Interpreting Bach's Violin Slurs
By: Frank Koonce and Heather DeRome
This article is taken from the performance notes of our edition of the Sonatas and Partitas arranged for guitar. The edition has almost 30 pages of critical and performance notes dealing with historical matters, transcription issues, and violin and guitar performance concerns. Please enjoy this excerpt, with our compliments.

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 collarbone, 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 absence of slurs is a means of conveying information. (The term détaché kept 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.1 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.

[1]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.