The Sonatas and Partitas —An Arranger's Perspective, Part-Three
By: Heather DeRome and Frank Koonce
This is the third and final instalment of this article, discussing various issues that we encountered while making our guitar arrangements of Bach’s Solo string music, and especially those issues associated with the first Partita in B-Minor. In part-one, we discussed some general questions that arise regarding adding or subtracting notes from Bach’s scores; In part-two, we focused on the first two movements of the Partita in B-Minor and discussed the challenges of transcribing and interpreting Bach’s compound-melodic notation.

Turning our attention now to the Corrente, we see a similar style of composition as was discussed for the Double to the Allemanda, but perhaps with even more subtleties—and possibilities insofar as how the lines may be divided and interpreted. Indeed, it would be very easy to be deceived by the apparent simplicity of the compound-melodic notation.

Considering the ever-recurring question of whether or not to add harmony, looking at an early draft of ours, in measures 7–9 we had examined the possibility of adding basses in what might seem like gaps in a fractured bass line. Bach has E moving to D-Sharp, and so that could be approached by F-Sharp, and then the D-Sharp could resolve back to E, before continuing to D-Natural.

This creates a line that moves by step in a rhythmically coherent fashion, and this is possibly something that Bach may have chosen to do when playing the piece at the keyboard. However, these added notes create root-position chords on the downbeats; Bach tended to use root-position harmonies, which feel more stable and static, at the beginnings and ends of phrases; when the music was in motion, he used inverted chords. Also, the rhetoric inherent in this music is derived in a large part from the texture, which contains no harmonic intervals (notes sounding simultaneously), but rather a steady stream of single notes. And while it would work to add basses in those particular measures, for the most part, the basses already are there as part of the compound-melodic line––but not necessarily on the downbeats; and so; in those instances, adding a bass at the expected down beat might sound appropriate in the moment, but then the note would repeat on itself a beat or so later.

Having decided not to add bass notes to this movement, we are now faced with the familiar question of how to transcribe Bach’s compound-melodic lines. Consider the first measure:

Looking at our early draft, there is an eighth rest and then the bass enters—simple enough. That first measure could imply two lines, and in this way it may be seen as being quite straight forward. But what about measure 2? Again, there is an eighth rest in the bass of our draft, but does that mean that the F-Sharp is part of the bass line? Shouldn’t the bass line simply go from B to A-Sharp, and then back to B? Should there be a quarter rest under the eighth rest? Again the question is raised: how many voices are there? And how far should one go, with cluttering a score with rests? In fact, looking at only the first three measures, the opening motive has the bass note after an eighth rest, the second measure has it after a quarter, and the third measure has it on the downbeat. This is what was meant by our comment that Bach had invented a whole new way to compose. The required notes are all there, but not on the beats that we normally ascribe them to, and sometimes not in the expected octave.

Here is yet another draft that takes these questions into account, while not fully abandoning the polyphonic notation. One advantage of this particular attempt, is that we were able to highlight Bach’s phrasing with his slurring, which is so distinctive in this movement. At a glance, one can see that there is an arpeggio figure, followed by a rhetorical three-note slurred gesture and then a stepwise line leading to the next bass note. A problem with this particular draft is that there is no notated bass note on the initial downbeat, even though Bach did include one for that measure.

These are the issues––and learning opportunities––that present themselves when one is involved in what may seem to be the simple task of copying a score. With this in mind, it is not surprising that much of Bach’s training involved the copying of manuscripts from the great masters before him. The opening of this movement highlights just how much can be learned from the questions that this process demands.

In search for answers to our questions, we sought out similar situations in Bach’s own music. For example, the E-Minor Allemande (for lute), BWV 996, begins similarly.

Notice that here Bach has solved part of the problem with the use of double-stems, which imply that the notes serve two voices. Notice also that the sustain is meticulously shown with ties, and that in measure 2 an independent lower line enters and remains active for the rest of the movement.

We experimented with this idea of having a double-stem at some of the downbeats, as shown in example 3. In situations like these, which occur often in the Sonatas and Partitas, the downbeat also functions as the bass and harmonic underpinning for the beat or for the whole measure: even though it appears as an upper voice, the ear does relate to it as a harmonic foundation as well as a melody note.

At a glance, the double-stems do add a certain clarity to the lines. However, one soon runs into all the same types of problems that this article has been discussing; namely, committing to one choice immediately eradicates several other viable interpretations and, also, where would one draw the line between a score that is helpful and one that is overly fussy? ––Indeed, studying Bach’s scores further, we saw that as he developed, he gradually abandoned the use of double stems. The later scores show a move towards the simpler notation; instead of showing the counterpoint and sustain of all notes––with separate beams, rests and ties––he expanded his use of compound-melodic notation. And so for this reason, as well as all the other reasons mentioned in part-two of this article (linked on the right), we chose to keep Bach’s original notation.

Turning our attention now to the Corrente’s double, again we see a new approach. While the Corrente is in in steady eighths, the Double is in sixteenth-note perpetual motion. Also, whereas the Corrente is very lyrical with its complex interweaving of the counterpoint, and all its subtleties in the bowing, the double is “straight ahead,” all in détaché bowing, meaning no slurs. This Double also contrasts with the Allemanda’s double, discussed in part-two; even though both are in steady sixteenths, the bowing gives each one a very different rhetoric.

But the aspect we would like to discuss now, is how it compares with the Corrente itself. Whereas the Corrente is whimsical, extremely lyrical, and portrays many different affects, its double is more conventional and not so varied in the emotions it evokes.

As mentioned before, in the Corrente, all the notes that are required for harmonic clarity are there––just not always on the beats to which we normally ascribe those functions. The basses in measures 2, 4, and 6 (A-Sharp, C-Sharp, and E) all arrive on the second beat at the end of a three-note slur, which gives them a very gentle quality. If an arranger added those same basses to the downbeats, that quality would be lost, and they would preempt the expected melodic arrival of those pitches.

Here though, in the Double/Presto, in measures 2, 4, and 6, melodic notes that also function as basses do tend to fall on the downbeats. Also, for example, in measures 1, 3, and 5, the ear would accept the notes shown in parentheses in example 4b, and hearing those downbeat basses repeat at beat three would not pose a problem.

The same holds true for example 5, and throughout the Double/Presto; one could easily add bass notes without tampering with Bach’s structure and, in fact, Bach himself may have done so when playing this music on a keyboard.

In this sense, the Presto is not as outside-the-box as the Corrente. In a way, in this pair of movements the roles are reversed, compared to the Allemanda and its double. Deriving its power from the excitement of the perpetual-motion sixteenth notes and the strong-beat bass motion, the Presto is guileless and audacious at the same time. Really, in contrast to the rich landscape inside the Corrente’s apparent simplicity, its double with its persistent drive is that badass kid on the block who calls it like it is. This Presto has Attitude.

By way of conclusion, here we have examined a style of composition that Bach essentially invented and that he used for much of his solo string music; especially apparent in the doubles of this first partita. Bach highlighted it by contrasting the doubles’ single-note texture to that of their parent movements’ highly chordal writing. The compound-melodic notation in these doubles provides a challenge for performers, because there are so many interpretative possibilities inherent in the notation, which appears on paper to be quite simplistic. An exercise we highly recommend is to write out your own interpretation in polyphonic notation, and experience for yourself the myriad of questions that this raises, as well as all the learning opportunities that are gained in the process.

Copyright © Koonce/DeRome, 2020.