wants a sixth and third above it. So, whereas we relate to the sonority as essentially a “C” sonority––and as a chord, Bach related to it as a type of E sonority. A potential drawback to us studying Bach’s music in terms of chords is that it may lead us to hear the music more vertically, and we might miss-out on the beautiful interweaving of the melodic lines throughout the voices. However, having said this, even though Bach was not trained in––or even aware of––“functional harmony” when he composed the Sonatas and Partitas, most of his music did yield those principles––as Rameau discovered while analyzing the music of Bach and his contemporaries.
Labelling these sonorities as chords and then classifying them as tonic, dominant and pre-dominant type chords was the essence of Rameau’s treatise: Dominant chords never went to pre-dominant chords, but always to tonic-type chords, either the tonic itself or, in the case of a deceptive cadence, to another unexpected tonic-type chord, usually the vi chord.
To highlight one of the differences (see the example below), insofar as how we perceive music as a result, consider the chord we call ii 6/5: In the key of C major this is F/D/A/C. We hear that as D minor, D/F/A, with an added seventh, C. But for Bach, this a chord built on the fourth scale degree therefore it wants a sixth, fifth, and third above the bass. Note that these are all consonant intervals, and that the C, which we relate to as a dissonant seventh, is simply a fifth above the bass note, F. Bach would view this essentially as an F chord (F/A/C) with an added sixth, D. That D, his unstable note, is our root. So, there is a fundamental difference in viewpoint.
Taking a step aside, one must wonder how on earth Rameau, being steeped in the music of his own century, might have been able to come to see such a radically different system at work in the compositions of his peers: Most historical developments grow out of other parameters already at play, but Rameau's treatise was entirely "outside the box.” In the last newsletter, we looked at a disparaging comment that Schiebe made towards Bach. The footnote mentioned that although Scheibe did admire Bach's talent, he disagreed with Bach's music owing so much to the Italian style. Scheibe was more of a nationalist in a time that saw a decline of nationalism. Most of the European countries, with the exception of France, had assimilated the Italian style of writing and playing, especially in regard to––and because of the role of the violin. The Italians made the best violins, notably those by Amati and Stradaveri, and they produced the best soloists who were then hired at courts and palaces throughout the rest of Europe. Before 1600, the violin was mostly used only for dance music, along with the loud sackbuts and crumhorns; violin technique was extremely primitive, and the instrument was latent with possibilities waiting to be discovered. The viola da gamba (of all sizes and registers) was the instrument for serious, contrapuntal music. Throughout the early seventeenth century, the rise of the violin and of the soloist changed all that and, everywhere in Europe, people were looking to the Italians for direction and tutelage. Everywhere; that is, except France. French music and dance were proudly nationalistic. This began with Lully who, ironically, was Italian by birth. He arrived in Paris at the age of fourteen in 1646. By the age of twenty, he was head of music at the king's palace, and soon became the uncontested master of French music. Lully developed the overture, giving the form a distinctly nationalistic nomenclature (Ouverture à la française), and though using Italian elements, he combined them into new large-scale forms for his operas, establishing a truly French style. Similarly for the chaconne: Lully took this ancient instrumental dance constructed on a repeating bass figure, and made it into a grandiose "piece de resistance" that might conclude an act, or most often, the opera in its entirety. ––Then, in 1683, Jean-Philippe Rameau was born into this lavish world of opera, dance and instrumental music. A strong French nationalism was established, which by Bach's time was very influential.
(For a delightful exemplification of this, consider the Allemanda that begins the first Partita, in B-minor: It has an Italian title which was translated from the French "Allemande", which means "German". So this is a German composer's take on an Italian perspective of the French "German Dance". --And it is written in the style of Lully's French overture! But I do not think that this little bit of fun was without a deeper significance. Here, Bach was introducing the first set of dance movements in his Sonatas and Partitas, and in the same way that the first sonata begins with the violin's signature chord, this first partita begins with the very essence of European courtly pomp and gaiety.)
Coming back to Rameau's treatise, we may surmise that his was a genius mind, born at a time of independence and exploration, and in the right place to really flourish.
Rameau's treatise further pointed out that the notes we relate to as dissonances all receive special treatment in that they first are sounded as a consonance, then are repeated as a dissonance, and then resolved by step.
The harmony “rules” that we are now taught were not actually rules in Bach’s time. These are the aspects of the music that Rameau observed and wrote about in his treatise, which, at the time, was very polemical. However, it was gradually accepted, and the treatise went a long way towards influencing music in the direction of the classical style and homophony, which essentially consisted of melody accompanied by block chords. In the Baroque, the big advantage to this new way of thinking was that it could be learned in two to four years and could easily be taught to adults, i.e., the patrons of music (and now, first- and second-year university students). Learning to use rule of the octave with partimenti and schemata, as discussed in the introductory notes of our edition, took about ten years to master, and was most successful when taught to children. This way of learning by rote and by memorizing hundreds of schemata and partimenti comes naturally to children, whereas learning the language of music using logic and manipulating chords and inversions, is more suitable to the adult brain.
Functional harmony is a great tool, which Frank and I used to come to a better understanding of the Sonatas and Partitas; it helped us see patterns and structures and, as a result, brought us to a deeper appreciation of the music.
There are videos already posted on this website that you can peruse, or you can simply follow the newsletter, where they will be introduced in order. One of the common themes addressed in the videos is understanding the long-range arch of pieces. The videos also address fingering concerns, and they discuss the occasional changes we have made to Bach’s music when adapting it for the guitar. You can think of these newsletter/blogs and videos as a "course" that is parceled-out in small amounts so that you may reflect on it for a couple of weeks. Some, but definitely not all, of the content will be specific to our guitar edition of the Sonatas and Partitas. The newsletter will add to the performance notes at the beginning of the book, but anyone is welcome to follow the newsletter, whether or not they have our book.
watch this week's video
As always, let us know what you think and feel free to ask questions!
Revised and edited by Frank Koonce
In 1737, music critic Adolf Scheibe wrote that by notating the embellishments in his adagio movements, J.S. Bach "not only deprives his listeners of beauty and harmony but also makes the melodic line utterly unclear.” Thankfully, Bach’s supporters came to his defense; however, he was not the only composer to sustain such criticism. An edition of Corelli’s work that attempted to notate his improvised embellishments was harshly criticized for similar reasons: “… It is the hardest task that can be to Pen the Manner of artificial [i.e., with art] gracing an upper part. It hath been attempted and in print, but with Woeful Effect. … the spirit of that art is incommunicable by wrighting, therefore it is almost inexcusable to attempt it …”
Also: “Embellishments, for the most part, are not marked at all on paper… because in fact they can not be marked for lack of signs for that purpose”.
“Lack of signs for that purpose” is, I think, most enlightening. These fine details were meant to be freely improvised; musical gestures came in and out of fashion, just as they do today, and music notation did not have the symbols to convey all those improvised nuances. We still “lack the signs for that purpose” of conveying a performance that is––in essence–– played with a contemporary “feel.” For example, how could this performance possibly be notated in such a way that it might be accurately recreated four-hundred years from now? Even with the help of the recording, and only a few decades after it was made, it is almost impossible for us to imitate the style exactly.
Think of it: Throughout history, all styles have only managed to stay in fashion for a decade or two. Elephant-pants looked great in the 70’s and silly in the 90’s. Similarly, in 1776, the "Academy of Antient Music" defined its repertoire as “no younger than about twenty years.” In the Baroque, composers were not writing for posterity, but for contemporaneous colleagues and students. There was much that was implied and expected to be universally understood, and these are the conventions that often elude players today.
In retrospect, we are fortunate that some composers did write out their divisions and ornaments because they have given us examples as to how we might interpret other works of the period that are not so meticulously notated. The prelude/adagio movements, especially, show huge variances insofar as how much or how little detail a composer would include in the notation.
For example, in D’Anglebert’s Prelude in G-minor, shown here, both versions show a very sparse score; and while the revised version is more precisely notated, there is still
much latitude, insofar as how one might interpret the score. Compare these to the opening measures of BWV 968, also shown in this article.
Another important consideration is that notational conventions, particularly as regards rhythmic notation, at that time were limited compared to what we are accustomed to now: In instances where there are many divisions to the beat, the custom was to divide by halves so that the beats always looked (on the page) to be multiples of two; i.e., eighths, sixteenths, 32nds, and so on. This did not preclude odd-numbered groupings; it simply meant that––on the score––subdividing was done by halves, and that when extra notes were needed, smaller subdivisions were added.
Compare, for example, measures 19–21 in this Scarlatti Sonata, from two different editions.
Even though the Parma score has 16ths and 32nds, it is quite likely that both in Parma and in Venice, the triplets were played. See also the performance notes on page 9 of our edition, for options as to how one might interpret the small subdivisions in Bach’s adagio movements.
Coming back to Scheibe’s comment, although disparaging and short sighted, it does call our attention to important issues regarding our interpretation of Bach’s music. First, if Bach’s ornaments in these adagios did "make the melodic line utterly unclear,” then what would be that melodic line? Compare for instance, the first two lines of the adagio from BWV 1005 in C Major to its keyboard transcription, BWV 968.
Is it possible that Scheibe would have preferred the G- and A-Minor adagios to be written simply, as in the C-Major adagio? Likewise, is it also possible that in Bach’s time, violinists would have elaborated on the C-Major adagio, to make it more like those in BWV 1001 and 1003?
A great exercise is to write out the basic melodic line that underpins these adagio movements, taking out all the ornaments and small divisions and playing it in its undecorated form. Then, once firmly established, add in Bach's divisions as though improvising them over the basic melodic and rhythmic framework.
Another issue that Scheibe’s comment illuminates, is the need for performers to reconcile the respect they have for Bach’s notation and for his wishes as to how an adagio should be played––with the necessity for rhythmic flexibility in the prelude-type (improvisatory) movements. I ask my students to learn this piece with the metronome between 50 and 60 BPM’s, clicking eight times per measure, and then to find a slow metronome online and be able to play with a metronome clicking only four times per measure. Once they can do that, I ask them to play it more freely. There are two reasons that this is helpful. The first, is obvious: It's easier to learn the subdivisions. The second is that it ensures that when we play feeling it "in four” and with a more flexible rhythmic approach, that we still feel the dotted rhythms. I believe that the rhythm needs to be malleable, but that when no new note is sounded on a beat (strong or weak), that beat is still felt. This will become instilled when a player practises with the metronome clicking eight times per measure. The next step, learning to play with a slow metronome, may be difficult at first, but that practice will develop invaluable skills.
Johann Adolf Scheibe, Hamburg, 1737, cited in Robert Donington, Baroque Music, Style and Performance: A handbook (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982), 95. Scheibe championed a distinctly Germanic style of music, one whose impulses were toward naturalness and simplicity. Although he considered Bach one of the finest organists along with G.F. Handel, he disagreed with Bach’s compositional practises, which took much from Italian models. He thus criticized Bach rather harshly; however, this did Bach’s reputation some good, because Scheibe’s prickly tone everywhere stimulated sympathy for Bach.
Roger North, early 1700s, ibid, 94.
Bénigne de Bacilly, Paris, 1668, ibid 94.
Bruce Hayes, The End of Early Music: a Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 123.
As shown in Colin Booth, Did Bach Really Mean That?: Deceptive notation in Baroque keyboard music (Wells, Somerset: Soundboard, UK, 2010), 4-5. Gratefully used with permission. See https://www.colinbooth.co.uk.
copyright 2019, Heather DeRome
Frank Koonce and Heather DeRome
interpreting Bach's violin Slurs
The slurs in Bach’s violin music serve two purposes. They tell the player when to change bow direction and, in so doing, they shed light on the composer’s intended note groupings for phrasing and articulation. In other words, they are both a means to operate the bow, to play strong beats with down-bows, and at the same time are an integral part of Bach’s artistic idea. In these slurs, technical and rhetorical aspects of the music are inextricably woven together.
The Baroque violin
To understand how to interpret the nuances inherent in these slurs, it helps to have a basic knowledge of how Baroque violin techniques differed from modern ones. The modern violin rests on the shoulder and is held in place by the chin. The violin faces upward, and the bow is drawn back and forth on the horizontal plane. But during the Baroque era, as can be seen in paintings, the violin was held by the left hand, not by the chin, and against the collar bone, facing forward. The bow moved down and up on the vertical plane, hence the terms (still in use today) “down-bow” and “up-bow.” Because of these differences, shifting was not as easy; therefore, players favoured open strings and first position. Also, because a down-bow inherently had a heavier sound than an up-bow, the strong and weak beats were more naturally differentiated than on a modern violin, on which the bow moves horizontally.
Typically, but not always, the Baroque bow is lifted lightly off the strings as it changes direction, and therefore the last note under a slur is lighter and shorter than the others. Also, if there is a group of several two-note slurs in a row, the player would likely be expected to swing the notes a little, with the first note stronger and possibly longer, and the second one lighter and detached. When there are no slurs, the articulation is all detached, so that even the absenceof slurs is a means of conveying information. (The term détachékept its name even after violin technique had undergone the transformation described above, and a sustained legato and a homogeneous sound became the aesthetic ideal.)
What this means for guitarists:
Guitarists can interpret these articulations using right- and left-hand techniques in lieu of a violin bow. Consider, for example, the opening two measures of the D-minor Giga, BWV 1004.
Example 1: Partita II, Giga, mm. 1–2; guitar arrangement options, with the original violin slurs written as solid lines and the left-hand guitar slurs written as dotted lines.
Measure one begins with two down-bow eighth-notes under a slur; consequentially, the first note (D) is accented and connected to the second note (F), which is short and light. The next eighth, as an up-bow, is even-lighter, and detached. Guitarists are able to match this articulation easily by playing on two strings, as shown in Example 12a, with one legato thumb stroke across both notes. This gesture gives more weight to the first note, as would happen on the violin with the impulse of the down-bow. Alternatively, the first two notes could be played with an ascending left-hand slur (“hammer-on”),as shown in 12b. Yet another option is to simply pluck both notes on the same string, as in 12c, but making sure that the first note is heavier and connected to the second. In all three examples, simply lift off the string to shorten the F. An easy way to do this is by “hopping” from one string to the next with the same finger, as shown in 12a. To detach and lighten the third eighth note, guitarists again can lift the finger off of the string, or else stop it with a right-hand “plant” after plucking the note lightly. The primary goal is to be mindful of the desired effects, whereas the specific fingerings and techniques chosen to accomplish them can differ from one player to another.
The articulations of beat one are reiterated in beat two, for which the same technical options are available to guitarists. Beat three, the second main accent in 12/8, begins with a single, detached eighth-note, followed by four slurred sixteenth-notes. If guitarists avoid accenting the first of the sixteenths, the effect can be achieved by combining a descending left-hand slur (“pull-off”) and a string-crossing. Either a two- or a three-note slur would be appropriate here.Beat four recalls the articulation from beat one; our fingering suggestion allows C-sharp to sustain while A is played, and then A will be short and light if the player again hops with the first finger to E instead of using a barre.
For the second measure, Bach’s notated articulations are identical to those in measure one, and therefore their effects should be matched in performance. One additional technical option would be to play four notes with a left-hand slur, as shown in 12b.
The running sixteenth notes in measures three and four, by contrast, all are detached and thus provide a brief flash of virtuosity. Here, the absence of slurs is as much a contributing factor to the rhetoric as are the slurs themselves. For the guitar, however, we decided to add slurs at the points where the direction of the line reverses, which is more natural on our instrument.
It is the hope of the editors that the above text and examples will inspire guitarists to be attentive to the original slur markings and to let these inform their interpretive and technical choices. We do not mean to suggest that guitarists should always use the same articulations as a violinist, as shown by our own changes in measures 3 and 4; nonetheless, it is important to remember that Bach’s slurs provide an important window into how he interpreted his own music, and to weigh this against the technical concerns involved in playing the guitar.
Keep in mind that, on the violin, if there is one down-bow note to four up-bow notes, the down-bow must cover enough length to accommodate the four up-bow notes that then follow. This also gives the down-bow more weight, which is required by the meter.
copyright, 2019 Les Productions d'Oz. Used with permission.