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Baroque Music Notation and Compound Melody
From the Performance Notes for Bach's Cello suites Vol. 1
By: Frank Koonce
A master of polyphony, Bach wrote an abundance of multi-voiced music for the keyboard and for ensembles; however, another aspect of his genius that has been largely neglected until recently was his creation of what we now call “compound melodies.” These were written for instruments with limited polyphonic capabilities, such as the solo violin and solo cello, and designed in such a way so that two, three, or even four voices may be realized from what appears on paper to be a single voice. Another term that is sometimes used for this is “implied polyphony.”

The main difference between implied polyphony and true polyphony is that the different voice lines usually alternate with each other instead of being played simultaneously. The underlying components of polyphony are there, albeit not fully developed; nevertheless, polyphony is perceived at some level by the listener.
On paper, compound-melodic notation looks like a single line, as shown in Example 1a, measures 1–4 from Menuet II of the first suite. Consecutive notes with small values are all beamed together––no matter what voice they belong to. This notation is like musical shorthand, and is used to reduce the clutter of rests, ties, and separate stems and beams that would be required if the work were instead written in polyphonic notation, as in Example 1b. It is especially helpful for music that is written on a single staff. A limitation of this notation, however, is that a specific voice to which a note belongs is often unclear, thus making this the responsibility of the player to decide.

In compound-melodic notation, larger intervals within what otherwise is a stepwise line may suggest the presence of a second melody, or of rudimentary structures for harmonic and bass support. For instance, the polyphony in 1b shows a three-voice interpretation of the compound melody. The lengthened notes are subjective choices to bring out the implied polyphony and harmony (see also Example 7). You can see how cluttered a single staff can become with all the added rests, stems, and ties.

The notation in 1c is a compromise in which the upper voices are notated as a compound melody, while the bass is fully developed and independent, with added notes and rests. (Also notice how slur markings and stem direction help to clarify the voices.) This is how Bach usually notated his compositions that are now attributed to the lute. This also is the way I had chosen to make my arrangements in the first printing of the first three cello suites.

Example 1:


While preparing a guitar edition of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, with my co-author Heather DeRome, it became clear to us that this type of hybrid notation in Example 1c would not be appropriate for many of those movements. In many places, there simply were not enough functional basses to realize an independent line without adding in an inordinate number of rests and extra notes. It was not our goal to re-write the music, but instead to support what was already there, only to the extent that it sounds idiomatic on the new instrument. Therefore, we decided to keep Bach’s original compound-melodic notation, which includes notes that also function as basses. Where additional basses and chords are used for harmonic support without being part of a melodic line, we followed Bach’s practice of aligning them vertically with the upper parts, but with separate stems, and not including rests except when needed to clarify the rhythm. These isolated basses typically are written with short time values, except at cadences, but may be sustained longer if desired and if technically possible.

In preparing the second edition of the first three cello suites, I decided to return to this type notation, as shown in Example 2.

Example 2:


The performer is free to sustain and overlap the upper notes if desired to selectively bring out different voices so that they are perceptible to the listener. One of the best ways is to allow the final note of one voice to overlap the entrance of another. Any series of notes that outline a chord, however, whether in the same voice or not, may be held beyond their written duration if doing so serves the music.

© Les productions d'Oz, 2020, reprinted with permission.