Structural ambivalence of Bach

February 24, 2009 at 04:07 AM ·


I am currently preparing the Bach accompanied sonata and have an issue bugging me in the first movement.   It is in six eight but the more I play it the more I feel a temendous tension within the movement becuase it really wants to be in three four.  In order to create a sense of two in abar one really has to play it somewhat faster than feels right at least on a modern instrument.   The recordings I have (Szeryng,  Laredo) play it rather slowly and romatically.   Has anyone found themsleves peturbed by this antagonism and tried ot resolve or highlight it or whatever?



Replies (20)

February 24, 2009 at 04:20 AM ·

that is, accompanied sonata in a major.


February 24, 2009 at 07:29 AM ·

It almost sounds like some of the cello suites that I've been studying.  I can't speak for Bach violin sonatas, however, from what I've been learning on the cello suites, it is a matter of where the "pulse" happens, and this has nothing to do with speed.  In 6/8 the pulse happens twice per measure (on 1 and 4).  The second pulse is a bit weaker (bad term, but as close as I can put into words), more like in a heart-beat.... ONE two three Four five six ONE to three Four five six, versus ONE two three ONE to three. 

Don't know if this helps or not... 

February 24, 2009 at 10:31 PM ·


thanks Mendy. The problem is the ambivalence of the pulse. It keeps switching to three four and even in my recording  ther eis no obvious sens eof 6/8 which one can get by speeding up the tempo but thta trivializes the work.  Maybe its bisexual?



February 24, 2009 at 11:14 PM ·

February 24, 2009 at 11:27 PM ·

Sorry, I cannot help but listening to oder recordings is great even if each one has its own way of playing! Maybe they also play bisexually! lol  You made me laugh with this one! I didn't know music had an orientation! I wish you to find the good!


February 25, 2009 at 12:38 AM ·


of course ther eis a sexual identity. Thats why some needs a pianist and are okay unaccompanied.



February 25, 2009 at 12:16 PM ·

I think the key to the phrasing is the figure at the bar before B, also 4 bars before B.

This shape crops up all through the piece as a structural unit (first implied in bar 3, made explicit in the first half of bar 4), and makes room for the strong fourth beat of the bar, played in the left hand of the accompaniment.

Bach's phrases often begin on an "and" rather than on the beat. The beat is often the end of the previous phrase rather than the beginning of the new one.

Keeping this in mind should help delineate a slowish 6:8.



February 25, 2009 at 09:02 PM ·

I feel the same way about the Presto of the first (unaccompanied) Sonata. When I listen to recordings it sounds like it is in two (with triplets)  not in three like it is written.  

February 25, 2009 at 03:23 PM ·

It is not at all unusual for Bach and his contemporaries (such as Handel) to mix 3/4 and 2/4. It helps to think not in terms of melodies but of motifs instead. The fact that the violin and both hands on the cembalo (or piano) are equal partners means that all players are quite restricted in their freedom of interpretation. So, inevitably you are in for a good fight with the 'accompanist'. Laredo's partner in the Bach sonatas is none less than Glenn Gould and I can't think of a better guide to Bach's music than mister Gould.

February 25, 2009 at 04:17 PM ·

I agree that the hemiola tension is very common in the Baroque - but I don't feel it in this movement. Are you feeling the opening motive that way, or perhaps only the violin part in the 2nd and 3rd measures? Because if the latter, you need to consider that the opening motive is repeated in the 2nd and 3rd bars in the keyboard - so it all depends on how you hear the motive, not the counterpoint. To me, the 5th scale degree (2nd note) is relatively weak over the tonic pedal in the keyboard, and doesn't deserve to be a strong beat. A characteristic of 6/8 that seems obvious to me is the number of tied dotted quarter notes - which indicates a feeling of half-measures. And look, for example, at m. 22-3 (one of many similar places) - the16th note motives start on the 2nd and 7th 16th notes of the bar. Again, a division in half-bars. 30-31 would be another instance where the phrasing (2 separate, two pairs slurred) would indicate 6/8. And 16th notes are generally beamed in groups of 6. I'm looking at an urtext - it may not be so obvious in a heavily edited edition.

I do think that the metrical feel would be obscured by a 1960s style too-slow tempo. I'd be interested to know what tempo you're aiming for!

Wonderful sonata - I think the accompanied sonatas are often unjustly neglected.

February 25, 2009 at 10:12 PM ·


thanks for all your great replies eevryone.

>I do think that the metrical feel would be obscured by a 1960s style too-slow tempo. I'd be interested to know what tempo you're aiming for!

That`s exactly it!    I think the violnist of that era who would have got it right was Milstein but he never recorded them!!!!!   I have to confess I find Szeryng`s Bach rathe r ponderous these days.



February 25, 2009 at 10:32 PM ·

Hi Buri,

Here's an interesting paper (and website) by Channan Willner, On Irregularity in Baroque Phrase Rhythm.

Aside from the counterpoint, the irregularity of phrases is what most interests me about the baroque period and especially in the interpretation of Bach's works.  But I think it ought to be carefully delineated.

I hear the canonic figure in this Andante in two but with a lilting long-short/short-long pattern (where long=quarter and short=eighth pulse).  If you go to the middle of the measure you naturally get two stresses in the second half, on the F# of m1 and the G# because of the trill - short/long, which propels the figure to the next entry.  True to form, Bach shifts the beat in the middle of the Emaj section, as he develops the ideas he’s introduced, extending the canonic figure by a dotted quarter beat on the second half of 3m. after A, so that the stronger beat is now on 1 instead of 2.  After the cadence in F#min, he continues to develop this extended version of the canonic figure in the left hand of the keyboard, as the upper voices meander along in cascading scalar patterns, until he accelerates it rhythmically, adding the violin, in rising trill figures.  The canonic figure gets stretched out even more after that; the left hand repeats a new version of the trill pattern which the upper voices introduced.  And we finally wind down in a little codetta.  Don’t mean to bore you, but there’s probably some numerological plan underneath all of this.

I do feel that each cadence is a hemiola: 4 before A; second half of 6 after A; penultimate measure.  Maybe there are hints of these throughout (like at the end of the first trill figure?).

Hope that helps,


February 26, 2009 at 02:28 AM ·

Let the phrasing you settle on determine whether it's two or three... 


February 26, 2009 at 05:00 AM ·

Why not not just play it in 1? 

February 26, 2009 at 05:50 AM ·


I had thought of playing it in one big one for the duration of the work.  Rather like ODing on prunes after eating ten pizzas a day for a month.



February 27, 2009 at 12:12 AM ·

I want to hear it in five, on a saxophone.

February 27, 2009 at 01:25 AM ·


funny you should say that Jim. I play this work with the composer Daniel Forro.  He was telling me the last time he played it wa swith a saxophonist.   Don`t know if he did it in 5 though.



February 27, 2009 at 04:48 PM ·

Let us assume that Bach knew what he was doing when he wrote this and that the "ambivalence" is ours, not his. If he meant this piece to be a kind of rhythmic enigma, then play it as a rhythmic enigma. That is, play it without a "pulse" or sense of grouped notes, but rather as one note after the other in strict time, sans accents. In fact, I believe that if you do that (at any well-considered tempo), then the music becomes very exciting, rich with possibilities for interpretation, and as having infinite variety (since your mind is always searching for an inherent rhythmic grouping and therefore you never hear it the same way twice).

February 28, 2009 at 12:15 AM ·

I thought that the construction of the motif would determine the rhythm. Such as in the Gm presto S&B. Being in 3/8, the first 8 bars seem to be an introduction.Beginning with 3 bars of the Gm arpeg, this motif can be taken as triplets in the time of 2/4, followed by an ascending arpeg played as a group of 6 notes giving emphasis to the first note of each group through the perfect cadence. A new 6 note motif is then introduced, repeated in descending sequence, which appears to be a transition to the next rhythmic figure. The rhythm here seems to be accentuated by the first and last note of this one bar motif, even a descending perfect fourth interval connects each repetition of this motif . The rhythm then returns to the triplets in 2/4, which are now played through a chord progression to arrive at the new key. These ideas seem to continue throughout the piece.



March 1, 2009 at 10:59 AM ·

I don't think anyone mentionned the specificity of time division still valid at least the begining of the XVII th  century :The rythm was either ternary or binary  both based on a regular pulsation called Tactus  made of a downbeat then a upbeat ;therefore if rythm was  binary =2 tactus per whole note(noted C) the note on the upbeat has the same value as the note on the downbeat  while in ternary rythm=3 tactus per whole note (marked O or 3)  the value of the note on upbeat was half the one of the downbeat.

Accentuations  don't depend on Tractus and are irregular according to the melody.

Hemiola appears only at the cadence

Here is an explanation,not necessary an help I' m afraid.



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