Gil Shaham: Bach Preludio for Solo Violin, a Chromatic Ascent

July 15, 2020, 1:02 PM · Last week violinist Gil Shaham shared with me an idea he has about the Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major - and it's so interesting, I insisted that we find a way to share it!

His idea is that the movement can be viewed as one long chromatic ascent. Gil said that he imagines Bach, improvising at the organ, finding a way to get each chromatic step in there. And of course, the way Gil describes it, he makes something that could be a very boring harmonic treatise into a delightful revelation.

Gil described his concept to me over the phone, when we were talking about our Gilharmonic on Episode 5, which featured the Preludio, played by student Yugo Maeda, age 8. We could not really fit it into the show, and so we've created a little Gilharmonic Bonus Video, with Gil walking us through the entire Preludio and pointing out these chromatic steps along the way.

Just for background, a regular scale has eight notes (an "octave"). A chromatic scale is the 12-note scale that includes all the in-between notes. On a piano, you would play every key, black and white, between say, an E and an E. The Preludio is in E major, and here is the chromatic scale that Gil describes:

chromatic scale

You'll notice some notational details, such as F double-sharp to describe the note that one might normally call a "G"- that is due to the role that the note is playing in the harmonic progression in this particular piece. (If you are inclined toward harmonic analysis, you can explain this to all of us in detail in the comments.) You don't need to know that to appreciate what Gil is describing, but it's another interesting layer. And with Bach, there is always another interesting layer!

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July 15, 2020 at 08:59 PM · Thank you for bringing a truly unique perspective on one of the most iconic pieces in the repertoire. The blend of common sense and organizational logic makes this interpretation truly interactive. A performer needs to have a personal investment in every performance, and I got that in spades as I listened to you talk. I would love to hear this every week from you, your take on pieces, composers, and technique. You have a very appreciative audience on Thank you as well, Laurie. You both work as an excellent team.

July 15, 2020 at 11:55 PM · So interesting! And I don't think I've ever heard the preludio played that fast! Bach was such a genius hiding things like the chromatic scale in plain sight. Thank you both for this!

July 16, 2020 at 09:38 AM · Very interesting insight Gil, thanks also to Laurie for sharing, producing this video!

July 16, 2020 at 11:43 AM · I tried *sustaining* the hidden chromatic scale (on an organ stop on a keyboard) while my wife played the original music. It doesn't work at various points because of some of the intervening chords; the most recent note of the chromatic scale simply doesn't fit into many of them. Still, it is an interesting observation that there is indeed an ascending chromatic scale at various snapshots throughout the piece--- this had never occurred to me before!

July 16, 2020 at 02:12 PM · Really fascinating... gives me another perspective on how to play this work..

July 16, 2020 at 03:16 PM · Scott, you are right; I don't think he means that they are pedal tones or consonant all the way through, just that there appears to be a progression that incorporates a chromatic scale.

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