Making Room for Bach Chords

November 14, 2007 at 06:50 AM · My last teacher wanted me to play through Bach with strict adherence to rhythm, claiming that rubato lent too much of a romantic feel to the music. He also wanted to emphasize the short notes by making sure I didn't cheat them of their time in the spotlight. And I should also keep the melody line flowing, uninterrupted. After lingering on the short notes, and maintaining the melody line, trying at the same time to keep up with the metronome, I ran into a technical wall deemed unsurmountable by the laws of physics: you cannot create the extra time you need to draw beautiful chords from your violin while adhering to the previously mentioned rules.

How do you fit your Bach chords in? Do you steal time from the previous note in the melody, or the note that follows it? Do you play the chord quickly and get on with it, or do you give it a little rubato and slow the melody down there, as though passing over a speed bump?

Replies (21)

November 14, 2007 at 07:08 AM · I often play 3- and 4-note chords by playing the lower note (s) before the beat. If it's done quickly, only a very small amount of time is stolen from the beat before. But his depends not only on the particular movement/passage, but on your violin as well.

November 14, 2007 at 10:05 AM · Calvin Sieb, former Montreal concertmaster, recommends tilting the bow towards the fingerboard (opposite of what we usually do) for some chords enabling one to more easily catch three strings at once if desired. This technique can be used in the three note chords in, for example, the Fuga of Bach's solo Sonata No. 1. In the Adagio, however, we usually play the chords as in Scott's answer above. [Sorry, before I edited this I said "towards the bridge".]

November 14, 2007 at 08:21 AM · I was working on the first movement of the B minor partita at the time. I'd posted a recording of it, and someone commented on my amazing ability to plow unartistically right through the chords. I was just thinking about that again last night, how I'd never come to a conclusion about how to make them fit into the music just right. I listen to some people play them, and it sounds as though they are inhaling and exhaling with their bow as they play; the line preceding the chord inhales, and the chord itself exhales from it. Don't know how to explain that better at this time, but perhaps some people will understand what I'm getting at. It doesn't sound rushed or squished, nor is it drawn out and cumbersome, just natural, like breathing.

November 15, 2007 at 02:10 AM · Greetings,

I second the idea about turning the bow stick toward syour nos ein chords. The otehr palyer who uses this technique a lot is Shmuel Ashkenasi of the Vermeer Quartet (also brilliant soloist). I think one of the key aspects of Bach is to be very consious of not disotring the ground basses on which the movements are based. With these flownig then sensitive use of rubato is fine in my book. I also think Enesuc advice about consistently linking the dynamic to the number of voices playing IE one voice piano, 2mf, 3 forte and so on is invaluable.



November 15, 2007 at 02:44 AM · I love that "inhale" "exhale" analogy!! The top of the exhale has more air behind it and the bow speed is faster at the beginning of the stroke. (for some chords anyway) I like it!

November 15, 2007 at 06:58 AM · I've never tried turning the stick toward the bridge. I'll give that a try this evening.

November 15, 2007 at 05:46 PM · Emily Grossman wrote:

"How do you fit your Bach chords in? Do you steal time from the previous note in the melody, or the note that follows it?"

Generally, I play the bass of the split chord during time taken from the previous note. A quarter note which preceeds a four voice chord might be played as two eighths, the first of which is the printed note, and the second eighth is the bass of the chord. Or one might play the printed first note as a dotted eighth, followed by a sixteenth note bass, depending on the rhythmic character desired.

With rare exception (which I won't address now) it is a safe assumption that when a split chord is heard, the listener perceives the beat as being on the treble. A key point for me is carefully distinguishing between taking time *on* the bass of a split chord, and taking time *before* the bass of a split chord. The former can be very useful, and serves to give agogic emphasis to the beat which falls on the treble. However, the latter sounds like one is hesitating before the chord, and the rhythm is not quite right. A not so easy to do exercise, which I find very helpful, is to play some of the g minor Adagio (for example) with all bass omitted. Then play it again with all of the notes, but without disturbing the timing of the treble that you did when you omitted the bass. All of the above concerns how the rhythm fits into a beat. This is a black and white, correct or incorrect situation: If the rhythm fits the beat correctly, it's right--if it doesn't, it's wrong..............A completely separate question is: To what extent do I want a metronomic beat?.....My view is that if I'm playing musically, never! I want to play to a heart beat, my personal heart beat, not to a clock beat.

An interesting study is to listen to the Heifetz and to the Milstein g minor Adagios. JH plays it as an intensely forward driven adventure in harmony. Milstein plays it more as a dreamy Fantasia. Milstein's performance uses more beat elasticity. Neither of them plays metronomically. Both of them fit the rhythm to the beat perfectly at all times.

November 15, 2007 at 06:25 PM · Very helpful advice!

November 16, 2007 at 04:36 AM · Here is what I've been taught on Bach: if a movememt starts on a 4-voice chord (even after a pick-up note), you begin the count when you reach the upper-part of the chord (e.g. Bach Suite 5 Allemanda 1st measure after the pickup). Otherwise, you "steal time" from the notes aftwards - e.g. if the chord is a 1/4 note, and the notes afterward are 1/8ths, hold the 1/4 note chord a bit longer, add a 1/32nd rest after the chord, and play the 1/8ths like an ornament to the end of the beat. When the chord is the last set of notes of the piece, you can hold them.

This advice is from studying the dance movements of the Suites, where it is important to keep the rhythm throughout the piece. Most times the chord is played when the dancers take a step, so it must be on the beat. The other notes following the chord happen when the dancers prepare to take another step, so they can be sped-up a trifle to make sure that the next "stepping note" is on the beat.

Hope this helps.

November 16, 2007 at 07:58 AM · The bow tilt is amazing. I just finished playing around with it, and they sound much more elegant and relaxed that way.

December 5, 2007 at 03:19 AM · Why would Bach have written three and four note chords on the violin if he didn't want them to affect the music? Of course you should take some time on those chords, but not too much of course.

Note that the heavier chords always occur when the phrasing requires a stronger dynamic as well.

December 8, 2007 at 06:52 AM · I just read this again. I did mean towards the bridge. Oh well, you guys understood what I was saying anyway.

December 8, 2007 at 08:56 AM · Believe it or not I have a little point to add to this. It's about the motion and shape of the phrase of music, and using that 'room' which I call white space. And it can be either leading or following.

Some things I play strictly, and some things I know where I can shape things. On violin I have to sound like David Nadien for some period of time--a nice thing.

I'm like a wet-chicken on my first chords, so know that too. But I know music, and expression. I think that if you imagine taking a deep breath, would it be long and slow, or quick? Would your chest expand a lot, or a little? You shape first, based on the music, then on the best you can--as in my current circumstances.

I use white space liberally and almost dramatically, but still subtly. Was that rest extended just a little longer than I meant for effect?? That is where 'your' color will be defined? Is this what you were asking

December 8, 2007 at 01:32 PM · Since Bach was a keyboardist, one thing I always found helpful was to imagine what the piece would sound like played on a harpsichord, and then to try and make sure that rubatos were musically, rather than technically, inspired.

It's easy to get lost in a forest of micro-phrases when playing Bach. Sometimes you need a trail of breadcrumbs! lol

December 8, 2007 at 06:20 PM · Julie, that is cool. I've been simmering on an experience I had the other day, when I sort of could hear Bach's keyboard on someone's violin in a reverse engineering kind of way to your remark. Like Milstein's lightness, it's almost an abstraction. So I'll have to wait some time before clarifying.

July 21, 2009 at 02:54 AM ·

When I studied a particular bow excersise which I found in Simon Fischer's book 'Basics' my execution of the chords in this piece has improved immensely and with a little help with the new bow hold I adopted......"The Old German bow Hold"'s not new at all:)

I uploaded a recording of my version of this piece played on my electric violin, I was just experimenting and it come out OK I think, would appreciate some advice.

Thank you.

July 21, 2009 at 03:59 AM ·

I think Bach chords should begin with the bass notes slightly before the beat. This avoids the "One-Ah" sound and you get a more appropriate "Ah-One" sound.

July 21, 2009 at 07:35 AM ·

Thank you.........ah, one. That works really good...:)

July 21, 2009 at 04:21 PM ·

I learned that the bass note comes first (solo) with a bit of en emphasis and the the other ones come straight afterwards. The bass note is the main note of the chord according to my teacher.

August 26, 2009 at 05:06 PM ·

Here's something else to add to the Bach mix!  You should know where your chord is going.  What I mean by that is: where is the leading tone?  For example, in Sonata No. 1 in G minor, second bar of the first movement, the first chord in that bar is leading to the C, which is NOT the top or bottom note!  There are numerous examples of this.  Since Bach is always one of those things that everyone is going to play differently, it is important to also analyze it and see where the chord seems to be going in order for you to determine how to play the chord!  Personally, I would play the first chord in the second bar by dividing the chord, bottom to top, but when I get to the top, I end the chord on the C alone.  Just my two cents!  ;-)

August 26, 2009 at 08:15 PM ·

Thanks!  I was questioning whether to begin the chord before the beat or on the beat.  I don't know if what you're explaining answers that.  Do you have an opinion on that?

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