How did Bach develop his violin skills?

March 5, 2010 at 01:58 AM ·

Three hundred years later, Bach's solo works (BWV 1001-6) are still considered technically superb. Considering that nearly 100% of the technique materials used nowadays in our standard workout were written after Bach, I wonder what resources Bach himself had in those days to become so accomplished and what were the steps one had to go through before playing his works in those days. Tartini is the only famous name I can remember to be an author of technical books, still I don't know if they were readily available then. Who else was there?

Replies (28)

March 5, 2010 at 03:52 AM ·


load sof stuff.

Locatelli and Biber spring to mind.



March 5, 2010 at 04:15 AM ·




March 5, 2010 at 05:02 AM ·

 I'm not convinced that

A. Bach performed his Solo sonatas regularly or

B. anyone at all performed them regularly. I've not heard that his works were standards of the repertoire as they are now.

I'm not sure what the description of "technically perfect" means in relation to his sonatas. If one means perfect harmony and counterpoint, then I suppose they would be, just like all his other work. However, I would hardly call them "violinistic," especially the fugues. They are as un-violinistic as anything in the repertoire, which is why so few people in the world can play them well.


March 5, 2010 at 05:15 AM ·

The Bach Sonatas and Partitas were known during Bach's time (though I don't believe as a complete set), however they were used primarily as etudes. There are several movements used in various etude books in the late 1700s. The first published edition of the set was around 1802. It wasn't until around the time of David and Joachim that the sonatas and partitas were used as concert pieces on a regular basis.

March 5, 2010 at 01:45 PM ·

Scott's and Marty's points are good.  I would only add that they really only came into their own as recital pieces in the 20th century with Milstein, Szeryng and Benedetti.

March 5, 2010 at 02:20 PM ·

I've heard different theories. An Irish violinist (who teaches at the Royal Conservatory in Ireland) told me in casual conversation that Bach never actually played the stuff himself, but that those compositions were more like experiments, or projections if you will, of what he thought violin technique would eventually become.

Someone else told me that he did play them and that in fact some of the pieces (like the G minor Adagio) were composed by him improvising and having a scribe writing his licks down.

None of these people are internationally renowned Bach scholars by any means, so this may all be made up. I just thought I'd share my gossip :-P

March 5, 2010 at 02:22 PM ·

Marty, I can see where you're coming from, but I think you're not quite on track. The first printing /ever/ of a movement of the S+Ps was in Cartier's L'Art du Violon in 1798, but that doesn't mean it was used primarily as an etude before that time: that volume also contained the first ever printing of the Devil's Trill sonata. The use of solo Bach for study purposes started from 1798, and was normal through the 19th century, but not to my knowledge between 1720 and 1798.

How violinists, Bach or otherwise, would have prepared to play Bach in the early and middle 18th century is mostly a hypothetical question, as we don't have records of the pieces being performed, so we don't know who was playing them. However, there was a substantial Germanic tradition of polyphonic solo violin music before Bach. Surely anyone wanting to take on Bach would have started with Pisendel, Westhoff, and Biber, in addition to Corelli op. 5 and as much Vivaldi as they could get their hands on. The pieces I've just named are pretty demanding, though; how they would have developed a technique adequate to them is a good question. Tartini's famous letter to Maddalena Lombardini suggests daily practice of the messa di voce, as well as the study of the perpetual motion movements of Corelli op. 5.

Matters are easier to guess at the later into the 18th century we go, as Leopold Mozart published his method, Tartini's publications became widely known, Telemann's fantasias were published, etc.

March 5, 2010 at 02:23 PM ·

Oh, i forgot to say something else. As I study these pieces myself, my teacher often asks me to play the chords more "like an organ." The better I can emulate the sound of the organ, the better the chords sound. Maybe Bach composed these at the organ? It was his evil plan to leave a legacy for violinists to struggle over for centuries...

March 5, 2010 at 02:41 PM ·

Check out the open string mark in the autograph of the Preludio to the 3rd partita. Definitely an indication of some kind of performance.

Manuel, I don't mean to jump on you, but your teacher's advice opens a can of worms I've seen a lot of lately, and I want to put in my two cents.

The organ business is for me a tired trope. Yes, Bach was an organist. Hindemith was a violist; does that define the interpretation of his flute sonata? Moreover, he wrote his violin solos during the one time in his career when he wasn't performing constantly on the organ. Bach's solo music is, of course, incredibly difficult and sophisticated, but it's a lot easier to understand how it came to be if you look at the works of his contemporaries and predecessors.

I don't mean to give offense. If thinking in terms of the organ helps you, then by all means do so. But studying the fugues makes it clear to me that Bach knew /exactly/ what the violin was capable of. To suggest that it's "pure music," abstracted from any instrumental medium, or "not really for the violin" romanticizes the difficulty and diminishes our understanding of Bach's practical musicianship.

On the other hand, I think it's absolutely essential for any violinist studying the fugues to look at the organ and keyboard fugues, at the keyboard and orchestral dance suites for the partitas, and at the passions and some cantatas just to get a sense of the truly universal, and very baroque, compassion, complexity and vastness of Bach's vision.


March 5, 2010 at 02:48 PM ·

I believe that Bach composed mostly at the keyboard-- probably a two-manual pedal harpsichord. It took a lot of effort to pump air through an organ in Bach's day. In his own lifetime, Bach was better known as a keyboard (organ) virtuoso, and he was also in demand to voice the organs that were being built all over Europe. I think his skills as a composer were turned in many cases toward exploring possibilities, especially in his secular works. His skills as a composer were not much appreciated in his life and even less so after his death. One only has to recall the copper plates for the Art of the Fugue being sold for scrap because no one would buy them. Bach was also a skilled violinist, but Forkel says he preferred to play the viola because he could then sit in the middle of the ensemble where he could best hear the harmonies all around him.

March 5, 2010 at 05:12 PM ·


According to Joel Lester the Simrock edition (1802) had titled some of the S and Ps as "studies". There's also quote that the works "have for many years been universally considered by the greatest violinists as the best means of giving eager pupils complete mastery of their instrument". The source of this is by a letter from 1774 by Bach's son C.P.E. Bach. There's also some evidence that J.S. Bach intended these works as study pieces. Also, Pierre Gavinies owned one of the manuscripts. Certainly he would have used some movements in his teaching.

Anyway, this is all in Lester's book, not stuff I just made up.

March 5, 2010 at 06:27 PM ·

You might be interested in reading the exact words of C.P.E. Bach. The following is from the page

and it was also quoted by Yehudi Menuhin in his book 'The Violin'.



In gathering information for the first real biography of J. S. Bach, the composer and critic Johann Nicolaus Forkel (1749–1818) solicited information from many individuals who had known the composer personally, including Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In this letter of 1774, C.P.E. Bach describes his father as a musician.

"The exact tuning of his instruments as well as of the whole orchestra had his greatest attention. No one could tune and quill his instruments to please him. He did everything himself. The placing of an orchestra he understood perfectly. He made good use of any space. He grasped at first glance any peculiarity of a room. . . .

"He heard the slightest wrong note even in the largest combinations. As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness. In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without [accompanying] bass. One of the greatest violinists told me once that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass.

"Thanks to his greatness in harmony [i.e., counterpoint], he accompanied trios on more than one occasion on the spur of the moment and, being in a good humor and knowing that the composer would not take it amiss, and on the basis of a sparsely figured continuo part just set before him, converted them into complete quartets, astounding the composer of the trios.

"When he listened to a rich and many-voiced fugue, he could soon say, after the first entries of the subjects, what contrapuntal devices it would be possible to apply, and which of them the composer by rights ought to apply, and on such occasions, when I was standing next to him, and he had voiced his surmises to me, he would joyfully nudge me when his expectations were fulfilled."

Source: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, letter to J. N. Forkel, probably from December 1774, trans. in The New Bach Reader, ed. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, rev. Christoph Wolff (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 397.

March 6, 2010 at 12:30 AM ·

I think Marty is right.  The solo violin works probably circulated widely in manuscript form in the 18th century (as did much music in that period).  They were apparently available to Cartier and Gavinies in Paris towards the end of the century, but they weren't printed until the beginning of the 19th century, as interest grew in Bach's music.   Much of Bach's instrumental music was intended to serve pedagogical purposes--Bach had some of the greatest masterpieces for keyboard ever composed, such as the Partitas, the French and English suites, the Italian concerto and the Goldberg variations--engraved and publish under the title "Klavieruebung" or "keyboard exercise."  But undoubtedly he saw these works as not just exercises, but as important compositions. I think that's also true of the solo violin works. 

After all, Bach wrote a sublime pedagogical work just to demonstrate the craft of contrapuntal composition--the Art of the Fugue--that doesn't seem to be intended for any particular instrument or combination of instruments at all.

But in the 18th century it was simply unthinkable to deliver performances of music for violin alone.  Although a few earlier composers had written such music and Tartini did too (under the influence of Bach, perhaps), composers generally didn't write music for solo violin--they wrote trio sonatas or sonatas for violin and continuo, and a little later, sonatas for keyboard with violin accompaniment, and then sonatas for violin and keyboard, but not music for solo violin.  It wasn't until the mid-19th century that violinists found it irresistible to perform Bach's works for solo violin in public concerts--and even then, Schumann, for example, thought it necessary to compose a keyboard accompaniment for them.  And it wasn't really until the end of the 19th century or the early 20th century that composers began to explore the possibilities of the unaccompanied violin.

March 6, 2010 at 03:49 AM ·

Bill, in the early 19th century, virtually no music from Bach's time was being played in public; it was a repertoire studied only for pedantic purposes, excepting Handel in England and a few other unusual cases. That has little to do with the individual pieces. And I don't understand how you can say that the unaccompanied violin was not really explored prior to the late 19th century; again, what about Biber, Pisendel, Westhoff, Telemann, Tartini, Locatelli, Benda? These were not obscure composers.

Marty, again, your point about the early 19th century is completely valid, but Lester doesn't have much to say about earlier attitudes, and CPE Bach's quotations are consistent with his general attitude towards his father's works. 

March 6, 2010 at 02:01 PM ·

"what about Biber, Pisendel, Westhoff, Telemann, Tartini, Locatelli, Benda?"  Biber, Pisendel and Westhoff were earlier than Bach and may have contributed to his decision to write for solo violin.  Works by Tartini, Locatelli and Benda for solo violin were largely technical exercises, which is not necessarily to say that they weren't written to high musical standards.

"in the early 19th century, virtually no music from Bach's time was being played in public; it was a repertoire studied only for pedantic purposes, excepting Handel in England and a few other unusual cases."  But contemporary composers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries weren't writing music for solo violin for performance--just technical exercises.  Of course there was Paganini, but those were also presented to the public as tecnical exercises.

March 6, 2010 at 07:19 PM ·

An infinitesimal point in this discussion, but FWIW Bach's 'informal' composition keyboard was often the small unpreposessing clavichord rather than a harpsichord from what I recall.

March 8, 2010 at 06:41 PM ·


First of all Bach did not compose at the organ. He was a total genius and didn't need to doodle away at a keyboard hoping his fingers would find something. He composed the most complex music in his head then put it straight on paper. Mozart was the same.

From The Bach Reader  - a great reference book for JSB fans.

...he saw to it that his pupils did not compose at the keyboard. They were to learn a spiritual craft and a mental discipline, not just a manual technique. Bach himself, it appears from his manuscripts, wrote down his compositions without hesitation. He seems to have made no sketches and he rarely changed what he had written.

The other thing to bear in mind is that a baroque violin and bow are very different from a modern violin and bow. Not least the neck which is two or three cms shorter which means the stretches

in chord playing are very much reduced. I suggest borrowing a baroque fiddle and bow and experimenting. The slash and masses of vibrato approach of the recent past is now becoming obsolete. There is a remarkable recent recording of Victoria Mullova playing with a baroque bow and gut strings on her JB Guadagnini.  A million miles away from her previous recording of 20 years before which was very much in the Russian school tradition.

I suggest that to study the solo Sonatas in context ie with ref to the music of the time and before and looking at baroque performance practice will yield far more satisfying results than to approach it as a technical exercise on the way to playing Paganini Caprices.

March 8, 2010 at 08:25 PM ·

Although I agree that there is much to be gained by looking into baroque performance practice regarding Bach's violin works, it is not the case that baroque necks were "two or three cms shorter"  Necks varied in length, and the string length was also slightly longer vs. the neck in many cases because the nut was higher in the peg box.

In any case, the usual difference seen on shorter instances of baroque necks is a matter of a few mm.

March 8, 2010 at 08:47 PM ·

The fingerboards and neck were shorter, thus making a smaller stop.

Andreas Moser of the Joachim school wrote a comment about the Geminiani chord, finger1 on F E string,

f2 on C A  string, f3 on G D string,  f4 on D G string

Are you suggesting Moser in 1905 was wrong?

 ‘Since Corelli’s pupil, Geminiani, in his

Violin School of 1740, identified the Geminiani chord with the normal

position of the fingers of the left hand, this notorious “grip” has

wrought confusion in all the later treatises, most of which are

based on Geminiani. In the time of our forefather, however,

this position of the left hand was by no means so absurd…the neck of

the violin was, until well into the second half of the eighteenth

century, two or three centimetres shorter than it is at present…to play this chord in the first position involved only that stretch, which

would nowadays be required were it played in the third or fourth

position. Every experienced teacher must have observed that not one half of his pupils can execute without effort the Geminiani “grip” on the violin of today, with its increased dimensions, and that indeed the position causes difficulty to many a distinguished violinist all through his life.’


Violinschule (Berlin 1905)




Early violins could be either 1/4" shorter or 1/2" longer than the modern 14" (35.5 cm) instrument. Pegboxes sometimes ended in carved heads instead of scroll. The neck is shorter, projects at right angles from the body, and the fingerboard is shorter (by 2 1/2"), with a wedge between neck and fingerboard. The bridge is both lower and rounder. Open strings were used when possible, and the more yielding hair of the old bow made it easier to sustain triple stops at forte. The modern chinrest was unknown, and the violin was held at the neck; perspiration marks on either side of the tailpiece indicate the chin held the instrument there. In dance music, the instrument was often or usually held lower. 

March 8, 2010 at 09:27 PM ·

"a lot of the violin music Bach wrote was below the radar until Mendelsohn"

Bach's music was in circulation in Vienna during the late 18th century.  Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who was the emperor's personal physician, had been the Austrian ambassador to the Prussian court.  In Berlin, van Swieten had come to know C.P.E. Bach, who had custody of part of J.S. Bach's musical legacy, and from him had come to admire J.S. Bach's music.  Van Swieten was an acquaintance of Mozart and introduced him to J.S. Bach's music, which had a strong impact on Mozart.

Also, some of Bach's works remained in circulation.  Beethoven learned to play the Well-Tempered Clavier from memory as a boy.

March 8, 2010 at 10:17 PM ·


Roland, thanks for the interesting quote. No disagreement with you, but either Moser or Joachim must have been lousy if they thought the reverse formof the Geminiani chord was difficult on a modern instrument. It really isn`t.   (Incidnetally,  it`s a very useful  exercise in the Dounis Daily Dozen.   )Maybe he`d been hitting the bottle when he wrote it.



March 8, 2010 at 11:33 PM ·

Yes Moser must have been so ratted that he picked up a viola by mistake.

It's a surprising quote......

March 8, 2010 at 11:48 PM ·

or so violad he picked up a rat by mistake....

March 8, 2010 at 11:50 PM ·

"Are you suggesting Moser in 1905 was wrong?"

I assert it unequivocally.

March 9, 2010 at 03:29 AM ·


the cat is out of the bag:    Moser was a poser.

Which inspires me to quip:

Joachim was grim.

   Sarasate was arty farty.

Time to go I think...




March 9, 2010 at 04:54 AM ·

The length of the fingerboard has nothing to do with the partial size.  The partials are determined by the length of the string between the nut and bridge.

March 9, 2010 at 06:24 AM ·


Marty,   I have often found the partials to be determined by the relative thickness of the chocolate coating on the outside,



March 9, 2010 at 03:33 PM ·

I must agree with Andres that a neck length 3 centimeters shorter is probably an extreme example, if it existed at all. In any case, I have never seen one personally or in the historical literature. Baroque necks could be longer or shorter, but in general the neck length was probably no more than 3 or 4 millimeters in one way or the other. The difference in the length of the fingerboard could be measured in centimeters, however. In Bach's time, the violin was not yet a standardized instrument.

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