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Laurie Niles

Pedagogy Class with Katie Lansdale: Bach Solo Works

June 12, 2013 at 12:54 AM

"It's time," said Ronda Cole to her former student, Bach specialist Katie Lansdale, handing her an unmarked urtext edition of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Ronda, violin mentor to many, meant it was time for Katie to write her own edition of the Bach. But was it? Is it? Will it ever be? Certainly she has the expertise, but for Katie, "I enjoy the inquiry as much as I enjoy the answers," when it comes to Bach.

Katie Lansdale
Katie Lansdale talks Bach with a Starling-DeLay participant

Katie has been inquiring for a long time and has become a go-to expert on the subject. (Certainly we'd all eat up any edition she would write.) A faculty member at the Hartt School in Connecticut, Katie recorded all the Sonatas and Partitas in 2001 and has performed the complete solo Bach works in concert more than a dozen times throughout North and South America. She gave several classes on Bach at the 2012 Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference, and this year her Bach expertise was featured at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Bach has so many layers -- not like a three-layer cake, but more like the dozens of layers in Baklava (Bachlava!), she told us at Starling-DeLay. "It's like Silly Putty -- it picks up the imprint of the person playing it," Katie said.

Katie asked the class to come up with words to describe their favorite pieces by Bach, and here are our words: complex, clever, joyful, tranquil, counterpoint, spiritual, majestic, sublime, serene, intimate, reverent, reflective, grounded, divine.

Then we came up with a list of words to describe Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin: profound, comprehensive, intimate, scary, emotional, vulnerable, subtle, personal, intimidating, exhilarating.

Notice anything different about these two lists? Though we seem to love and admire the works of Bach, violinists tend to describe the Sonatas and Partitas as "sublime," but also as "scary" and "intimidating" and "vulnerable." How can we get past this feeling, to that feeling of boundless inquiry and lifelong curiosity that Katie seems to feel?

"I feel that the solo Bach should be just as listenable and joyful as all your favorite Bach pieces," Katie said. The word "Baroque" literally means "pearl," and we should take delight in each pearl, and in the fact that no two pearls are the same.

Part of the key is to simplify the music, to get down to its elements: melodic phrasing, a feeling of dance, sound production and harmony change. "The swing is the thing, even in slow Bach."

When we play these Baroque works that were made especially for the violin, it's helpful to get into the swing of things with a Baroque bow. Katie asked one of the young artists at the Symposium, William, to try playing with a Baroque bow. (It was his first experiment with this kind of bow!)

"This is one of the best teachers we can have," Katie said, showing us the bow. Its camber is slightly convex, and it naturally makes a certain kind of stroke, which people call a lilt, or a smile, or a scoop. In other words, each stroke has a natural decay to it, because of the shape of the stick.

One way to get a feel for this, in the absence of an actual Baroque bow, is to lower the violin from your chin down to the crook of your elbow and play a few strokes.

Baroque bows were "not made for muscle-y chord-breaking," Katie said. This is something to keep in mind, when you are tempted to break chords in an aggressive, 2ing + 2ing manner. Also, violinists did not break chords downward (upper string to lower string) in the Baroque era -- just try that on a Baroque bow, and you'll see why.

But that doesn't mean we can't do those things. Here are a few of Katie's guidelines for breaking chords downward: first, you must do it with no noticeable rhythm. (No "Hungarian snap"!) Second, be sure to keep the chord in the mood of the piece, so it doesn't stand out.

Sometimes this music gets quite complex, for example, in m. 55 of the Sonata III fugue, where the bassline comes at the bottom of a series of triple- and quadruple-stops. Galamian, and others, advise the rather difficult solution of breaking the chords downward. Katie suggests breaking the chords from the bottom, but putting that bassline ON the beat, with the rest of the chord coming after. Though we nearly always place the top note of a triple-stop on the beat, the ear will hear the bassline better in this case if we put the bottom note on the beat.

Another solution is to arpeggiate chords.

"We can arpeggiate more than we think -- the ear doesn't even hear it that way," Katie said. This works particularly well in soft and slow passages.

Another thing we can do is go straight to the source: Bach's manuscript. And what about those Galamian fingerings and bowings, that are so different from Bach's? And the early- and mid-20th century recordings, that are so Romanticized?

"Galamian wrote this edition for a reason," Katie said, "these are very good solutions," particularly for those new to Bach: Galamian's bowings and fingerings allow you to do it. "What I take from the old recordings are wonderful qualities of nobility and heart," Katie said. Using a Baroque bow doesn't take away those qualities, it just requires using different techniques such as accents, tempos and treatment of harmony.

Exploring Bach's original, for example, in the "Adagio" from the Sonata No 2 in A minor: it's interesting to see the bowing that Bach wrote vs. what so many editors, including Galamian, wrote in later. Editors tended to add a lot of slurs in this movement, where few are written. It can help to practice the top line, the melody, with Bach's bowing. Then, find a bowing you like, one that really makes it a melody, and apply the pulsing bass to that.

How does one come up bowings, in Bach? "We don't need a treatise to tell us what is intuitively clear to us," Katie said, but here are four general rules for making bowings in Bach.

1. It should sound like the articulation that Bach wrote. How do you know what Bach wrote? Look at the urtext, or look in the back of the Galamian edition of the Sonatas and Partitas, where Bach's manuscript is printed.

2. The rule of the down-bow: down-bows should come on emphasized beats

3. Convenience bowings. For example, if you have to dive for a lower string, it's easiest to go up-bow, then dive on the down-bow.

4. Phrasing bowings: Arrange the bowings in a way to get the phrase shape that you want. For example, if you want a crescendo, or to de-emphasize the end of a phrase, or to emphasize one voice over another, etc., choose a bowing that will help that to happen, over one that works against your phrase. (For example, a huge down-bow on the last note of a phrase is usually a bad idea).

It gets even more complicated though. How about a fugue for three voices, on one violin? There are three of them, one in each Sonata. How about the longest fugue that Bach ever wrote for any instrument? That would be the C major fugue from Sonata No. 3. When Katie asked us for words to describe the fugues, we came up with: journey, vocal, conversation, choral, intellectual, argumentative, interactive, fun, transformative, structural, stressful.

How do you build skills for tackling the fugues? Katie suggested first playing other pieces from the S and P's that have double-stops and voicing, such as the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3 in E major; the Tempo di Borea from the Partita No. 1 in B minor; and the Minuets from Partita No. 3 in E major.

Next, get out your colored pencils and do some analysis of the fugue. Trace the themes and motives in different-colored pencils.

In talking about a fugue, "I use the analogy of a family argument," Katie said. When that second voice enters, it has "pugnacious energy," Katie said. (I pictured my sister, interrupting me at the dinner table. With pugnacious energy!) And not only are there different voices in these fugues, but those different voices have different personalities. It's up to us to make sure they don't all sound uniform.

Of course, playing all these voices at once, whether in the fugues or other movements of the Sonatas and Partitas, involves playing on more than one string at a time -- double, triple and quadruple stops.

Katie pointed out that "to play on two strings instead of one takes no more pressure -- it's just an angle of the bow. It takes no verticality."

Playing double-stops should not strain the hand. You can relax by rolling the elbow back a bit, by doing some vibrato to loosen the hand, and also the "drumstick" test: have someone squeeze that fleshy part of your hand where the thumb attaches. If it is stiff, that means you are squeezing too hard with your thumb. Don't squeeze with your thumb!

And then, once you can actually play the chords, you have to make sure that those chords don't get in the way of the thematic material, or melody. For example, in the Adagio in Sonata No. 3, "This can be a very hypnotic movement," Katie said. "We don't want the chords to get in the way of that."

Also, with so many notes per square inch of manuscript, one has to be able to discern the forest for the trees.

For example, in the "Loure" movement of the Partita No. 3 in E major, "too often when a student sees this, they make it into a cantabile aria," Katie said. But really, it's a dance, and the beats are bigger. Beware of death by dotted rhythm!

In fact, thinking in terms of bigger beats can also help a great deal in all three of the fugues, which can all be thought of as having a meter that is counted in two.

More about beats in Bach: The D minor partita has a "Sarabande" for its third movement. Though teachers and dictionaries will simplify a "Sarabande" as being a dance with emphasis on the second beat, it's not a completely accurate picture. "It's really that beat two has a certain, dignified quality."

Bach was most famous in his life as an improvising pianists, so it is a little ironic that his music would be viewed in any kind of rigid way. He also had 21 children -- "There is no way he was without a sense of play, with all those children!"

When speaking to students about solo Bach, we should be careful not to scare them or to make the works of Bach sound too lofty for mere mortals to play. "We have to be aware of what message we give our students," Katie said. "Please don't pass on any fear or stress about these pieces." Imagination and heart are allowed -- are welcomed! -- in Bach. "Use a vocabulary of freedom, and you can give your students a gift for life, if you give them Bach as a world of discovery."


From David Rowland
Posted on June 13, 2013 at 7:51 PM
This could not have come at a better time. I just picked up a copy of the Sonatas and Partitas and was wondering what I was getting myself into.

Thanks. There's lots to think about here.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 13, 2013 at 10:21 PM
As always, very helpful and wonderfully written! Thanks Laurie! Bach P & S always ends my practice session, as Buri said at one point, so as to remind us why we play.
From William Wolcott
Posted on June 14, 2013 at 12:10 PM
Excellent article!

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