Bach's Chords

December 21, 2006 at 04:10 AM · Does anyone know how to approach the 3-note chords in Bach's Sonota 1 Fuga for solo violin. I'm having a hard time drawing the right sound while preoccupied with the distribution of force. Thanks for any suggestions.


Replies (42)

December 21, 2006 at 04:17 AM · Greetings,

Szeryng always said `Never the heel. Never the heel.` What he meant was you should hit (?) the most flexible part of the strings with the most flexible part of the bow which is actually some distance away from the heel.

The other key is left hand preparation and perfect intonation. It all boils down to hearing it in your head,



December 21, 2006 at 05:18 AM · I'm working on this piece right now--my teacher says that the 3-note, down-bow chords should definitely be played in the lower half (because in the middle of the bow the stick and hair is too soft, there will be less power in the sound.)

The most important things to remember:

don't let your right wrist collapse, you'll want to keep it somewhat curved upwards.

Also, when playing chords at or near the heel (sorry, Buri and Szeryng) you must remember that very little force is necessary, the weight of the bow and gravity will suffice. This is not to say the bowstroke should be light or flimsy--it should be strong, assertive, but without any fierce attacking of the string vertically, and no nasty crunching sounds. Bow speed is important.

Especially on chords, the bowstroke should involve the whole arm working as one unit--no flopping wrist, no forearm working too hard. Try to think of the bowstroke as coming more from the upper arm.

Ugh, that was sort of stream-of-consciousness...take it or leave it, it works for me OK.

December 21, 2006 at 04:55 AM · Buri, I usually play chords at the very heel.

This way involves really active work of upper arm.

In general, I teach to play chords in three steps. All chords we should separate into two parts. If there is three-note chord, first part contains lower and middle sounds and second part contains middle and higher sounds.

1. Play at the very frog down bow first part of chord over and over using not more bow lenth than 2-3 inches. You will feel like drawing circle near frog. Your upper arm should be very active.

2. Play second part of chord (make sure both notes are sounded equally) starting 2-3 inches from frog, down bow. Spend all rest lenth of bow on it and try to develop full, nice sound. Don't rush bow. Listen.

3. Combine two parts together making slight accent on second part. Play it slowly. Don't forget this feeling of "drawing circle" at the frog.

You don't need to practice this way all single chord. Do it on open strings until it is mastered. When you are able to make this chord really nice using full lenth of bow and following exact this bow distribution for each part of chord, you are ready to play it nicely in lower part of bow (below the middle). When you will use real chords from Fugue, make sure that your fingers are on strings before bowing.

Best of luck!

December 21, 2006 at 06:16 AM · Greetings,

Maura, Szeryng didn`t mean the middle of the bow;) He just wanted a little more give in the hair. He also did things a litlte differnetly in Bach than he did with more romantic (is such a thing posisble?) music.



December 21, 2006 at 06:42 AM · I'll join the list of people currently working on this piece. The above advice is good. To add a bit more:

* Dont's Prelude Op. 35 #1 is excellent preparation for Bach sonatas when dealing with 3 and 4-note chords. I highly recommend an annotated version in Zakhar Bron's The Art of the Etude: A Collection of Etudes for the Violin (Carl Fischer, has 13 etudes and caprices by Dont, Wieniawski, and Paganini, with lucid comments and suggestions for practice). Note: this is not an original suggestion; my teacher assigned the Dont and Bach simultaneously. Good choice.

* Part of handling chords depends on strategic decisions about whether, where, and how much to break them. Listen to several recordings to get ideas on how to do it (and also how not to). Even if you don't have a baroque interpretation in mind, Podger's superb recording (recommended by many on is really worth studying to get ideas on how to approach chord and tone production in these sonatas. Her performance is simply packed with wonderful ideas (and I say that as an owner of Milstein's and Szeryng's recordings).

* Finally, my own non-professional comment: less is more (i.e., don't try too hard).

Good luck - several of us are in there working alongside you on this piece. Such great music, do you ever tire of practicing it?!

December 21, 2006 at 10:55 AM · Does any one here attack any of the chords 'upside down?' As in from the top note down?

December 21, 2006 at 01:51 PM · Szeryng did that sometimes. Hitting chords from the top can be used if you need to emphasize the bottom notes.

December 21, 2006 at 03:19 PM · Buri, sorry, was a bit confused there. :)

As for playing the chords "upside down" (top-down), yes, when the voicing requires it. Just look for wherever the melody/fugue subject is and emphasize that voice.

One thing I have been having some problems with on this piece and would like to warn everyone else against: don't rush!!! :)

December 21, 2006 at 03:45 PM · I haven't played the Fuga, but recently I played the Siciliana...and that's a great example of situations when attacking triple and quadruple stops requires you to start from the top note and go down.

A good exercise would be is to think of Bach as an orchestral score. Look at the architecture (melodic or motivic shapings) for ideas of peaks and low points in the piece, or which line should come through.

Try and separate the lines between Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, or Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass (or even continuo for that matter!)....and just play one "line" or part at a time, singing the rest to yourself (when possible, not many of us can sing multiphonics here). It's great to push yourself to REALLY identify which lines are going where, who passes on the phrases, who begins them, who ends them, who has the melody, who has counter melody, who's accompaniment, etc.

December 21, 2006 at 05:54 PM · In addition to Jessie's response... when you play only melody line try to put all fingers which form chord on the strings pretending that you play real version.

Yes, in Fugue we have fragment which requires hitting chords from higher strings. It is last appearance of theme in recapitulation (though we also can reach good result playing chords in regular way...) Actually the technique of playing chords remains the same (above, I discribed my way of teaching it). But don't overdo it too much. If you hear the theme it is enough to "show" it.

December 21, 2006 at 06:08 PM · Hi,

I know what Buri and Szeryng mean. There is a point above the frog, a little different on each bow, that has a soft give that gives you the best sound for three note chords. When using a modern bow in Bach, it is good to find this spot to play the down-bow chords which will make the transfer of the necessary weight in the best balance for the sound one seeks.


December 21, 2006 at 06:23 PM · following up on what jesse said, my teacher told me not to think of the polyphony as chords and to always read bach fugues horizontally. when you do that you'll find the notes to stress. from there it's a matter of letting your technique match your interpretation.

buri's advice to play just above the heel is good solid advice. you don't want to smash the multiple stops, you want to emphasize the line, so avoid the extreme heel which puts bumps in the musical flow.

eric's suggestion of the dont is spot-on. i second that suggestion.

finally, i suggest holding each note in the chord as long as you can, in a detache stroke - yeah right, easier said than done, but still try to do so. sometimes you'll notice a violinistic tendency to play the multiple stops as 16th notes when they're almost all written as eighths. holding notes in the chord will give your fugues a broader sound. it's physically impossible to hold all of the notes but you can hold the important ones if you do a little strategizing beforehand to find the main and supporting lines.

December 21, 2006 at 07:17 PM · A good way to practice on 3 note chords is to loosen the bow hair a considerable amount. You will notice that the bow hair will wrap around the 3 strings and it will take little effort and not a fast bow speed to make the strings respond. You will also notice that your hand will be looser and more flexible when you do this.

Retighten the bow and try to recreate this feeling in the hand. Also, make sure your pinky is curved, supporting the weight of the tip of the bow. If you use the natural weight of the bow you will not need to use as much pressure.

December 21, 2006 at 07:23 PM · One other thing: Play with a slightly crooked bow so the bow hair is closer to the bridge on the upper string, a little farther away on the 2nd lower string and even a litlle more far away on the lowest string. This way you have the correct sounding point for each string.

December 21, 2006 at 07:33 PM · Yeah--that helps the E string not squeak as much.

December 21, 2006 at 11:25 PM · Greetings,

Eric said:

>this is not an original suggestion; my teacher assigned the Dont and Bach simultaneously. Good choice.

That is very much in accord with Szeryngs ideas. He isniste dthta Dont no 1 was a lifetimes work and he never stopped practicing it. He attributed his control in chord playing to this work. Incidentally, the Rostal edition of the Dont is very useful in providing ways to practice these etudes,



December 22, 2006 at 04:04 AM · Is there a way to sound the 3-note chord so as to hear the 3 notes at once? (Is there a way to overcome the angle between the strings?)

December 22, 2006 at 04:18 AM · Greetings,

its like the Rocky movie: `Hit the one in the middle.`

You try playing a little further from the bridge so the strings are softer,



December 22, 2006 at 05:09 AM · Listen to Emil Telmanyi's recording for an "interesting" approach.

December 22, 2006 at 09:52 AM · Buri, interesting that Szeryng said that, as the video of him playing the fugue shows him hitting the chords right at the frog, as far as I can see.

The thing is, at the frog you have natural weight to hit the chord with, so you don't have to press. Any higher up and you need to press causing a forced sound. The attack of the chords, in my opinion, should be quite near the frog (obviously not right on the silver band) in order to produce anything like the correct sound.

I'm working on this fugue right now, and it really takes a LOT of practise to get the chords right...

December 22, 2006 at 01:31 PM · Don't always try too hard to hit three notes simultaneously. There are plenty of occasions in this and other fugues that require a lighter, playful approach (starting at Bar 3 in the g-minor) where a light arpeggio somewhere in the middle of the bow will suffice. Use your imagination and have mercy on yourself and the listeners.

December 23, 2006 at 08:11 AM · Greetings,

Larry, I can assure you you don`t need to press higher up at the point Christian mentioned. It is a question of bow speed and angle of attack. This was a major teachign asnd performing premise of Szeryng`s and he definitley practiced what he preached,



December 24, 2006 at 02:06 AM · In order to do justice to the G Minor fugue and other solo violin works of Bach, you should have a whole range of techniques for executing the three and four note chords. You should be able to play them both down bow and up bow, in varying parts of the bow and with varying amounts of bow, from little to lots. The chords are most often slightly rolled, as Rita says, starting on the lower two strings and ending on the upper two strings. However, sometimes for musical reasons (or maybe for technical reasons) you will want to start just on the bottom string, or end up just on the top string. Also, sometimes it's better to play the three notes simultaneously by keeping the bow at the level of the middle string, and fairly far from the bridge. Sometimes you will want to linger on the lower note, and other times you will jsut want to touch the lower note and linger on the upper note. In short, your chords should have all the variety of expression, and all the variety of bow strokes, that your single note passages have.

December 24, 2006 at 06:36 AM · All of these posts are great! I've been working on the CM fugue and it is the bane of my existence- it's such a "weird" fugue, being that's it's so long, it has a tendency to want to be more legato than the am or gm (which is nearly impossible to pull off!), and that tricky "reverso" section. All of these posts have made me go back and think about my chords again in many new lights. Good thread...

February 3, 2007 at 09:21 PM · For chords I find it helpfull to practice playing open string chords, only using the fingers. No particaption of the upper arm, lower arm, and wrist(this will help shoulder shrugging as well). Now practice playing open string by straightning and curling the fingers. In other words for an up bow chord, curve the fingers, and for a down bow chord, flatten the fingers.

Hope this helps.

February 3, 2007 at 11:59 PM · I completely agree with Buri. At the very frog, the sound can be rather harsh. I would suggest the demarkation point of contact for the triple stop chords to be where the metal winding begins. When you play a triple stop chord - think of the hand motion you would use to dust off a cabinet, and replicate that with your bow in hand. It's really a horizontal motion. Also make sure your bow fingers are flexible on contact with the string - they can act as shock absorbers, much like it is imperative for a sky diver just before landing to bend his/her knees. One other thing I would recommend is to make sure to play the chords with a little vibrato on each one. Hope this helps.

February 4, 2007 at 02:11 AM · Basically, these chords have to be played with the correct ratio of speed versus bow length. Also, it's important to play them in the correct part of the bow. In order to make the sound rounded, it's also helpful to think of the arm making a small U as the bow comes off the string. This also fits in the practice of playing chords more arpeggiated, since our modern day bows are not like the Baroque bows.


February 5, 2007 at 02:30 AM · I suppose, it is very much a question of baroque bow vs. modern, and gut vs. metal. The former would naturally give more flexibility, as the light baroque bow could be employed for chords at any part on strings, that can take more pressure. As to the breaking triple stops, for me the rule is to never break 2+2. It's either 1+2, 2+1 or roll. rolling from the top down seems to me unacceptable - as in polyphony every voice is equally important, it makes no sense to sacrifice counter-subjects to bring out the main. Just my two Rappen.


February 5, 2007 at 08:01 AM · Just recorded the A minor fugue and spent days rehashing this for myself... hope this helps!

~ obvious from previous posts: lower half of the bow. I believe the very frog is too stiff to be useful

~ weight on the little finger of the right hand when you begin the stroke = supple hand/"shock absorber"

~ most peoples' instinct is to press, but it is an utterly horizontal motion. However, don't use too much bow ("skating sound" defeats the purpose of triple-stopping)

~ right elbow height set for the middle string. Your hand takes over some of the rolling responsibilities

~ at the very least, flat bow hair; funny trick = turning the stick towards you. Seems to "de-crunch" the attack

~ find a spot between the bridge and the fingerboard where your bow, when doing all of the above, can physically touch all three strings with relative ease -- but not sound musky because of distance from the bridge...

~ save the most bow speed for the most important note of the chord (i.e. pull more bow when you get to the top note, etc)

~ three notes at the same time requires a certain degree of attack from the air -- however, you don't want to create an accent or get too un-grounded -- so start the attack at the minimum distance from the string in order to achieve the desired all-at-once effect without a huge accent (unless you want the punchiness)

In the fugues, I like to semi-roll those wacky, unexpected chords where you really want to take in each individual note... really enjoying the surprising connections between those notes with a slower bow, lots of sustained, organ-like sound, and a more deliberate roll.

I like to hit all the notes more or less at the same time when it is the *bottom* note that is the most important (and to mentally connect the bottom notes to eachother -- that is, sustain like crazy).

Interpretive comment: the more you approach the piece rolling most chords, the "easier" and more "baroque" it sounds. I struggled with deciding whether my interpretation should come off as oddly dancelike (Rachel Podger) or cerebral and brooding (pretty much most modern violin recordings). That is a question of taste. To my mind, the most convincing approach is to take in each chord's function (harmonically and melodically) and roll or hack accordingly! :)

Hope that helps.


February 5, 2007 at 12:52 PM · Hmmm...great question! I just spent a whole lesson with my teacher working on those very chords! And we figured out the key to my not playing them exactly right. Relaxation of the right shoulder. When your shoulder is relaxed, it's easier to add more weight to the bow with a deeper, more resonant sound.

Of course not all of the chords are the same and they're not all played in the same way, but thinking about relaxing my shoulder and upper arm really helped =)

February 5, 2007 at 06:53 PM · Very good points by Maia. She's right on just about everything in that posting. Lauren, yes that is true, actually the harder work you do with your shoulder, the less sound you'll get this way compared to just using the natural weight of your arm. I come from the school of thought that belives at times,the chords do have to be rolled from top to bottom for instance in the G-minor fugue the last time the theme comes back the melody notes are on the bottom. Those notes on the bottom line are the most important I think to bring out. Regardless of my opinion, I'd like to stress, there is no *right* way to roll a chord or break a chord whether you play two notes together at the beginning or at the end, or decide to roll the chord completely. The only few things you must do is play the chords in tune, in rhythm, in time, and with a nice sound. Past that point it is a matter of opinion and interpretation.

February 5, 2007 at 08:05 PM · I'm only just starting baroque, and this thread has helped heaps, thankyou all for your generosity. Maia, your post was particularly, it has documented and elaborated on everything my teacher has mentioned about chords, that I keep forgetting over the course of subsequent lessons. thank you.

February 5, 2007 at 08:09 PM · Ilya says: "As to the breaking triple stops, for me the rule is to never break 2+2. It's either 1+2, 2+1 or roll. rolling from the top down seems to me unacceptable - as in polyphony every voice is equally important, it makes no sense to sacrifice counter-subjects to bring out the main."

Bravo, and thank you Ilya, I agree wholeheartedly in every respect. How good to have my approach validated by someone who has recorded all the S&P.

(Although I sometimes use 2+2 but certainly not all the time.)

As long as we're on this topic could you tell me how you handle the chords in the first variation of the Chaconne. I've been trying for years to find a solution that brings out the main line, keeps the rhythmic integrity and sounds musical. I really dislike the rolling of the chords up and then back down to the D string. And while we're on the subject, how do you handle the chords in the theme?

Thanks and best wishes.


February 5, 2007 at 08:18 PM · Maia, thanks for putting my words into WORDS:)


February 7, 2007 at 10:51 AM · Maia..great post..helped really a LOT!


February 7, 2007 at 02:44 PM · Maia,

I'll second everyone's comments. Great post. One question regarding your following comment:

~ at the very least, flat bow hair; funny trick turning the stick towards you. Seems to "de-crunch" the attack

I've noticed this too - much to my delight. Why does it work?

One thought I had was that perhaps it has a tendency to make one use one's back muscles, and not overuse the muscles in the hand. Agree? Disagree?

March 25, 2007 at 04:32 AM · My teacher always has this to say about approaching chords and doublestops:

"you must have an airy sound. not weak, but airy. it should be almost organ or flute like"

to achive that sound, you are going to want to use very little bow presure, but a good deal of speed, comming from your elbow, using the whole bow. It should be very relaxiing, not tiresome or tedious.. For the multitude of doublestops and chords, that is how you are going to want to approach them. (of course, there are always a few exceptions, such as Bruch, Brahms and Sibelius)

Good luckk

March 25, 2007 at 05:18 PM · I've been learning the sonatas on viola recently (like Maura?) and really prefer it to the violin, it feels like a well-executed racquet shot, lots of power but very loose fingers. Not forgetting the LH as Buri points out.

I prefer to split the notes rather than play 3 together, like Menuhin, you can bring out the melodic line better. The middle voices come through beautifully on the viola.

March 25, 2007 at 05:46 PM · Hi,

Maia - I have to quote Ilya's reply. Thanks also for putting my words into words. Very nice post!!


March 27, 2007 at 10:22 PM · Re Ilya's "for me the rule is to never break 2+2. It's either 1+2, 2+1 or roll. rolling from the top down seems to me unacceptable - as in polyphony every voice is equally important, it makes no sense to sacrifice counter-subjects to bring out the main.":

there are a few places in this fugue where the theme is in the bottom voice, is it acceptable to go up and then back down again to the bottom note, esp the last time this happens, where 4-note chords are involved?

I just listened to my Shumsky Chaconne which arrived recently - about the most tasteful Bach I've heard - and he does do this, but then this piece is not polyphonic ...

March 28, 2007 at 02:33 AM · In the world of period instrument performance you do not arpeggiate up and then down, although great artists have found this to be a good way of interpreting this music in the past.

I would suggest a good way of voicing chords is to keep your elbow level on the string you wish to bring out. For instance towards the end of the g minor fugue the g string needs to be brought out. Keep your elbow level on the g string level, play the bottom notes on the beat and you will find that the upper notes of the chord are not favored and subsequently come out with less power. When you do this you will find your right hand fingers having to extend substantially. This will give you the right musical result, but it will feel strange to begin with, because we are all used to bringing out top notes in chords.

March 28, 2007 at 11:14 PM · I wish I weren't a mere mortal trying to play immortal music. I thought I had words of wisdom. Sorry. I couldn't find any.

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