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.