Rhythmic disproportion in Bach's Gm Adagio BWV 1001

Edited: December 13, 2017, 12:20 PM · I've been working on the Gm Adagio since last summer, puzzling over the vast disproportions in its rhythms. There's everything from a whole note at the end to 128th notes. I can't remember seeing anything else like it elsewhere in Bach. (Well, maybe the Chromatic Fantasy, but that's keyboard stuff.) This Adagio movement reminds me of Proust, where adjacent Chapters may be vastly disproportional in length, where you may find a sentence that goes on for an entire page, or a paragraph that goes on for eight pages. I've been practicing it in 16/16 time in effect, setting my metronome at about 1/16 = 80 or some such pace; pretty slow at any rate. Even then trying to parse out the 64th and 128th notes is a real challenge. Not that I'm complaining; there's no other music I'd rather be playing. But Bach puzzles me here - what was he thinking?

Replies (13)

December 13, 2017, 12:27 PM · Of course Kodaly arranged the chromatic fantasy for viola .Very hard work and I'm not sure that it's worth it !!
December 13, 2017, 12:42 PM · I've just listened to this wonderful lyrical solo piece by Bach . Respectfully I don't really understand what you mean by rhythmic disproportion .
December 13, 2017, 12:56 PM · You have to remember that the adagio was a specific baroque compositional form, not just a tempo indication. The baroque adagio was considered a high-level work, with a steady pulse and florid but graceful ornamentation. What you're seeing, if I understand what you mean, is the written-out ornamentation that flows along over the pulse. I know a lot of baroque music comes in steady 16ths, but the adagio is sort of the opposite of that kind of composition.
December 13, 2017, 3:15 PM · We play it in strict(ish) time - and it sounds like an improvisation!
Pure genius.
December 13, 2017, 5:35 PM · I like that: written out ornamentation, or faux improvisation. When I attempt to play it in strict(ish) time, it's with the emphasis on the "ish."
December 13, 2017, 11:41 PM · I say this every time this adagio comes up...

It's highly influenced by Corelli's op. 5 adagio ornaments, except in Bach's case everything adds up mathematically. If you play it with exact subdivision you'll always be stuck.

As the wonderful Barthold Kuijken says: The Notation is Not the Music.

December 14, 2017, 1:38 AM · It's a wonderful piece . I can't help comparing it to another solo Bach the Chaconne . I wish people would play that piece with just a tad less intensity
December 14, 2017, 2:42 AM · I agree with Dorian completely .
December 14, 2017, 8:30 AM · I count demisemis (or 32nd-notes for the Americans) with this - at least at the moment, because I want to make sure that I have the rhythmic proportions nailed down before adopting a more "improvisatory" manner.

It does feel odd having a run of demi or hemidemisemiquavers followed by what appears to be an answering phrase in straight quavers 4 times as slow....

December 14, 2017, 10:35 AM · Goodness, almost every Baroque adagio was influenced by Corelli's op 5. The sonatas were republished 50+ times during the 18th century. In Corelli's original 1700 version, the ornamentation was mostly nonexistent, and the player was expected to improvise the filigree. Though there's a 1710 edition, published in Amsterdam, possibly by Corelli himself, that does have written out ornamentation. It was a pretty popular edition though not everyone believed it was by Corelli himself. If you look at published editions of the sonatas from the 1720s onward with written out ornamentation, you see a progression of denser and denser ornament. By 1760, Quantz was complaining that people were putting in so much elaborate ornamentation that players had to perform more and more slowly to fit in all the notes, losing the essential pulse of the piece. I find all of this very interesting and I'm not sure any of it helps with playing the Bach, but I enjoyed typing it just now.
December 15, 2017, 5:12 AM · We can start with a strict reading, and then let Bach's rhapsodic genius take over. Rather than impose our own from the start?
December 15, 2017, 10:58 AM · I don't think it's a question of imposing "ones own" . It's just that there is more latitude to let the music breath when ensemble doesn't have to be part of the mix .
December 15, 2017, 11:31 AM · Hi Scott and everyone,

Yes the Amsterdam edition is what I have in mind, and I do believe them to be true because the ornaments have these falling sevenths that are so characteristic of Corelli, but that's for another discussion. And true or not, this ornamented edition was a landmark influence that became famous through Europe.

I point this out because I'm not convinced most people on this board knows about this extraordinary landmark and its significance.

Scheibe criticized Bach for writing out all the ornaments leaving nothing for the performer...this g minor adagio is probably a good example. I would encourage to OP to actually take out the ornaments and play the bare skeleton, make your own, and then go back to Bach's filigree.

Re: Quantz' complain: yes some embellishments so monstrous and ridiculous, it almost become something for the eye than ear. Interesting to see the difference between Corelli in beginning of 1700s, Bach at 1722 and Quantz in mid-1700s.

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