Rachel Barton Pine's 'Testament' to the Music of Bach

April 3, 2016, 9:18 PM · Playing in church is what taught Rachel Barton Pine the meaning of being a musician.

It also taught her to love and revere the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the subject of her latest recording, Testament, which includes all Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. Later this spring, she also will be releasing a Carl Fischer edition of J.S. Bach: Six Sonatas and Partitas, with her dynamics, phrasing indications, bowings, and fingerings.

In late March, Rachel played all 27 movements in a marathon double concert at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., earning praise from The Washington Post: "What Pine communicated was pure Bach, his pleasure in working out musical ideas, his architectural structures large and small and his reverence for both the struggle and the peace that music can offer. Her talks about each piece, consummate scholarship delivered with humor and modesty, was an additional ornament to her performance."

Rachel has been an avid student of the Baroque period since childhood, has made multiple recordings with her Baroque group, Trio Settesento and has cultivated a particular interest in historical violin-related instruments such as the rebec and the viola d'amore. Her deep interest and experience with the music of Bach's time informs her approach to the Sonatas and Partitas, which tends toward the period-performance norms of little vibrato and plenty of resonant open strings, capturing the musical language and dance gestures of these works. She plays with a Baroque bow on her modernized violin, the 1742 "ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat" Guarneri del Gesù.

A few weeks ago Rachel spoke with me over the phone about being raised in a church where the elderly German ladies reminded her regularly that "You must practice Bach. It is the music of Gott!" -- about the importance of using a Baroque bow to play the Sonatas and Partitas, and about Bach's own sense of musical history and compositional genius.

Rachel Barton Pine at St. Pauls Church
Rachel Barton Pine at St. Pauls Church in Chicago.

Laurie: It sounds like your introduction to the music of Bach was very tied up in your childhood church, can you tell me more about that?

Rachel: I first started attending St. Pauls United Church of Christ when I was a little tiny kid. The organist would play Toccatas and Fugues for the prelude music, and the choir would sing movements from oratorios. There's even a stained-glass window of Bach in the sanctuary, mixed in with all the different characters from the Bible. So I was surrounded by Bach. It was at St. Pauls that I first encountered the violin, when I was three; I heard some middle school-aged girls playing one Sunday and begged my parents for lessons. When I was four, I played a work of Bach in worship service myself - and many times since then.

Playing in my church is what taught me the meaning of being a musician. It involves playing for a large group of people, but in a different kind of a context than playing a concert. My church is where I learned that, when you play music, you are a conduit for something greater than yourself, that it's your joy and privilege to share that music with others, to uplift their spirits. I try to take that sense of meaning with me, whether I'm in a 2,000-seat concert hall or playing for a group of kids in a classroom. Wherever I am, it's about trying to channel this amazing music. It was through playing for church - and specifically through the music of Bach - that I really learned that lesson.

TestamentIt was such a pleasure to actually record this Bach album in my home church. When we were thinking of what venue I might want, I knew I wanted a very resonant room, but I wasn't sure whether my own church was a good place. I thought it sounded gorgeous, but I suspected that my opinion might be polluted by sentimentality. My engineer and producer ran a sound test, and they said, "This is a beautiful space!" They liked the combination of resonance and cleanliness. Often a church is very echo-ey -- the sound ends up being muddy, then you have to move the mikes closer and add back a little reverb in the studio. But they said the sound was so perfect that they ended up using just a single pair of mikes and no post-production. It was literally a live sound. They said it was such a good acoustic that we should record the Paganini Caprices there, which we then did; that album will be released at the beginning of next calendar year and I'll have a (sheet music) edition of that to correspond, like I'm doing for the Bach.

I thought, what a lovely coincidence, that when my parents chose a church for our family when I was a baby, they chose it because of the beautiful music and they chose it because of the progressive social values and the community service mission. They certainly didn't choose it because it had great acoustics, but it turned out that that was a super-bonus all along!

Laurie: Do you have a favorite among Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin?

Rachel: Oh absolutely; I'm definitely one-double-O-five (that's Sonata No. 3 in C major, S. 1005). It's full of joy, but also full of the greatest complexity.

Laurie: The C major is the one with the longest fugue in the world, right?

Rachel: Exactly.

I'm actually working on a Playbuzz, which is going to be "Which Bach Sonata or Partita are you?" We're probably about a month away from production.

Laurie: Did you use a Baroque violin to make this recording? A Baroque bow?

Rachel: Since I was 14, I've paired my modernized violin, in Bach, with a Baroque bow. Using the Baroque bow on the modernized violin works brilliantly because (the Baroque bow) simply functions better. It isn't even a question of authenticity; it's a matter of choosing the right tool for the job. If you were golfing, you would want to choose the iron that was going to give you the best result for each shot, and not be stuck with just one iron for the entire course. The Baroque bow has a wonderful combination of sweetness and vitality that you cannot get from the modern bow. The modern bow works so well for strong playing, for sustained playing. But if you try to make it be more elegant, you have to take away the edge, and by taking away the edge you take away the energy. With the Baroque bow, you can use 110 percent energy and still have a certain roundness to the sound. The modern bow specifically doesn't do that. When it comes to the three- and four-note chords, you're working twice as hard for half the results with a modern bow. But when you draw the Baroque bow across the string, it just does it. Literally, it's so much easier! So why would anybody not use it? It works so much better.

Just recently, there are decent-quality snakewood Baroque bows on Amazon.com. The highest-end Baroque bows are still far less expensive than the highest-end modern bows; my great Baroque bow is $2,500, and my great modern bow is literally 100 times that. Certainly, compared to a great modern bow, a great Baroque bow is a drop in the bucket. But the cost can still be prohibitive, and for that reason people haven't (bought Baroque bows for playing Bach as a matter of course). But now, the world has totally changed. You can get a Baroque bow for $50. It seems shocking, and I was sure that they were going to be pieces of junk. But they actually play decently, they are true usable bows. In reality, $50 Baroque bow is $100, because you have to immediately get a re-hair before you even start to play it. Still, it's worth it!

So now there is no excuse for every student and every professional not to have a Baroque bow in their cases. I think every single person should have one! The one thing I should warn you about, though: don't buy a Baroque-shaped bow made out of pernambuco wood. The pernambuco wood came about only with the new shape of the (modern) bow, and Baroque-shaped bows were never made out of pernambuco wood. It simply doesn't work. It doesn't sound good, it doesn't function well. But if you get one made out of snakewood, or ironwood (but I haven't seen those cheap) -- snakewood and ironwood are the two authentic kinds of wood.

(Playing Bach with a Baroque bow) will change your world. Now, that doesn't mean you have to play everything Baroque-y. You can still shift up the string if you prefer to, you can still vibrate, tastefully, if that sounds better on your instrument. But to just play one of the fugues with the Baroque bow, it's just so much easier. And of course for the dance movements, it brings the gestures to life so much more effectively.

If for some reason you don't ever quite make friends with (the Baroque bow), it will still teach you things that will positively impact what you do when you go back to your modern bow later.

Laurie: In your notes, you mention that, in the three different Partitas, Bach uses different spellings of the same movement titles to suggest stylistic differences, to suggest different musical languages.

Rachel: Yes, and it's not just a question of Italian vs. French. Over the years, I've come to realize that the three Partitas are not only in different styles, but -- I call them "Past," "Present" and "Future." To our 21st-century ears, they all seem like ancient Baroque music. But to someone from Bach's lifetime, they would have heard the first one as paying homage to the music of the past, the middle one as the current but solidly established music of the present, and the last as cutting-edge modern music.

Partita No. 1 is really looking back to a more 17th-century aesthetic, with these variation movements called "Doubles," which are in what was known as "division style." It's a kind of variation writing where you take a melody in quarter notes and eighth notes and make it into 16th notes. Even the Sarabande movement, for example, is a very different dance. We're used to the Sarabande where the emphasis is on the second beat, but in fact there are no second-beat emphases in this Sarabande of the B minor Partita - it's a different animal, and it's not slow and lingering. Then Partita No. 2, the D minor Partita, falls within the mainstream musical language of the day, which is a very Italianate type of style. Partita No. 3 is in the new, modern, fashionable French style. Having played a lot of French Baroque music, I tried to bring out a lot of that flavor.

One thing that might surprise people is the petit reprise that I added at the end of the Gavotte; it's basically a brief reprise, where you go back and play the half of the last Rondo section, one last time. This was a very typical practice for such a movement in the French Baroque. As I was practicing it for my recording session, it felt right and so I added it in. People may have never heard that done with Bach before, but if you're trying to make that particular work sound French, then it seems perfectly natural.

So it's been fun to bring my lifetime study of the music of Bach's predecessors and contemporaries to bear on Bach. He wasn't writing this in a vacuum; his music was the culmination of so much. I love that he was so curious, not only about the music from his native Germany, but also about music from Italy, from England, from France. He was always trying to delve into other musical languages in his compositional output.

Laurie: You have edited the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for a new sheet music edition to be published by Carl Fischer, tell me about that.

Rachel: My guiding principle in creating my book and the accompanying materials was: What is the edition that I always wish that I'd had, or that I wish that I now had for myself? And secondly, what are the resources that I wish every kid I taught Bach to had at hand?

The edited version was one of the most intense projects of my life. Beyond that, I also wanted to provide an absolutely clean urtext version. The clean copy also will correspond, in terms of its pagination, to the edited copy, so that you've got all these resources that can combine with each other to facilitate your own personal study and practice.

Laurie: You also suggest practicing solo Bach with a copy of the manuscript on the stand, and I noticed that Carl Fischer will offer a downloadable manuscript edition to go along with your edition. Is that the same manuscript that is in the back of the Galamian edition?

Rachel: There's just one manuscript in Bach's own hand. When it comes to the International (Galamian) edition, I recommend that no one ever buy it for the fingerings and bowings -- and misprints! It was great for its time, but it's badly outdated. As for manuscript in the back of it, I'll be darned if I can find a single kid ever who has actually flipped to the back of the book and really looked at it. It's right there, but nobody does anything with it. I think there is a reason for that: First, it's cumbersome to use it. The manuscript is in the back of the book, and you're not going to be flipping, flipping. And secondly, how do you even find where you are?

I have made a version of the manuscript where what you get on one page is all the notes, and nothing but the notes, that correspond to the printed page of music. So if page one of the modern printed version is measures 1-20, then you get only measures 1-20 of the manuscript. Furthermore, there are going to be measure numbers, so that if you are working on measure 15 and you want to see what Bach wrote in that measure, you can easily find measure 15 in the Bach manuscript, which you can set right there.

(Creating that manuscript) was a laborious process; it took more than 10 hours of a major arts and crafts project. I carefully cut the manuscript, and you can see how squishy it is, I had to go around every single note and cut it out from the note above.

The manuscript, the urtext, and other study materials will be downloadable.

Laurie: What other study materials are you going to include?

Rachel: One is inspired by another laborious arts and crafts project I did when I was a teenager, studying Partita No. 1 in B minor with the doubles: I placed each measure of the double underneath each the measure of the movement to which it corresponds, so you can see how exactly Bach is varying it. I cut out every individual measure and lined up the beginnings of each measure. I can't even tell you how many hours that took me, measure-by-measure, lining it up with my glue stick! Now I have a printed version, a two-stave version of the B minor, of each movement with its double, as a downloadable study material. It just helps in crafting your interpretation, to be able to see how they correspond.

Laurie: Do they all correspond perfectly?

Rachel: Oh yes! You couldn't play them as a duet, it wouldn't work, but yes. Just to study how he took the original movement and transformed it into the double is amazing.

Another study material is the first eight bars of the G minor Sonata No. 1, on top of the last eight bars of that movement. Those measures are actually the exact same music, except a fifth different. I played that sonata for 10 years before I suddenly realized that the structure of it was a very simple A-B-A. Bach ornaments (those eight measures) very differently the second time around. With all those ornaments obscuring the original musical line, you might not realize that it's precisely the same music.

Laurie: The more you dig, the more there is, with Bach. What other revelations do you have up your sleeve?

Rachel: Here is something that already exists out there on the Internet: the other versions of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. We violinists are super-lucky to have an autograph manuscript in Bach's own hand, so why look further? Well, there are many cases in which Bach's slurs are ambiguous, or places where he seems to have left off a slur inconsistently. One has to make one's own decisions in the end, but it's fascinating to see what Bach's colleagues and what his own wife thought about these question spots. When is the last time you looked at the Anna Magdalena copy of the Sonatas and Partitas? It's interesting to see what she thought about what Bach might have meant. Sometimes she very clearly was just as puzzled as we are, because if Bach's slur was uncertain, she would make an equally vague slur but even higher above the notes than his, like she was hedging her bets!

The cellists, of course, don't have a manuscript in Bach's hand (for the Bach Suites for solo cello), and so they have to rely on this set of copies: the Anna Magdalena (Bach), and the (Johann Peter) Kellner, and the J.J.H. Westphal anonymous -- they can buy a bound volume with all three manuscripts, and cellists go back and forth and make their own decisions. Well, all of these same copyists also made versions of the Sonatas and Partitas.

So I suggest looking at those, and at the transcriptions that Bach made of these works for other instruments; those can give you interesting insights.

Laurie: In the recording, I noticed the ornaments you did, adding improvisational notes to the music. Some were very elaborate. I've always been a little afraid of the ornaments, of doing them wrong, if I were to add my own.

Rachel: I wasn't even planning to ornament, but as I was preparing for my recording, ideas just came flooding into my head, so I just went with it. But this is after having spent years extemporizing ornaments in collaboration with others who are also steeped in these styles -- jamming, essentially. Your harpsichordist throws in a trill, then your viola da gamba player does a little lick, then you answer with a little flourish -- sort of living and breathing these languages to the point where they become very intuitive.

So I would say, unless you seriously have undertaken the study of simpler Baroque music, where you're playing the melody line and someone else is playing the bass line, don't worry about trying to add ornaments. You've got enough to worry about, playing the melody line and the bass line all in one little violin, without adding trills on top of it. Bach doesn't need enhancement, unlike so many other (Baroque) composers, who wrote slow movements that were devoid of decoration and meant to be blank slates; those would be unfinished if you didn't add some ornamentation. For Bach, unless you've absolutely worked out every emphasis, all the characters, all the emotions, all the affect, all of the articulations -- there's so much more to explore with just how you play the notes that he already wrote.

Laurie: True. But what if a person is an aspiring ornament-er? What if a student wanted to learn the art of ornamentation? Is there different repertoire they should take up for that?

Rachel: There are various primary and secondary sources that discuss how to ornament, and one of the most fun is the volume that got me hooked when I was 14. You can find it for free on IMSLP: the Roger edition of the Corelli Sonatas. The publisher purports to have been at a Corelli concert and to have hurriedly taken notation of everything the master played, as he was playing it. I have my doubts! But it does come from Corelli's lifetime, and it shows what can be done from the Corelli Sonatas. It's published on three staves: one is the bass line, one is the unadorned violin line that Corelli wrote, and the other one is the highly elaborate, decorated line, showing this person's suggested ornaments. So it gives you one idea of what could be done. There are a number of other versions like that from the Baroque period, but that's one of the most easily findable.

When it comes to improvising ornaments, just like a jazz player, it's best to learn by listening and by doing it in the company of others who are more experienced. One thing not to do is to copy anyone else's ornaments. An ornament is just another interpretive detail, and you ought not be a clone of somebody else, just like you shouldn't try to use their exact bow distribution, their exact gradations of vibrato, their exact details of timing. Then it's not coming from a place of your inspiration. You might sound like Heifetz, but you're going to be Heifetz without a soul because you're doing everything he does but it's not coming from inside of you. So the same true is ornaments, they are a personal detail of playing that should come from inside yourself.

Laurie: It's a little like vocal inflections.

Rachel: Yes, like an R and B singer who has all those melismas. If they have too many, it's like wearing a ring on each finger, too much jewelry can start to look gaudy and silly. If you were going to sing a Whitney Houston ballad and do every single exact little melisma that she does, it would come off sounding artificial because you weren't doing your own. Those are ornaments. When I hear those kinds of singers, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, etc., I call what they do "ornaments," because they're taking the melody line and then they're adding extra notes that enhance the emotional content. Adding ornaments -- it has to have a purpose, it has to be because it's enhancing what you're trying to say musically. Otherwise it's just notes.

But like I said, really, don't even worry about it. Learn to play beautiful Bach with the notes Bach wrote and you'll already have achieved a tremendous amount with your life!

Laurie: There's a lot of intrinsic embellishment in Bach.

Rachel: That's the thing, particularly in the first movements of his first and second Sonatas, those are not melody notes. When you try to play them as melody, then that's when you start to sound "Romantic." Those are not melody notes at all; they are actually just connections, flourishes, embellishments and decorations. It's important to find which are the real notes and which are the notes in between the notes. I do this demonstration where I play the first phrase of the G minor adagio (without embellishment) as Corelli or Westhoff would have written it, then I play an over-the-top version where I decorate it too much. I say, "That's probably why Bach wrote out his ornaments, because he wanted to make sure that nobody would play these pieces badly"! But it's lucky for us that he did write them out, because if you want to play the Westhoff Suites, you can't just pick up the music and play them; you have to write ornaments or they sound bare and silly.

Bach, thankfully, has given us everything we need.

* * *

Rachel Barton Pine plays J.S. Bach Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, Allegro:

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April 4, 2016 at 01:51 PM · Playing Bach is like an equation. As long as it balances, the musician is free to make it his/her own.

April 4, 2016 at 02:11 PM · Truly, you cannot have too many interviews with this amazing violinist. Might as well just make it an annual thing. I'm glad she mentioned melisma in R&B because I think that's a very apt analogy. And yes it's often overdone, whereupon it becomes tasteless very quickly. One question that I would have asked her is whether she thinks it pays to listen to what the keyboardists are doing for tutoring in ornamentation. Many keyboard editions (Hans Bischoff for example) have the ornaments all spelled out. The introductory material might well explain that these are only suggestions, but teachers often require their students to play them as though they were written by Bach himself (which is to say, written by Gott). Certainly Pine would not endorse that, but in recordings of Bach keyboard music there is a great deal of variation in ornamentation, that should be a rich resource.

April 4, 2016 at 03:34 PM · About halfway down the main article I started thinking, oh yeah then why didn't she record it in that church? Then...turns out she did :)

I look forward to hearing this. I always love her playing. I love the concept of the album -- when something seems obvious but it hasn't been done yet you're dealing with a powerful thing.

In Bach's church in Leipzig there's a stained glass window with Bach in it and that looks a lot like the one in Rachel's church, from what I remember.

April 5, 2016 at 07:19 AM · Laurie, I thank both you and Rachel Barton Pine for this wonderful interview. When I listen to her talk about her own perspectives on music, I always learn so much. I agree with Paul Deck. Please have more interviews with her.

I looked forward to her performance of the Bach S&P at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC just before the album came out. The I got the flu really bad, and I couldn't go, I was really mad.

I have been listening to the recording Testament on Spotify. I believe that this is unethical because the artist gets ripped off, and I don't encourage it. However, I'm severely broke.

I noticed as soon as I started listening to Ms. Pine's recording that her performance was different from the ones I know and love by Milstein, Szeryng, Perlman, Heifetz, etc. It is far less schmultzy than the twentieth century recordings. It sounds much more clean without the vibrato, glissando, etc., that I'm used to. I realized that she was playing in the Baroque style. I also noticed almostly right away that she uses terraced dynamics to striking effect and that the sound of her violin is extremely sweet and beautiful. The sound engineers must have been really good. Then I read your interview with Ms, Pine and listened again, paying special attention to the parts she discussed. Now I really like her performance. I am listening to it as I write this.

I especially like her discussions of the historical stylistics, the ornaments, and the different versions of the work, which she has researched so intensively. I remember that you said,, after an interview with her years ago that if you had to describe her in one word, it would be "energy." I've noticed and appreciated her outstanding energy ever since.

I also really liked what Ms, Pine said about learning music from her church and how that affects her as a musician. She said, "My church is where I learned that, when you play music, you are a conduit for something greater than yourself, that it's your joy and privilege to share that music with others, to uplift their spirits." This reminds me of something that Joshua Bell once said about being a musician (see my blog of August1, 2007). He said that he gets nervous before playing the Beethoven Concerto in concert until just before he starts to play. He said, "It is like I must succumb to this world that Beethoven has created... I begin to warm up to what religious people refer to as a loving God...I think what a privilege it is to be part of this great, beautiful piece of music." I feel the same way when I play or listen to other people play music.

Thanks again for this most interesting and enlightening interview. It taught me to appreciate greatly Ms. Pine's performance of the Bach S&P.

April 7, 2016 at 07:50 PM · I ordered Rachel's Bach CD via Amazon.com. I am eager to receive and play it. I became a fan of Rachel Barton when I heard her play with the former Florida Philharmonic Orchestra a number of years ago. I have everything that she's recorded. She is my favorite classical violinist, hands down. I'd pay anything to see her perform in person. She is also a really wonderful human being.

April 7, 2016 at 08:51 PM · I'm looking forward to attend a Rachel's concert in Bogotá - Colombia with Bogotá's Philarmonic upcoming week. She is going to play Max Bruch's violin concerto No. 1 I know it is not Bach, but the energy she puts in every single concert everywhere!

April 9, 2016 at 07:24 AM · beat marti-leget switzerland

dear master pine

im a 81 yrs old m.d.in occupational diseases in the past years mainly dealing with back pain of strong construction workers and also an amateur violin player sharing your love for bach fugue in c which compared to famous chaconne doesnt get the deserved attention. when an adolescent i attended in bern switzerland a concert of late emil telmanyi demonstrating the bach roundbow.the tension of the hairs was varied with the thumb almost for every individual note an absolutely overwhelming experience.im still not able to play the bach in c fuge decently the one in d minor goes much easier.after milstein i now admire you for bach and also hungarian christof barati.

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