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Understanding Bach

Repertoire: How does one come to terms with music universally claimed as ingenious by your fellow colleagues and teachers, yet which you can't understand yourself?

From Tomás Costa
Posted April 11, 2009 at 04:11 AM

Though Bach isn't my favorite composer, I love many of his works. I've played both violin concerti and dilligently study the fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier. The B Minor Mass is also one of my favorite religious musical works.

Yet when it comes to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, I feel lost. The counterpoint is skeleton-like (there's only so much you can do on a single violin) and I feel the music as being uncomfortably restrained. Crucify me if you wish, but I find some of the movements to be downright boring.

It's not an issue with solo violin music. I love Ysaye's solo violin sonatas. While I'm also not a fan of Paganini's Caprices, they're not (musically speaking) held in the extremely high regard that the S&P are - a high regard I fail to understand.

What are your feelings on this? How do you approach these works? What do you find of special in them? Being such a core part of a violinist's training, I feel it is pratically my duty to seek this knowledge and perhaps this admiration which everyone else seems to have. I recently performed the last two movements of the 2nd solo sonata at a competition, and while my teacher was pleased with my musical thinking in Tartini's Devil's Trill sonata, Kreisler's Prelude and Allegro and Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, he had to guide me every step of the way in the Bach, as if I were blind.

 

From Thomas Ludwig
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 12:24 PM

Gidon Kremer: This guy is a genious. I don't think he misses a single voice. Take a listen. This guy's recording of Bach is the best I've ever heard: www.youtube.com/watch

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 01:02 PM

You don't have to love every piece of the repertoire.  And, your tastes might change and grow through the years.  No one should crucify you for your personal tastes...

There are plenty of S&P movements I couldn't wrap my head around the first time through.  There are some that I still can't click with.  And, there are some that I have changed my mind about.  And that is why I like the S&P.  They aren't so obvious, and they keep giving back as you keep digging in.  That explains why many great artists record the S&P two times, or more. 

From Marina Fragoulis
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 02:22 PM

You may want to read Jaap Schroder's book Bach's Solo Violin Works: A Performer's Guide.  It talks about baroque style and technique and devotes a chapter to each sonata and partita.

Your intuition is right in telling you that you must have a knowledge of this work, it will be a requirement throughout your career.  But don't expect that knowledge to come all at once.  The Bach will grow with you.  Your taste will change.  The best thing to do is take lessons with several teachers on Bach, listen to different recordings, and your own interpretations will emerge.  Pretty soon no one will have to lead you through your interpretations, you'll have your own.

Something that has helped me tremendously is to practice without my violin.  Sit with the International Edition and look at the fascimile in the back.  Sing through the pieces out loud or in your mind and follow the curves of Bach's handwriting.  It gave me a lot more insight on phrasing, & direction. 

I have so many recordings of the sonatas and partitas I couldn't count them.  The only one I listen to now adays is Jaap Schroder.  Finally, someone playing them the way I hear them in my mind.

From Bruce Berg
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 03:45 PM

You might want to look at Bach's Works for Solo Violin written by Joel Lester. It is quite informative.

From Roland Roberts
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 04:39 PM

May I suggest you can find a way to connect with this music emotionally. Then, the 'uncomfortable restraint' you experience now will be replaced by the immense range of emotions which these works contain. 

Sometimes it is easy to forget that Bach, the man with the wig in black and white portraits was a real person who expressed his deepest passions through his music. Get hold of a book called 'The Bach Reader' and you will see Bach in a very different light.

When Bach returned to Cothen after a three month trip he found that his wife and mother of seven children had died and been buried in his absence. She was only 30 years old. Of all the music he could have written at this point he chose to compose a set of six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. He was an accomplished violinist and must have considered the violin to be the best way to express his feelings at what must have been an unimaginable traumatic time in his life.

The music is full of references to various cantatas and gematria (using sacred number and letter codes) which both affirm his deep faith and hope in redemption and resurrection. These techniques reach their culmination in the Chaconne where the constancy of God is symbolised by the ground bass.

Perhaps you might play from an edition with no editors bowings or fingerings (urtext) and allow the music to reveal its message. So often these works are used as technical exercises and the music becomes secondary. Remember music always dictates the technique. If you feel something strongly enough then you will find a way to do it technically. Good luck.

 

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 07:29 PM

If anyone asks, just nod your head, wink at them and say with a big smile, "Ahhhh Baaaaach!"

Hope this gives a smile!

royce

From Hansjürgen Kohlhaas
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

The question raised by Tomás Costa touches on something many especially young violin students will ponder - understanding Bach emotionally.

In addition to the excellent recommendations above, I feel Arnold Steinhardt in his book Violin Dreams is dealing with this problem quite thouroughly -its like a red thread in it, and the Ciaconna and its backgrounds plays a key part there. Plus you have the additional benefit of finding a CD in the book with two interpretations of the Ciaconna by Mr. Steinhardt which he had recorded ca. 40 years apart if I remember well. Since you,Tomás, live in Portugal but your English is perfect, I'm confident such reading will contribute to your progress.

Haj

From Tomás Costa
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 12:36 AM

My deepest and warmest thanks to everyone who has replied so far.

Thomas Ludwig - I've failed to mention (mea culpa!) that perhaps the only movement in the entire set of the S&P to strike a chord with me (pardon the pun) is the Chaconne. Nevertheless, I find Kremer's rendition, which I'd heard previously, to be a tad on the eccentric side.

Anne Horvath - You mention something which has also eluded me so far: the nature of the S&P as perpetual musical goldmines from which to constantly draw new material, as if they were inexhaustible fountains. This is a view shared by the vast majority of people I've encountered, and which I fail to comprehend.

Marina Fragoulis - I'm certainly not lacking in recordings. Having heard Milstein's, Szeryng's, Grumiaux's, Heifetz's, Perlman's and selections by Hahn, Gringolts, Chung, Menuhin, Lubotsky, Kremer, Vengerov and a handful of baroque violinists, I'm sad to report that none of them truly made me 'connect' with the music. Your suggestion of studying the music without a violin in hand is interesting, and I'll certainly give it a try. Reading along with the score while listening didn't work for me, so I hope this might do the trick.

Bruce Berg - I found the book you mentioned on Amazon. Thanks for the suggestion!

Roland Roberts - I'm afraid that the point you mention in your first paragraph is far more difficult than you appear to imply! When I like a piece, I tend to instantly 'get it' and connect with its language. The exception to this was Schönberg's Violin Concerto, which took me over a dozen listens to come to like and eventually love. I was hoping I could pull the same 'trick' on the S&P, but it certainly hasn't worked so far. Could it be that my 'emotional' language is simply different? When I think of emotion in music, the Romantic period instantly comes to mind, and few other musical examples manage to reach the same areas of expression within my view, as flawed as it may be. Bach's solo music sounds to me extremely stern, austere and stoic, like a solemn stone church instead of the vast landscapes of Sibelius' Violin Concerto or the stormy obsession of Ysaye's Ballade. In my musical understanding, it is pratically the opposite of emotion. I've also often wondered if my apathetic agnosticism could be hindering my enjoyment of Bach's deeply religious ouevre.

Hansjürgen Kohlhaas - Thank you for the suggestion. It is certainly intriguing (though to me not at all unexpected) that the author you mentioned would see the understanding of Bach's music emotionally as a 'problem'.

 

From Roland Roberts
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 08:10 AM

Tomas, this subjective view of Bach could not be further from the truth. "Stern, austere and stoic" is so NOT Bach.  Bach and his contemporaries believed music could express the widest range of emotions, the Ausdruckung der Affecten, the expression of innermost passions. Bach also believed that music was a craft and that anybody with five fingers and talent could master music technically and spiritually. Assiduity must lead to perfection.

In fact I suggest that Bach's music has a far greater emotional range than Ysaye and Sibelius.  It's just a different kind of emotion. Listen to Glenn Gould playing The Goldberg Variations, I defy anybody could say the music is stern, austere and stoic. 

I believe that the appreciation and understanding of Bach has to be earned over a long period of time. Hilary Hahn says she played Bach's solo music every day since the age of eight  and "one can't fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way." This is similar to Glenn Goulds experience where he, "engaged in the structure of the music, detached from the instrument which he had mastered to perfection, he seemed to be possessed by a kind of clinical ecstasy when he played."

Perhaps this is the way forward. 

 

 

From al ku
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 10:48 AM

another interesting thread...:)

my understanding of classical music in depth and width is on par with soccer moms' understanding of soccer, so bear with me with this tangential shoot while you guys crucify tomas. :)

in my mind, there is classical music and then there is bach (as facetious as saying there is classical music, and then there is paganini).  to me, generally speaking, the former is rather linear, like the 3 pieces of work cited in tomas' first post (crucify me, too!)  and bach's work--based on the ones i have been exposed to-- is convoluted to the point that i simply do not understand.    i find  this lack of a full understanding captivating and  i define that as beauty.   like the effect of a smile, of kindness,,,. 

my kids and i often position ourselves early in the morning on golf courses at around 6-7 am, when the sun has not broken through but you feel the glow lurking, with misty laces all around,  slimmers of water reflecting in the distance, birds calling out and fading away,  the smell of fresh meadow,  the chilly breeze on your face, all these mingled into one, attacking your senses while you surrender to the realm,,,the realm of bach.  may be some folks don't see and feel this way, and they tinker and attempt to understand intellectually, via weather report, local topography and the type of cow manure fertilzing the field.   somehow i just cannot bring myself to do that...   :)  

and the dilemma for me on things like bach is that if i do understand it cognitively and see things on elemental level, minus all the bells and whistles, all that mysteries and allures,  i may regret.  can you imagine how more grumpy i will become???

 

 

From Marina Fragoulis
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 11:59 AM

This is thread is making me think of the Brahms/Wagner controversy and I favor on the side of Brahms.  I do not agree with Wagner that music is "emotional."  They are just notes after all and their structure is architectural.  A performance can convey emotion, but notes cannot so I wouldn't try looking within the score to find the divinity of it, rather it has to come from within yourself. 

In a documentary about Jackie du Pre I once saw her fooling around before rehearsal at the piano.  She was playing twinkle twinkle little star but oh my was it expressive!  Does that mean that the notes of the nursery song have emotion within them?  I think perhaps that those simple notes become other-worldly in the hands of du Pre. 

It is worth noting that Bach was an incredibly religious man and he devoted almost all his music to the glory of God.  Maybe your corrolation of his music with a stoic church is not off base, but it is only a starting point.

From Tomás Costa
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 01:16 PM

Roland Roberts - I'm afraid you misunderstood me. The characteristics I mentioned applied only, in my view, to Bach's S&P, and not his entire output. I do love many of his other works.

al ku - What a lovely description! Ironically enough, as I read it, I saw how it applied to a vast realm of music I've enjoyed in the past, but not these particular Bach works!

Marina Fragoulis - I fear that exact religious nature might be what's keeping me from enjoying the works in the first place. As to the discussion you mentioned, I find myself halfway between Brahms and Wagner. Notes themselves have the potential for emotion, and it is up to the performer(s) to find their 'key'.

From Sander Marcus
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 02:53 PM

Tomas: I hate to take a contrary position to the many insightful and extremely helpful views and suggestions from the responses you've gotten on this discussion (especially since I'm a rank amateur and have played the Bach Sonatas & Partitas all my life, not very well and without the benefit of any lessons whatsoever) - BUT, I can't help thinking that you are entitled to your reaction.

I read somewhere that Heifetz never liked the Mozart Symphonie Concertant, even though he made a great recording of it and that it is probably Mozart's greatest violin concerto. Is it really a requirement that every serious violinist should "get" the Bach S&P's? Are they really the violinistic equivalent of the 5 Books of Moses (i.e., the 6 Books of Bach)?

And even if they are, is it really a requirement no one is allowed to have a particular emotional/artistic nature that just does not find them to be the last word in the solo violin literature? I hope there's room in this world for someone to say, "That just doesn't strike me as being as great as everyone else says it is (or should be)."

I happen to be one who thinks that several of the Bach S&P movements are (compared to his most profound works) "light," even with a humorous (musically speaking) quality. If I'm right, I wouldn't be surprised that that was Bach's intention. After all, a brilliant genius like Bach can't possible be so without some sense of humor.

By the same token, I believe that Paganini's music is completely undervalued. He was a genius as a composer, and he knew exactly what he was doing, and it wasn't just to "show off" his violinistic supremacy. His music (even the most technical of it) is, I believe, metaphorically an opera. His writing for the violin is like it's a sort of super-voice. His accompaniments, often criticized for being simple and superficial, are perfect vocal aria accompaniments. That's why (in my opinion) the greatest performances of Paganini approach the music as VOCAL, through the medium of the INSTRUMENTAL. If you are willing to play and listen to Paganini as vocal (you can almost hear words), operatic, dramatic, and theatrical, you get it. That's why, in my opinion, none of the violinist-composers who followed Paganini and modeled themselves after him wrote as effectively, although several came close.

To the extent I'm right, Paganini (like Bach) has to be seen as a great composer - as great as Bach - who accomplished his artistic vision as wonderfully as did Bach, even though their visions differed considerably.

So, back to the subject. If Bach just doesn't strike you as the gold standard of solo violin works, that's fine with me. At the same time, the responses from everyone on this discussion thread are absolutely wonderful. I've learned a lot from them.

Cordially,
Sandy

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 07:35 PM

 I know nothing about the partitas and never played them yet but when I heard them on CD, I also felt some were a little boring...   It is not the same entertaining, lively effect on me than the doulble concertos, Chaconne or concertos in E and A min which I LOVE.  It is quite unfrequent that a composer is able to compose pieces that one find all extraordinairy for one's personal taste.  It's okay to not like some pieces and love others but you sometimes have to play the less loved pieces to improve your technique especially when your teacher is a great fan of them... or if you are a professionnal musician (thus can not choose always what you play :)

Good luck in you understanding.  I know that the harmony principles in Bach are strong and  that his music is generally lively and energic, a conducter once told us that Bach was an happy man and that we should always play with this in mind because we looked too serious while playing it...  but this is a very very beginning to understanding Bach and I know it well beyond that!

Anne-Marie

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 07:52 PM

On a Serious Note-

     The more I play Bach the more he and the works open up too me.  I'm curently learning both the 1st & 2nd violin parts to his Concerto in d minor and as always I can't get enough of it.  It was the same way with the Brandonberg Concertos when I was a kid and younger adult.

     Reading about the era, and the history of the person, place and music helps tremendously, as does anything that can tell you what the composer was going through before, durring or after he/she wrote whatever you are trying to learn/play.  Buri recently had an excellent Blog regarding something of this.  It would be worth looking it up!

royce

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 07:57 PM
From Bruce Berg
Posted on April 13, 2009 at 12:12 AM

I suppose a sensible teacher like Ivan Galamian would know how to teach these great works, but I found having played all the unaccompanied works for him that all he was concerned about was playing them in tune with a good sound, some sort of dynamic contrast, figuring out a modern bow stroke, etc. Essentially he treated them as the Bach etudes: he had little knowledge of Baroque style which fairly enough was not prevelant in the late 1960's . Perhaps other Galamian students can correct me on this.

 

My initial understanding of these works came from the experience of performing Bach Cantatas on a weekly basis at a church in Nyc, early music experience on period instruments (even at that time at Juilliard!) and the influence of great musicians like Sandor Vegh and Josef Szigeti. I quickly expelled the notion of overblown Bach by certain teachers at Juilliard like Felix Galimir, but quickly accepted the principles of style (although not totally informed) of people like Maurice Eisenberg, a pupil of Casals.

The modern performer who comes closest to my current approach is Christian Tetzlaff, although I disagree with certain things he does. This is natural since the nature of these sonatas and partitas demand an individual emotional interpretation. I was struck by Andrew Manze's comment in a master class at my university that the interpretation of an individual movement can and must be influenced by the mood of the performer at the very moment of performance. This is what makes Bach personal.

From Scott Hawthorn
Posted on April 15, 2009 at 03:36 PM

I'm not qualified to comment on Bach's music, but it might be helpful to you if I point out that I'm an atheist and yet I find this music to be transcendant. This indicates to me that one doesn't have to be into God to "get it." What I call "the mystery of life" is enough of a path to appreciation here.

I fall into Sander's camp here though, but might say it in a different way: what one responds to emotionally in the realm of abstraction (music), is entirely your own experience, background, knowledge, and emotional makeup.

One feeling I get from some of Bach's music, including some if this work, is something that is little discussed here: grace. That is not specifically an emotion, but my response to a beautiful depiction of grace IS emotional. And that quality is strong with some players and almost entirely absent with others. I find the first movement of the E Major Concerto to be full of that quality if it's brought out.

I think it's noble of you to look for what you're missing here, but I think you need to just listen and wait; it may come to you eventually.

 

From Marina Fragoulis
Posted on April 15, 2009 at 07:18 PM

Well said Scott. One does not have to be religious to understand Bach or his music.  I'm not Catholic but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of the cathedral of NotreDam in Paris. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on April 16, 2009 at 11:59 PM

Greetings,

and then if we have the wrong god we end up playing the wrong Bach as well?  It`s a scary thought.

Cheers,

Buri

From Jerald Archer
Posted on April 18, 2009 at 10:51 PM

How does one come to terms with music universally claimed as ingenious by your fellow colleagues and teachers, yet which you can't understand yourself?


The appreciation of anything requires three necessary acquisitions: good taste, education and experience.


The acquisition of good taste is not developed as much as it is inbred. One can have good exposure to many fine things, and still have what some would consider "bad taste". One can only aquire good taste by known comparison to what is bad, which is purely based on education and experience, respectively. The whole composition of a society is made up of different cultural aspects and often people will make the mistake of claiming that their culture is more "advanced" than another. This is an error in truth, since it can only be based on whatever is considered as "tasteful" in any given society. Therefore, how is judged as being in good, or bad taste? The survival of a given art is subject to historical developments, be they progressive or digressive, and the existing social thought of the day determines the definition of what is "good taste". One may work at acquiring a fine taste in many things through education and experience. A sort of weeding out process based on what will survive (in the long run) and what will die out.


To understand anything, one must educated themselves as to why a thing is what it is. To understand the works of any composer, one should study the times in which they lived. Note the political, religious, morals, social thought, fashions and philosophical aspects of the period that they lived in, as well as the letters or journals of the composer or their contemporaries, and you will get a better understanding as to why they are considered "great" today. Bach was, in his time, was not world renowned in his day, and was just doing the thing he was required to do. He had correspondence with other composers of his day, particularly Vivaldi, but he was not considered a "superstar" as we would think of one today. Most of his duties were of an educational nature, and he was deeply religious in his thoughts and actions. He often had disagreements with authorities and his music was often considered as "noisy" to some that heard it. I could safely say that we can thank Felix Mendelsson for saving Bach from totally being forgotten, although it is impossible to say this could have been achieved later. Research all the aspects of any subject, and these opens new understandings that will help you understand a work of art better. I am often suprised at how little musicians know about the music they make a living at performing. It is often reflected in the manner in which they perform. They all sound the same and this is due to ignorance in historical practices. The exceptional student is one that can think for themselves, through good research processes, and a unique understanding of history. This separates the orchestral player from the soloist.


Experience fosters wisdom. An experienced musician has had the advantage of years behind them and is able to appreciate many aspects of music that a younger one cannot. A real musician is an artist, and this can only be acquired through experiences, both good and bad, which will be reflected in their style of playing. This is the key to mastery and it is often proven when one hears the difference between a young player and an older player, respectively. The younger player may have the techinique, but not the life experiences that are required to "convince" and audience that they are an artist. Child prodigies are amazing to behold, but lack the experience to convey deep emotions. Accomplished artists(which is a loose term in today's musical world) have the life experiences behind them that are exhibited, not in terms of technique, which is only a tool that is learned through experimentation and practice, but through their ability to truly "make music". It is the unity of Good Taste, Education and Experience that makes a master musician.

 

From Scott Cole
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 06:12 AM

Tomas,

Since no one has taken the opposing view, it naturally falls to moi.

If you don't get into the Bach solo works, then so what? They're extraordinarily difficult. It's almost impossible to play a fugue--most people sound like they're chopping several chords (that was a pun) of wood.

It's ok. There's plenty of other Bach, and the solo works are not my favorites to listen to or play. I think the accompanied works are very under-appreciated. I'd much rather listen to the cantatas. Actually, I'd much rather listen to Beethoven quartets. Actually, the truth is, I'd MUCH rather listen to NPR or This American Life. And who the hell cares anyway? No one.

 

Later in life you may appreciate Bach and have more insight in how to interpret his music. Or not. Don't sweat it.

Scott

From Marina Fragoulis
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 12:22 PM

I agree with Scott that the accompanied works are under appreciated.  Ever listened to the violin/harpsichord sonatas?  Wonderful!

From Shailee Kennedy
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 02:38 PM

 I wish I had some serious training in music theory, because then I could explain this---I think it has to do with the structure of the music itself. The key choices, the modes, the modulations, the arpeggiations (is that a word?)---I listen to Bach and I hear him laying out the scale in so many different combinations and layers that all fit together ingeniously, in ways that I find that to be beautiful. Ysaye, on the other hand, sounds too melodic to me, like movie music. I should probably learn an appreciation of later-period music, but Bach appeals to me in a way that I never had to acquire.

Tritones, for instance---I hate them!  There is something about that particular jump in the scale that sounds awful to my ear. I know they introduce tension, and the resolution of them is supposed to be musically satisfying, but I just find them annoying.

I truly think that sometimes music is just a matter of personal taste, not because we have "good" taste or "bad" taste, but because we're all individuals, certain things about music will resonate differently within each of us. And sometimes our initial reactions are the ones we should trust.

Maybe someone with more knowledge than myself will understand what I'm getting at and explain it better!

From Scott Cole
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 07:51 PM

Shailee,

You've pointed out a very important concept in music for 500 years: dissonance. You may not like tritones, or other dissonances, but the fact is that the constant interplay of consonance and dissonance are central to tonal music. The concept of tension and relaxation are but two of the dualities used by tonal composers, and crucial to the understanding of Bach; one doesn't avoid the dissonance but rather one embraces it. Without dissonance, there is no resolution. Dissonance is what drives tonal music forward. Without it, music becomes static. That's why, for example, suspension are almost always on strong beats, and resolutions on the weak.

Scott

From Christo Jankowitz
Posted on January 10, 2010 at 10:08 AM

HI

I have read the discussion and just want to share a few thoughts:

You state that you find the Unaccompanied Bach Sonatas and Partitas difficult to understand.

Well, to my mind this is normal (or should be) as you are firstly dealing with (probably) the most difficult and deepest levels of musical thinking by one of the most profound musical minds in history. By everything I was taught, and what I know of the historical background, it seems that Bach himself produced these works to show his knowledge of the violin and its virtuosity. I also know that at the time it was considered a great art for a composer to produce unaccompanied works for instruments - knowing that Telemann produced a number of such works as well as other composers it seemsthat Bach, trying his hand probably wanted to show his skill at producing great art (thus not showing-off only violin technique but composition technique and other stuff as well... you may laugh at my term 'show-off' but it appears that Bach was a bit of an exhibitionist if one takes into account his 'competition' with Louis Marchand and how he treated some of the musicians at Arnstadt and how he sought out Organ virtuosi of his time to 'learn' from them... ).

There were some discussions during my study of the violin that some of these works are actually unplayable and that we just make the effort to be able to partake in some of the greatest musical thought available today. Having said that I know that Bach produced these works to tour with... (I think he gave at copy of the set to one of his sons for performance and there is some evidence that he regularly met all sorts of musicians and some of these included virtuosi, to which he showed the set. Apparently the reaction was amazament at Bach's mastery of the instrument - it is historically suggested that he could play these works himself - we are not sure exactly how he managed all the double stops and whether these were produced with the technical clarity that we expect from violinists today...not to mention good intonation...).

At the same time I do believe that there is evidence that Bach himself worked on the set for quite some time - thus it stands to reason that if Bach himself spent extra time and effort on the 'project' it is reasonable that us 'mere mortals' would need to spend comparable time and effort as well...

By all that I have seen of the set, the Sonatas & Partitas contain a remarkable 'compression' and 'succinctness' of Bach's  musical thought (which we know can be profound and at  the best of times rather high in polyphonic density not to mention the high volume of 'musical content' at the level of genius). It was also considered quite an achievement of composers of Bach's day if they could manage to write polyphony for a single line melody instrument...sort of unofficial as to who could produce the best unaccompanied works (What I understand about Bach's psyche it seems that he would not be able to stop himself from taking up such a challenge...)

I ramble on, but the point that I want to make is that you cannot expect to learn to understand these works before you appreciate them as works of art AND the issues surrounding them. Also, seeing that Bach was at Coethen (when the works were supposed to have been written) already a mature musician (with a bit of ego as well as he did tell an employer off at Weimar and landed up in jail for it...) that us 'mortals' would also need to reach such maturity if we want to understand the content of these works... One also wonders if there is anyone today who can actually understand Bach at all in the way he 'meant' his music to be understood...composers hear their music very differently compared with other musicians because they immediately know what they mean and we are left with the guessing game to figure out what that is...

It is also interesting to consider that even though Bach's 'first instrument' was the violin (historically he learnt the viola first and then the violin and only learned keyboards later on) he  seems to have produced more works for keyboard instruments than for the violin (perhaps a lot was lost we don't know...). Thus there is an imbalance in the repetory as us poor violinists who want to experience Bach's thought have only the unaccompanied works, the violin concertos and the  (9) sonatas with Basso Continuo to get our teeth into, whereas keyboard players have the whole corpus of organ works and the WTC and the Suites and the Clavier Uebung etc... and the Little Preludes (written as education material - Bach did sadly not produce similar technically 'easier'  pieces for the violin it seems...) ,Inventions, Toccatas - the list is quite long... as is my post is seems...) to choose from...

In any case

My feeling about the not-easy-to-solve-problem you present is this:

Firstly find ONE piece by Bach that you DO like (not necessarily in the Sonatas and Partitas but in any of his other works) and then ask yourself WHY you respond to it and WHAT it is that you are responding to and HOW or WHAT your are connecting with in the particular piece. Then build from there and see if the stuff you like about Bach are not in the other works as well and in the Sonatas and Partitas...(my first reaction to hearing Bach was to the absolute beauty of the music and I still find myself linking with any other music by way of its beatuy of lack of it...when I eventually got to hearing the Sonatas and Partitas I was hugely impressed by the fact that that a violin could do 'that'...)

Another thing that comes to mind (I love the G minor Sonata with its imposing Fugue dearly) is to look at some of the arrangements Bach made of the movements in the Sonatas and Partitas for keyboard  and other instruments. I suggest you do this because Bach filled in the harmony and accompaniment for some of them at places. There is a movement in one of the Cantatas that is an arrangement of the Prelude from Partita no. 3 into an Organ Concerto (with orchestral accompaniment). There are arrangements of some movements from Sonata no 2 (A minor) for keyboard and I also found a 'working' of the G minor fugue (Sonata no.1) in the organ works as the organ fugue BWV 539 (although in a different key) and another slightly different version of the same fugue for lute as well. (It seems that Bach himself was quite fond of these pieces...) 

Maybe have a look at these (there are others) and see if they don't give something to hold on to grow your understanding on. Other than that all I can say is read lots of philosophy (it might not help with Bach but will grow your thinking...I somehow feel that it is good way to look at Bach as a philosopher beacuse most of his musical thinking is almost as difficult to understand as philosophy anyway... ). Oh, by the way I recent realised that it helps to look at Bach from the point of view of his 'voice-leading'...and to consider what his options where and maybe wondering why he opted for a particular choice or option in deciding the direction of a melody or line...(interesting how scale-like his thinking is or how the linear dimension intersects with the vertical...)

There exists a number of great recordings by Henry Schering and Menuhin and Grumiaux (If you listen carefully to for instance the Grumiaux you can hear that in some places even he has a hard time playing these pieces). For some reason the recording made by Joseph Suk was highly recommended to me - see if he does not offer any insights?

I hope this helps

 

regards

 

Christo

From Sander Marcus
Posted on January 10, 2010 at 05:27 PM

Once again, I'm not a professional musician and have had only a smattering of education in harmony and counterpoint, but it seems to me that one of the aspects of Bach's transcendent genius is what notes are NOT in the Solo Sonatas and Partitas. There are implied melodies, harmonies, bass notes, and so forth. Haven't there been attempts to "fill in" the harmonies - attempts by Busoni and (I think) Schumann and maybe others? So, assuming I'm correct, listen not just to the notes, but to the implied notes. That may open a door to appreciating these masterpieces.
That help?
Sandy

From John Cadd
Posted on January 11, 2010 at 11:41 PM

Well the topic is about understanding Bach and not about feeling Bach.Understanding in the technical sense leaves me cold.Voices,scales arpeggios ,dissonances are nothing to do with the reason that music exists.It might fill up a dusty corner in a Mathematics department or even make an unusual sound jigsaw game.  In your life ,have you ever been arpeggioed?    The technicalities are necessary for the composer but he wants to communicate more than the nuts and bolts of it`s structure.    The main words used to describe great music are ----Great,Fantastic,Wonderful.   Charles Dickens would not be impressed by such a poor vocabulary.  The emotions in Bach are there but the words to express them are not.    I wondered if some work could be done to decipher the Sonatas by putting a few markers down to describe the emotions that might fit the music.  I mean this in the way the Egyptologists tried to find some meaning in the symbols carved in stone.

I shall chip in with my little offering to get the snowball rolling.  

Chaconne     bar 48   starting on a D .The second D in the bar on the A string seems to be the sharp intake of breath when a man is sobbing with grief.  See how embarrasing it is to talk about emotions already?    Little children sob like this when they get a finger jammed in the door hinge.

As the notes run down from the D  ,it begins again. Then one note lower a C  (sharp intake of breath )         Finally the next gasp on a B .

Just an impression I get from playing that section.Let me know if you hear anybody play that as if they are thinking of Bach suffering after losing his wife.

From John Cadd
Posted on January 19, 2010 at 07:05 PM

The first notes in each group are quick light bows ,but in tempo.I may discover later that these notes were not originally by Bach.I believe they were.   Sadly when I tried the Guitar transcription that passage had been swallowed up into chords and the effect was lost. The players who find the Sonatas difficult should try the absolute original score which has far fewer notes.I personally dislike the back to front way of playing the split chords.I should force myself to give that a fair chance however.    The fact that these pieces are are so difficult is part of their fascination.  We are like moths drawn to a flame. All we can do is attempt to approach them.

The Sonata No 1    BWV1001  Presto is very like Jazz.  This has a demonic quality that always brings me back.

From John Cadd
Posted on January 21, 2010 at 02:16 PM

For a "beginner" who wants to enjoy Bach Sonatas the Gavotte and Rondo is very easy to absorb if you need to have a tune to follow.Not all Bach`s music relies on the "tune "aspect.The chords in this part of Sonata 6  (OR  Partita 3 )  (Why is there so much messing around with the numbers! ?)  -----are delicious in themselves.

Next ,see if you like the jaunty feel of the next little piece Minuetto 1.Gorgeous chords again.If the notes look dense on the page you must not feel you have to race through at a hundred miles an hour.

 Make sure you are really sure about the key you are playing in with these pieces.Also make sure you are exactly tuned up.The sound is far more juicy if you are well tuned.  One useful way to keep on track when you play is to mark the position you need to play in by using a coloured marker pen .I draw a coloured line above the section .Green for second position.Pink for third.Some don`t need any marks at all.           Bach Sonatas ------Think of a dimly lit room with a large oak chest.You`ve opened the lock.The lid creaks back and just inside you get an intense coloured glow from rubies and emeralds.The intense colours glow and fade as you move. The mixture of gems is too much to take in all at once.You see one then another ever changing .There is no bright glaring shine .This is the way the music teases our senses.That is what we are looking for.  Not the price --but the beauty.

One feature of some recordings is a swell in the middle of nearly every note.I hate that!  I also hate pieces played with a bouncy "chippy" kind of staccato ,as if demonstrating to lots of tiny children.Nauseating!.  Then again the "Traditional"approach with gut strings only and chin on the wrong side swooping and gushing every chance they get.  What else can I think of. Oh yes  ,stresses at the end of every phrase just to give it a bit of structure.Beware of all that.  The last few habits  make me think there is a conveyor belt churning out players with these off-putting twitches.  Eventually Bach is too personal to really enjoy anybody else`s interpretation .You have to do your own.   So get on with it .You need a whole lifetime for all of them. Time`s running out.


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