Bach Sonatas and Partitas: time to do away with all editions!

May 11, 2010 at 04:41 PM ·

So far I could distinguish three types of available editions of the Bach S&P:
- editions done by violinists (famous or less famous).
Using these editions means very often using someone's personal solutions or at least it means one needs knowledge of the particular performance tradition the editing violinist is coming from and this performance tradition may not be very much 'in fashion' now.
- 'critical' editions.
In fact I know of only one such edition (Heugel). It is an edition that provides notes on how to play according to the conventions of the time (period Baroque playing).
- so-called 'urtexts' such as Bärenreiter and Henle.
I myself have Henle, and I regret having spent so much money on it (I don't know how much, but definitely five times more than a copy of the manuscript, which you can get for 10 pounds). You see, how much brains does it actually take to create an 'urtext' edition (in fact this is a contradictio in terminis) of the Bach S&P? Bach's manuscript is entirely preserved and very neatly written. It really isn't that difficult to copy that. There are however places in the manuscript that are ambiguous. The pity is with an Urtext edition that we are not presented with this ambiguity and that the editor mostly has chosen just one possible reading.

To just prove you how much money Henle made with less than the minimal amount of brains: On the last page of the Editor's notes it says: "Bach wrote out the g-minor sonata BWV 1001 in g dorian, i.e. with only one flat. We have notated the piece in modern g minor with a key signature of two flats." You flip over the page and there you find the g minor sonata, printed with only one flat at the key signature!

Anyway, this is not really the point. I'm just wondering: wouldn't it be more useful if we all started using the manuscript? Any objections against that?

Replies (93)

May 11, 2010 at 10:30 PM ·

I feel that it takes a lot of experience and maturity to start with an unedited edition and arrive at an artistically and stylistically viable performance. I feel that anyone playing the S&P for the first time should work from at least one edition which has bowings, fingerings, dynamics, phrasing marks, etc, from a great artist or a great teacher. Gradually as you mature in your interpretation of the work you will change the markings until they bear little resemblance to the printed edition.

In my own study of the S&P (I've been at it for over 50 years) every time I revisit one of these works I make it a point to play through several different editions, including Flesch, Galamian, Joachim, and Szeryng. I always get new ideas from this process. Then it all gets synthesized in my own continually changing rendition.

May 11, 2010 at 11:09 PM ·

You can always get the Galamian edition, which has a photocopy in the back.

As for a playable edition, I'd cheerfully pay someone $75 to write it out clearly if there were no printed alternatives.  My handwriting is terrible, and I'd want more room on the page than Bach's music paper allows.

Otherwise, current favorite is the Szeryng.  Not that I like every choice he made, but they're generally sensible and he has a lot of good fingerings.  The part is also easy to read as well as making pretty clear what was added by the editor.  I also have a Baerenreiter, and will gradually put my best ideas in there for  easy reference.


May 11, 2010 at 11:50 PM ·

I've recently started using the manuscript to practice Bach.  It's made a big difference in my playing.  Although I've already learned the S&P and thought I knew every note, I'm suddenly second-guessing some note choices based on what Bach wrote.  It's like falling in love with Bach all over again.  I never realized how beautiful his manuscript is, and how much more sense the first sonata makes.  It has freed up my playing a lot.

May 12, 2010 at 02:55 AM ·

 I am only up to a few movements here and there of the S&P's so I am not an apt commentator but my teacher feels like the manuscript contains a lot of information in the direction and slant of stems that cannot be reproduced in a typeset edition. 

May 12, 2010 at 03:20 AM ·

Roy, perhaps you and I would differ in some particulars about what a "viable" performance is, aesthetically, but I do think that Bach's written articulations really are bowings; while of course the manuscript does not provide enough information to by itself form the basis of a good performance, I still believe its use is obligatory for all students. Here's why.

First, let's examine what makes an edition necessary. Bach wrote with certain assumptions in place about how his notation would be read, in terms of articulation, bowings, note lengths, fingerings, sound production, and much more. The primary reason that the manuscript is inadequate for a student approaching this music for the first time is that we do not share Bach's assumptions. Thus far, I think we agree in spirit, if not in aesthetics.

What I've just said sounds like the perfect argument for using one or more edited editions, right? The problem is, the existing editions I know (I'm not familiar with the Heuger mentioned above) do not reflect an editorial attempt to make Bach's notational assumptions clear. On the contrary, they ossify highly particular aesthetic frameworks that have very little to do with Bach, and in the interest of furthering the ideals of various schools of bowing distort Bach's own to the point of unrecognizability.

Furthermore, baroque repertory, more than any other, depends on the "composerly," improvisatory input of the performer. To develop one static reading of a movement of  Bach is to do violence to it. I know that you, Roy, do not do that; you make that clear in your remark about consulting multiple editions.

But the very inexperience that makes the manuscript an insufficient guide for the young makes the editions even worse: how many young people look at an edition by Galamian or Szeryng or Hellmesberger and question the markings?

it's my view that the first exposure should be to the manuscript. Then several editions should be introduced. One of the most important lessons the student can draw from this is to take care about what's on the printed page, and take nothing for granted.

May 12, 2010 at 03:21 AM ·

Corwin, who is your teacher?

May 12, 2010 at 05:18 AM ·

 The manuscript is difficult to read. Barenreiter is easy to read, and is as close to possible to being original. There's plenty of space to add markings.

Am I missing something here?

May 12, 2010 at 08:05 AM ·

There is a printable edition of "BWV 1001-1006: Sei solo à Violino senza basso accompagnato" available here:

Direct link:

Werner Icking created a detailed copy of the manuscript with all original beams, ties etc., even the page layout is the same. I started using it, and it ist very useful, much better than a fotocopy of the original manuscript. First I thought "what a waste of time", but now I think this is a great work.

I would like to hear other opinions.

May 12, 2010 at 12:14 PM ·

Scott said "The manuscript is difficult to read. Barenreiter is easy to read, and is as close to possible to being original. There's plenty of space to add markings.

Am I missing something here?"

Yes but I can't tell you what.  You will discover it in the manuscript.  It's not so difficult to read, it takes some adjustment but once you get used to looking at it then it becomes 2nd nature.

May 13, 2010 at 02:36 AM ·

What?  Throw away all the editions?  Why would we want to deprive ourselves of the joy of learning an entire Sonata, then throwing it all away and starting over again with different fingerings and bowings.  That's nearly as much fun as having your wisdom teeth removed :-)

May 13, 2010 at 03:35 AM ·

Many people are aware that a good photographic reproduction of  the autograph score is contained in the Galamian/International edition. I bought my copy a few years ago, paying $32. For me, it's worth it for the autograph alone. I've enjoyed consulting it for certain details, while playing mostly from another printed version. But for me, as beautiful as Bach's musical handwriting is, I'd still find it a bit of a visual strain trying to play consistently from it.

That autograph reproduction is b&w. I've found a color version here:

It's hardbound and costs $105. How much of a difference does color make? I don't know. They reproduce part of the Chaconne on their site. I won't say it's really clearer, but it is more aesthetically pleasing. Does anybody else know about this, have it, know of a less expensive distributor?

May 13, 2010 at 04:16 AM ·

The Galamian/International edition's reproduction is on a gray background, which doesn't facilitate a fluid reading experience.

IMSLP's version is on a white background, which makes it much easier to read.  And it's free. 

But easier doesn't mean easy.  The manuscript is crowded, with smudges and blots, and doesn't leave much room for fingerings and bowings.  It is one thing to read off the manuscript if you've got the pieces in your fingers, but it is another thing to try to learn off the manuscript from scratch.  Or chicken scratch...

Barenreiter is the easiest to read, with that lovely paper too.

I agree with Roy.  There are many thoughtful and interesting editions out there, that it would be a shame to toss out over a hundred years of performance tradition and experience. 

May 13, 2010 at 08:25 AM ·

 Playing from Bach's manuscript is an undertaking that necessarily involves many interpretative decisions (The manuscript isn't all that clear.) The "spirit" of Bach hardly resides in printed format one finds in his manuscript. Trying to play from the manuscript is a total waste of time. Instead, practice for discovering the the phrases, the transitions, the bigger phrases, the emotional content of each phrase, and how to use the emotion of the phrases to tell a story. How do you know if what you're doing is right? Whether it leads to a compelling performance.                        Charles Johnston

May 13, 2010 at 10:44 AM ·

Thank you very much for your insights so far!
As for me, I don't think any edition will ever be close enough to the manuscript. The Bärenreiter is indeed one of the closest. I just don't quite understand why Henle (the edition that I have is from 1987) bothered to publish another so-called Urtext after Bärenreiter, who published it in 1958, I believe.
(I couldn't get a look at the Galamian edition, I would like to know when that one was published. It's very considerable of them to attach the manuscript! :))
Anyway, I suppose it's all got to do with commerce. Maybe may initial statement of 'throwing away all editions' was quite bold, perhaps I should say: I really don't see the point of having any more editions at this point, unless... it's one which contains the manuscript, and only the manuscript, with critical footnotes on the ambiguous places, guidelines for the performer to deal with these consistencies in the manuscript and create his own solutions. Maybe that kind of edition exists already?

May 13, 2010 at 01:27 PM ·

I say start with the urtext, use your own musical principles and aesthetics to work out what the music does, and only go to "editions" or discs to help where you come up against a wall.

The music itself  really is self-explanatory - overlaying it with expression/interpretation/bowing marks  hides it from the player, especially as so many of the later editions seem to use a different rhythmic mindset from that implied by the urtext.

There are simple principles that can guide you. For example, strong pitches give tonal stability, so they often end a phrase, while weak notes lead you on to the next strong note. Another would be that phrases very often begin on an "and".

Understanding the tonal/harmonic structure of the work will usually give great insights as to the rhythmic nature of the work. Look for tonal centres, take note of contours, find rhythmic patterns.

Going straight to an edition can deny the player the journey of exploring Bach and learning from his musicality.


May 13, 2010 at 02:30 PM ·

Thank you, Graham, with 'urtext' you mean 'manuscript' I suppose?

May 13, 2010 at 04:37 PM ·

Sarah, although the original manuscript would be great - I was referring to the transcribed urtext, e.g. Bahrenreiter.

I agree that there would be ambiguities in the handwritten score, but at least an urtext transcription is drawn from that set of possibilities rather than imposing something extra - a bowing or phrase structure that isn't in the original at all Some editions even go as far as changing notes, assuming certain interesting notes to be mistakes in the original.

I like the idea of seeing a particular player's approach, say the Szeryng edition, but I like even more the idea of digging out your own understanding of the music.


May 13, 2010 at 06:55 PM ·

Regarding the S&P...I was observing a lesson at Aspen one time as a student was busy plowing through one of the fugues, and running into some issues with the marked fingerings in the International (Galamian) edition.

Professor K. went on to say that as a student, he always felt "bad" crossing out and/or changing the fingerings in his own copy of the edition...after all, "who am I to change Galamian's fingerings and bowings??" ;)  He then recommended checking out the Barenreiter edition so that we could be free to figure out and write in our own fingerings and actually provides enough space for multiple solutions for each passage!

In my view, having more supporting material is invaluable to learning about a work of music. Be able to look at all the different approaches to playing a piece of music to get an idea of what is possible! There's even a chapter in one of the books I read (I don't remember if it was Szigeti or one of the Applebaum "The Way They Play" series) that shows in print all the different ways soloists interpreted the opening of the Chaconne...fascinating!

May 13, 2010 at 07:35 PM ·



May 13, 2010 at 07:55 PM ·

Szigeti's analysis of the Dm Allemand in his book, "Szigeti on the Violin" made so much sense to me that I always wanted to see a full edition by him. BUT - it made sense because I had already come to similar conclusions .

There are other editions that I think hide the music from the player, and just get it wrong.

Occasionally, I am glad I am mainly self-taught. I bring a be-bop sensibility to my Bach.


May 13, 2010 at 08:05 PM ·

I agree with those who would hate to get rid of the editions.  I find Szeryng's and Barenreiter's excellent, and the free one from the Icking archive is also very good.  Playing the Bach involves choices resulting from both the ambiguities of the manuscript and the variety of available fingerings and the like.  For most of us, it is useful to see how someone like Szeryng has dealt with them or, at least, to have a very clean version such as Barenreiter or Icking on which we can make our own decisions.  It is also nice not to be distracted by having to try to deal with the messiness of interpreting the manuscript.  I am sure that learning/playing from the manuscript, particularly for really good violinists, can provide some important insights.  However, I suspect that for many/most of us, the convenience of a clear copy that is easily readable outweighs the usefulness of those insights. 

May 13, 2010 at 08:17 PM ·

I have just re-read that chapter in Szigeti's book (ta, Buri).

All the arguments are there, with even more examples.

One key statement is, "...I should have preferred to leave the student to discover them for himself from an inner musical conviction, and not in obedience to a distinguished editor's injunction."

He is also distrustful of the carrier of the "photostat" of the manuscript, who says if it isn't in the original we shouldn't do it.

My position is simple - if you understand the relationship between tonality and rhythm, the Bach solo works themselves tell you how to play them, and teach you how to work with freedom.



May 13, 2010 at 11:03 PM ·

We are prepared to develop our own interpretation of the S&P to the extent that we have developed a broad musical culture, and a broad violinistic culture. We are prepared because we have listened to lots of Bach played by the great and not so great artists. When we approach a gavotte or a sarabande, we understand how they should sound because we are familiar with gavottes and sarabandes from the French Suites, English Suites, Suites for cello, Suites for orchestra, etc. We are also familiar with gavottes and Sarabandes by other composers. We also have listened and played enough music that we understand how the style of Bach is different from the style of Mozart or Brahms or Debussy. Also we have listened and watched many violinists including the greats, so that we have a rich and detailed conception of the choices and artistic options that are available to us in every moment of the music., whether it be Bach or Brahms.

If this sounds like you, then you are ready to study the S&P from the untext. However, most students are a million miles away from this level of development. That is why I believe they need guidance from Galamian or Flesch, et al, in addition to needing much the same kind of guidance from their teachers.

May 13, 2010 at 11:34 PM ·


Roy, I agree completely, although I feel you missed `a broad personal culture.`  ;)



May 13, 2010 at 11:45 PM ·

I don't understand why anyone would want to get rid of editions of the S&P. Isn't there something to learn from each edition?

May 14, 2010 at 12:54 AM ·

When I started to work on the S& P, thirty years ago, I hadn't heard them played very much at all. A little Heifetz (which blew me away) but not often, nor by any one else. I certainly didn't have the knowledge or background that Roy describes. Of course, now I have a dozen or more versions on the cd shelf.

I should add that I bought them because I had heard that the great double bass soloist Francois Rabbath had taught himself how to play bass by studying the Bach cello suites. It made sense that I could learn fiddle by studying the Violin solo works.

I had no teacher at that time. I just bought the edition that had the urtext printed underneath the edited version. Was it Peters? There were some photos of the manuscript in the back. Pale green cover.

Most of what I know about playing the violin and about music came from studying those pieces. Because I was unguided, I ignored the fingerings and the expression and phrasing marks anyway, and just looked at the notes and the relationships between them. Later, when I studied them again using the Barenreiter urtext, I realised that I was using the logic of the music itself to tell me how to play it. I trusted Bach to know which notes he wanted phrased together or separately, and to know where the pulse is in the bar. He knew why he had chosen those time signatures, and it was/is clear to me from the music.

Now, I haven't ever decided to polish any of these pieces to performance level - I work in different fields - but as core learning and teaching material, I cannot think of anything that works as well. These works teach you how to interpret, as well as how to get around the instrument, and use the bow.

Maybe my experience and approach is just too idiosyncratic to make much sense to anyone else.


May 14, 2010 at 02:53 AM ·

Roy, I wouldn't disagree, if only you would qualify your last sentence with an "only" or "exclusively." Heck, even "primarily." I'm not suggesting that a teenage violinist's first exposure to Bach should be totally unmediated and unaided, but I do think that reliance on a single, often arbitrarily chosen, edition, is a terrible thing.

May 14, 2010 at 12:13 PM ·

Who said anything about getting rid of the editions?  But at some point it's important to put away all the editions and focus on our own interpretation of the S&P and there's no better way to do that than me vs. bach manuscript.


May 14, 2010 at 01:42 PM ·

Marina - I agree with you up to a point.  Most really good violinists who study these pieces at a relatively early age end up memorizing them, so for them, there is ultimately no real issue.  However, why "me vs. the manuscript" as opposed to "me vs. the Barenreiter urtext"?

May 14, 2010 at 02:15 PM ·

Tom, because I consider the manuscript to be beautifully written.  I feel I am more connected with Bach's intentions in the manuscript, especially when it comes to the slow first mov'ts of the sonatas.  It took me some time to realize that all those fast notes are ornaments and are meant to sound improvisational and that the melody is actually the sonorous chords.  It's so easy to see that in the manuscript, at least for me.

This past year I've started studying baroque violin and I have come to learn that editions are not used in.  We much prefer memorizing the notes from a clearly printed edition and then using the manuscript version for the rest of the time.  During the baroque era it is undisputable that there were hardly any dynamic markings, fingerings, and many times bowings marked.  These were all left up to the performer and stylistic markings were "understood" and therefore not marked.  Performers had a great deal of stylic and expressive freedom and I feel that highly edited versions limit me.  I don't think the editions are wrong, or outdated or anything, I would just rather come up with my own understanding of the music, not just the general understanding accepted by all.

How can one not find interest in original manuscript?  Look at this terribly beautiful manuscript of the Corelli Sonatas.  This is what a performer was looking at when they first saw this piece and since then we've had the opportunity to come up with beautiful ornamentation.

Now listen to the first sonata with ornaments.


May 14, 2010 at 03:25 PM ·

Marina - thanks for posting the Corelli manuscript and youtube.  I understand your point about the lack of various kinds of dynamic, bowing and other indications in most baroque manuscripts, although a good urtext should faithfully reproduce that and allow you to follow your inclinations and intuitions about how the piece should be played.  While I think there is probably something for very good violinists like you to gain from sudying from the manuscript, I am not sure it is an idea that makes sense for most amateurs.  I fear that the distracting features of trying to read the manuscript as you play, at least for many of the most challenging pieces such as the Bach, probably undermine whatever benefit there is to it.  It is difficult enough for most of us amateurs to play those pieces decently to start with.  Anyhow, keep up your good work with these pieces and enjoy baroque violin.  Something maybe I will sample when I retire some day. 

May 14, 2010 at 04:25 PM ·

 Sarah! How cool to see you posting here again! I had to look closely to see if maybe it was one of those questions posed in 2005 that was un-archived by someone curious about the subject.

Nothing to add to conversation, just wanted to shout out a HELLO!!

May 14, 2010 at 08:47 PM ·

I guess it's in my best interest to look into the original manuscript since playing the violin is my job, but I don't see why an amateur can't benefit from it as well.  Once you memorize the notes you know them whether you're looking at the page or not.  I know plenty of amateurs that play beautifully and devote a lot of time and dedication to practicing the violin.  I'm no better or more deserving to research Bach.

May 15, 2010 at 01:21 AM ·

I believe it to be interesting  to take a look at many editions as possible, starting with Joachim. This is part of experience and violinistic heritage. Szigeti gives good tips and examples in his book.. This heritage gave the opportunity to have plenty of wonderful interpretations today, being Baroque or Modern.

May 15, 2010 at 06:54 AM ·

 In 1963 I prepared my own copy of the G minor from the manuscript for the Cambridge Mus. B. practical. (Passed, examined by Thusrston Dart).

That was nearly 50 years ago. What a pity it's still necessary to raise this important issue ! Back in those days, the Carl Flesch edition which purported to have the "urtext" in small notes above a player's version, was a good substitute.

Of course, no-one can play the MS literally. Some chords were expected to be arpeggiated, for example. I believe a baroque set-up and bow makes some things a fraction less tricky, but I am not one of those who went in for that sort of thing. That "Vega bow" was a myth, I think.

May 16, 2010 at 04:56 AM ·

Graham says
"Most of what I know about playing the violin and about music came from studying those pieces. Because I was unguided, I ignored the fingerings and the expression and phrasing marks anyway, and just looked at the notes and the relationships between them. Later, when I studied them again using the Barenreiter urtext, I realised that I was using the logic of the music itself to tell me how to play it. I trusted Bach to know which notes he wanted phrased together or separately, and to know where the pulse is in the bar. He knew why he had chosen those time signatures, and it was/is clear to me from the music."

Bravissimo, Graham! You are the quintessential autodidact! I'm filled with admiration. I'd love to know how old you were when you went through this process, and also what level of violinistic proficiency was. Most of the violin students I know, at least at the middle school and high school level would not be remotely capable of such a project. Perhaps at the college level it might be more feasible.

I think it is significant that you, Graham are primarily a jazz player. Within the jazz tradition, correct me if I'm wrong, people take the responsibility for their own development, and rarely if ever do they enter into the kind of long term relationship with a teacher that is the norm in the classical world. You said:
"Ï looked at the notes and the relationships between them."
"I realised that I was using the logic of the music itself to tell me how to play it".
Thank you, Graham, for clarifying some important differences between the jazz musician's approach vs. the classical.

May 16, 2010 at 08:52 AM ·

Yes, Roy, I am sure that it is my ear-based jazz background that gives me this approach. And you are right - we do not tend to have long term teachers in the way that classical players do, although all that seems to be changing with the growth of college jazz programmes.

A jazzer has to "hear" the harmonic structure very clearly so as to be able to improvise in the right tonality, and change tonality when necessary, also to be able to anticipate changes in direction, using the tonalities implied by the moving bass line, and chordal relationships. I look for such tonal structure in the Bach to give me the framework of the piece and tell me how to phrase it.

I look for those notes that are structurally more important, in a kind of Schenkerian reduction, and work to the skeleton of tonal centres that they provide.

Rhythmically, there are certain things that get fudged over in many editions. One principle is that much of the time Bach's phrasing is leading us on to the next stable note, This is very often on the one of a bar, so the one is the last note of a phrase, not the beginning of a phrase. Phrase beginnings are often on an "and". Bach's phrases very often go across barlines, rather than to a barline. That is what gives him such forward motion, but often the bowings that editors put in force the phrasing to stay within bar lines, or make the beginning of a new phrase into the end of the last phrase.

The D min Allemande gives many examples of what I am trying to say here, as does the C maj Allegro assai.



May 16, 2010 at 06:12 PM ·

As a relatively musically unsophisticated beginner, I find this idea daunting.  A world where you can't find an edition of Bach?  I fully expect to be playing Bach (beyond the Suzuki books) long before I have the experience to be making most of the interpretive and technical decisions for myself.  Maybe the manuscript is best for a master performer, but even if that's true, I wouldn't want you masters kicking away the ladder between my level and yours!

May 16, 2010 at 07:59 PM ·

 Crants got at something that I think is missing in most of the discussion above.

These editions provide a "jumping off" point for the S&P which is made necessary largely because of their pedagogical function. 

I learned E major and D minor in middle school. I'm glad that there were fingerings and bowings to help me out, even if Mr. Galamian made some distortions along the way. Most likely, I was not likely to have been ready to make all of those decisions by myself. Mr. Galamian does, by the way, highlight some instances when a note Bach wrote is ambiguous and shows the different possibilities. 

Mr. Galamian was wise to include the facsimile in the rear. Right now, I am playing C major, which I believe presents the greatest number of issues pertaining to performance on a modern instrument. It therefore contains (what I consider) the most noticeable "editing" done by Mr. Galamian (added slurs, etc.), generally to facilitate the clarity of the four voices. ***However, by the time one is mature enough to play this work, one is also in a position intellectually and artistically to be able to consult and work from the facsimile effectively.

Of course, as someone mentioned above, I may eventually buy a copy of a cleaner edition, but in the meantime, I have been extremely grateful for the pedagogical value supplied by the Galamian and Szeryng editions. 

May 16, 2010 at 09:13 PM ·

 What went on in Bach's head BEFORE the all-too-fallible business of writing it down ? As Graham Clark suggests, it's within the musical structure itself, rather than in minor details of notation, that the "secrets" reside. Assuming you have a firm violinistic basis, these works have the capacity to reveal themselves to those of an enquiring mind even without the specific intervention of a teacher, and they are strong enough to survive all manner of performance approaches,

"Going back to the original" was important 50 years ago because many editions were corrupt. Modern publications that show the original and an edited version in clear print abound; so consulting the spidery facsimile becomes voluntary, surely. If you don't agree with the editor, get out your pencil !

May 16, 2010 at 10:54 PM ·

Ian said, "These editions provide a "jumping off" point for the S&P which is made necessary largely because of their pedagogical function."

I don't think this is right. If you try to play the simpler movements without fingerings and bowings, you just start in first position, and play the phrases as written. That is the jumping off point - the urtext. What the editors add is a development from there. The editions are already a stage beyond what Bach wrote.

You soon find that you have little fingering problems to solve, and that is where you learn something. You notice that some notes stick out because you have to change string, so you find a way to keep the phrase on one string, or break it in a different place.

You notice that some notes are kept outside a phrase mark, so they need different treatment from teh ones inside the phrase mark. You realise you have to keep fingers down and use chord shapes to make barriolage work.

Approch Bach with "beginner's mind", and Bach will teach you how to play his music.


May 16, 2010 at 11:07 PM ·

Graham, how true.  I studied the cello suites using the Peter's Edition.  It was an educational experience.  For now, I'm using the Schott edition for the S&P.  Since I'm new to violin, I'm starting with Partitia #4 Giga and am thankful for the fingering suggestions.

May 17, 2010 at 08:03 AM ·

Those editors such as Szering and Galamian would have started with a "blue sky" approach, much as Graham Clark advocates.

It's healthy to be sceptical, but to think all editors have a sinister "hidden agenda" and "in the interest of furthering the ideals of various schools of bowing distort Bach's own to the point of unrecognizability" amounts to paranoia. Time to do away with all editions ? It would have cost megabucks to get a single lesson from one of these wicked editors. For a fraction of the price you can pick their brains. Who ever said you have to slavishly agree ?

May 17, 2010 at 04:51 PM ·

Everybody sounds the same nowadays.  Everybody goes with the accepted mainstream interpretations.  All those "editions" were done for money.  And who's to say they're right or good.  I like the way Gidon Kremer plays Bach, where's his edition so I can sound just like him?

Editions are just concocted money pits by the publishers.

May 17, 2010 at 06:02 PM ·

Marina, you can make your own edition, so you can sound just like yourself.


May 17, 2010 at 06:53 PM ·

John, which edition are you talking about? Because in the manuscript most of the time the accidentals are repeated as well, I wonder what's the reason for that. I believe Barenreiter and Henle don't repeat those accidentals, again another difference between so-called urtext and the manuscript.
BTW, you said "not even Heifetz". I don't think most people would consider him as the best example for Bach, but never mind :)

May 17, 2010 at 08:20 PM ·

 And you do not have pictures of manuscripts? I'd love to see.Maybe there is a link?

May 17, 2010 at 08:53 PM ·



o.k., i feel much better now.

May 17, 2010 at 10:02 PM ·

What is a "corrente",a "sicilienne", a "gigue". How many really know the origins of these danses before even playing a single note from the manuscript. How many,even among famous players or pedagogues have studied carefully "The Art of The Fugue" by J.S.Bach before claiming any understanding of what HE really meant. No editions will ever give really a profound understanding of Bach's music. You can do it  Baroque, almost senza vibrato, but you cannot cheat anyone about a profound understanding of the work. This will be of the clearest evidence,even for a child... And when all technical aspects of the pure materiel are assimilated, only one thing remains important:: you must speak to humanity using the voice of Bach. He provided us with the most perfect medium to achieve such a miracle. Being modern, romantic or baroque, this can be done in a thousand manners from the original manuscript. What is the most important goal is to be honest intellectually speaking. Those who betrayed Bach and imposed their own EGO first, are the ones who are set aside and forgotten among interprets. You must be impregnated with humbleness to play Bach very well and always rethink how to achieve it. Before choosing any editions, think about it. It is not a question of who wrote the best fingerings or bowings... It is something really above these considerations. You might use sometimes unorthodox ways to enhance a beautiful line. This may not work for another player. Be faithful to yourself, be honest with Bach.


Marc Villeneuve

May 17, 2010 at 10:37 PM ·

May 17, 2010 at 11:15 PM ·

I would never do such a thing... and even with the notes, which is more important, none can surpass him... J.S. was alike Neale Donald Walsch; he had direct conversations with God.

May 17, 2010 at 11:36 PM ·

I wonder if God knows that.


May 17, 2010 at 11:44 PM ·

There is no need to wonder... just listen. It does not have anything to do with churches or dogma. Music of such beauty is God, who ever God is , like the beauty of nature per se or when you look up at the universe. That is the level reached by Bach in his music.

May 18, 2010 at 05:44 AM ·

It's obvious. If all those editions are, without exception, rubbish, then get computer notation software on your computer and make your own legible version from the MS. Why did no-one suggest that ?

Caution. If, when you get stuck and dial the helpline, you will know for certain it's not God's real number should you be put on hold to strains of Vivaldi's "Seasons". Try again until you hear the Mass in B minor.

May 18, 2010 at 11:20 AM ·

Editions are useful to pick up different point of views of technical aspects. They are useless when it comes to a profound interpretation. You have to find your own way keeping in mind that it is quite a sort of metaphysical matter. The concept means that you are in constant search of what is beyond the writing. You may like Martha Argerich in her interpratation because she introduced something close to the jazz while playing Bach partitas. You feel she is improvising, which is close to the truth, because Bach was very skillful in that particular field. Speaking about God is a metaphore. What I really meant here is concerning Bach's own metaphysical aspects. He really left for the composers and  musicians a kind of bible containing all the rules in order to understand  the aspect of the process of his writing. Anyone who is seeking a true understanding of Bach solo works for the violin should study carefully "The Art of the Fugue". This applies to all musicians and is very rewarding also for composers, which is now my field of experimentation.

May 18, 2010 at 12:42 PM ·

Marc, I'd be very interested in some details about how we could go about the study of the Art of the Fugue and what sort of things we might learn and how they would impact our understanding of the S&P

May 18, 2010 at 12:46 PM ·

"Interpretation" is the key word. Whatever an editor does, a little of his or her "interpretation" gets in there. Fingerings and expression marks are clearly editorial in these works and the adoption of them is, as I tried to convey, optional.

May 18, 2010 at 02:39 PM ·

I got to thinking that what I originaly said at this post could be taken wrong and I would really feel bad if it did! So, my apologees!

May 18, 2010 at 03:03 PM ·


The g minor fugue exists also as a fugue for organ, but in d minor. The E major prelude exists, too, as a movement from a Cantata. It might interest you to look and compare. The "Art of Fugue" can be daunting but the 48 preludes and fugues together with the great organ works give a good idea of what Bach's instrumental music's "all about". Always take care of the bass line in the S&Ps. It's there, if not always blatantly obvious !

Incidentally, isn't Bach's famous "Toccata and Fugue in d minor" supposed to have been originally a piece for solo violin, and not by Bach ? Those baroque guys were not averse to borrowing and re-arranging pieces. In our quest to get to the heart of their music it seems as if we try to be more scrupulous than they were.

May 18, 2010 at 03:15 PM ·

Roy: This is a very difficult issue to discuss here. Years of reflexion. My own experience as a composer is that Bach exposed in "The Art of the Fugue" how to achieve excellence into the writing process. He used always the same main theme which is exposed in all different ways. The work is incomplete, but so rich of wonderful thoughts as it is. Bach reveals is own process of thinking, his mind is totally exposed to explain how to achieve it... Mozart, (the finale of the Jupiter is a grand fugue), Beethoven ( the second movement of the symphony number nine),  Mendelssohn ( Choral de Paulus) Brahms ( Requiem) and Malher ( Veni creator spiritus) knew how valuable was this masterpiece of Bach.

The Art of the Fugue contains simple fugues, 3 and 4 voices fugues, in mirror, with 3 subjects, strettes...There are 20 of these called contrapuncti. The first subject ( contrapunktus I) constitute the basic element of the complete work. They are all written in D minor. All that is possible technically  and musically speaking is there...concerning the Fuga per se... It is the greatest contrapunctal achievement in the history of music.

Now, when having carefully studied The Art of The Fugue, you understand more clearly how to perform Bach solo violin works, his concerti or sonatas for violin and clavier. Because even if you are not a composer, you had the opportunity to understand truly how Bach evolved in the process. You will be able to see, with a different perspective, what "behind the scene" he really created in the Chaconne or in any of his fugues for solo violin. You will dive into the complete process and become a creator yourself. You will experiment with the metaphysical world and the material one, being sonorous. Fear is what is blocking all the process of understanding. A superficial view of the notes,dynamics, bowings, fingerings is what I call fear. And even if mastered technically,this is just not enough. That is when the EGO process destroys everything, because you are not  sufficiently humble to sit down and really dig deeper in the "beautiful mind of Bach". When you feel that the strong individuality of the performer is submerging the beauty of the music in itself, than you know you are listening to a weak interpretation... Bach is not Wieniawski and it should not be approach that way. It is virtuoso music, but of another kind. It is transcendental virtuosity, not like Liszt,but in a more sober and spiritual manner. 


May 18, 2010 at 03:21 PM ·

David, I didn't mean to suggest that editors' agendas are hidden; quite the opposite.

Galamian, for example, made it very clear that it was his goal to create consistent, systematic bowings that are natural for the arm, are not hemmed in by up-bow/down-bow inequality, and encourage an even, sustained sound.

Problem is, the rule of the down bow is integral to baroque bowing, consistency as an aesthetic value was much less important in Bach's time, and facility for the arm is just not enough of a reason to ignore the other two objections. Worse, strokes that Bach /couldn't/ have had in mind, because the baroque bow wouldn't perform them, are encouraged by Galamian's bowings. None of this means that there's nothing to be gained from using his edition-- i consult it for fingerings of particularly thorny passages-- but I don't see how one could argue that Galamian had no agenda.

There's no paranoia in believing that people's ideals show through in their interpretations of canonical works. I'm sure mine do.

May 18, 2010 at 03:26 PM ·

[wow.  Forgive me for interjecting here, but how many college courses go into the depth in this one discussion topic?  Thanks, Thanks and thanks again... ee]

May 18, 2010 at 04:40 PM ·


Actually, I agree pretty much with your first post, and it was naughty of me to pick out one phrase that seemed to sum up the idea that "all editions are bad", the editors are all evil, etc. etc. Sorry !

Yes, I did sit on a gig with a "baroque" style fiddler and the difference of his approach to bowing to what I'm used to was enormous.

I suspect the Galamian approach has something to do with the relation of some S&P movements to organ music - the g minor fugue, for example. Maybe one should bow an organ-inspired movement differently from a dance of French-overture styled one - where the up/down bow dichotomy is of the essence.

I've not had to play this stuff for many a long year, and this thread has given me lots to think about. Thanks, everybody !

May 18, 2010 at 05:42 PM ·

@ elise (whoops!)

There is no way we could afford to pay for the discourses here on!!!!  And tuition here is a donation!

May 18, 2010 at 05:57 PM ·

I'm getting there - I just have other web expenses (I run a forum)...

PS its 'Elise'

May 18, 2010 at 09:57 PM ·


I find your post intriguing, however I still don't understand how, from your standpoint, one would go about studying the Art of Fugue. Perhaps you could give us a very small concrete example of how to study one fugue or even a part of one fugue, and how that would enlighten us about the S&P. Just for the record, I am very familiar with a lot or Bach's music at least from a players standpoint if not from a composer's or theoriticians POV. I know the keyboard works well, including the French and English Suites, Partitas, WTC, and also the Brandenburg Concertos. I must confess that I have not been drawn to the Art of Fugue the times that I have heard parts or it.

May 18, 2010 at 10:34 PM ·

To Roy:It is by experiencing in the process of writing that you become aware of the true structure of a fugue or contrapunctic movements. Henryk Szeryng played the piano very well. He did study on the organ the art of the fugue in order to get from his own experience a better understanding of Bach solo works. It is also wise to look at his keyboard work as you did yourself. But the "How to achieve it " is really all set up in the Art of the fugue. You must apply  these rules by writing down yourself a short one: principal subject, answer a fifth below, counter-subject, imitation, diversion,mutations, ornements, strette,minorisations,majorisations, mirror,inverso ect...

I wrote many of them and it is a fundamental element in all my compositions, being baroque,classical,romantic, impressionnist or dodecaphonic. If you wish to hear an example of what I am searching for, I would suggest to go to my website and listen to the last movement of my first symphonie (The Baroque Symphony). It is called "Fugue-Fantaisie". I make use there in a very accessible way of most of the ingredients found in the Art of the Fugue... Just go to the audio section and you will find it. The website is:

May 19, 2010 at 05:59 AM ·

Marc Villeneuve and other readers might be interested to know that the English composer Derek Bourgeois composed his "Arta Fugue" as a movement of his 8th Symphony, entitled "The Mountains of Mallorca".

At the time he lived near a place called Arta, and, yes, the pun was intended.

Although I myself have spent many happy hours writing fugues, a compulsory activity for University students in those days, I'd not think it necessary for all who want to play the S&Ps to follow this path. However, as Graham Clark suggests, an awareness of the harmonic direction is essential. 

Szering and Galamian were "editing" for players of the "modern" set-up violin. Baroque vioins had shorter necks, lower bridges, and the bows were curved outwards. Since then the playing of "baroque" set-up has become more widespread - indeed one violinist I know has to tour with 3 violins - modern, baroque and classical. Yes, those editions have to be re-evaluated, with reference to the MS, as do all in time. Editions seem to date, whereas this music seems eternal.

Unless you are a baroque specialist, don't be in too much of a hurry to throw out these babies with the bathwater !

May 19, 2010 at 12:56 PM ·

"Compulsory"... it sounds so much fastidious. Better not doing it at all then...  I think you are going to far and misinterpret me. All I meant for the honest player is just to try to write a short one, so the main concepts will be well understood. Great interprete such as pianist Sergio Fiorentino did have  a profound understanding of Bach and could rewrite his music. Sergio has done a wonderful transcription of the first sonata in Gminor, very faithfull to the original intentions. It sounds quite "Jazzy" at times,like the playing of Argerich. I do not have anything against easier ways. But I believe the more you know, the better you understand . All depends of your own goals. Thanks for your information concerning a Symphony and a composer I do not know. It sounds really interesting and for sure I will listen to his music.

May 19, 2010 at 01:07 PM ·

Marc, what do you mean by "jazzy"?


May 19, 2010 at 02:37 PM ·

It sounds like jazz a bit...Sorry, my English is not quite accurate. Marc

May 19, 2010 at 03:13 PM ·

Sorry Marc, my question wasn't clear.

What is it about her playing that makes you say it is jazzy?

Is it in the timing? Or something else.

I listened to some on Spotify, and I didn't understand why you thought she was jazzy


May 19, 2010 at 03:25 PM ·

Marc, I went to your website. Beautiful music Bravissimo! You are a gifted and inspired composer.

I'm afraid it's not giving me any additional insight about playing Bach. I do have an awareness, when I p[lay a fugue, of subject, countersubject, inversion, etc. as well as where the harmonic center is and when it changes. Beyond that, well, I'm not about to write a fugue. But I appreciate your insight and passion as well as the opportunity to hear a composer's POV about the S&P

May 19, 2010 at 04:06 PM ·

Roy: Thank you so much for visiting my website and your nice compliments. Wish I could explain more about Bach with clear examples,using tools and written music. This will be done on my website which is still under construction. There will be an English version, and I will use both French and English languages to express my point of views...It is really fun to work on a Fugue using the dodecaphonic system like in the last part of my fifth symphony... and still, make it sound like if it was tonal. I wrote some piano Preludes in the form of Argentinian Tangos, alike the Well Tempered Clavier. Just for the pleasure of it. They will be featured soon. Once in a while, I go back to tonal music. I believe it is important to use all the tools, being tonal,atonal or serial.



May 19, 2010 at 09:42 PM ·

Graham: She studied with Friedrich Gulda, the famous classical pianist who used to play jazz sometimes in his recitals... You sense that while she is playing with the accentuations, her particular rythm, and how she enhance different voices. It is just so much alive compared to others! It swings,but not in an over exaggerated way... A unique experience and a very challenging way of setting new standards. You see,if you do not dig enough, you do not get there. This way of playing his just another facet of the "hidden side" in the music of Bach. To accept what is commonly approved and not disturbing is a wrong thought, being not evolutive, not creative. Awareness brings you always to a new level of consciousness. Awareness starts with true comprehension. Not the one some impose on you as being universal and generally accepted. Bach was a free spirit. So you must be when you study his music.

That is the reason I will accept any style of playing, being baroque,classical, modern or even romantic. I will if the thought behind the scene is a serious one and  an original one. New ideas based on a solid background, respectful of the material provided by Bach...

May 20, 2010 at 01:44 AM ·


@ Marc Villeneuve-

I just went to your web site and I have to say that I am very impressed!  Seriously, you are terrific!  I envy people who compose and you certainly are very talented!  Laurie should interview you!

May 20, 2010 at 01:55 AM ·

Thanks so much Royce. Your comment is highly appreciated!

May 20, 2010 at 03:05 AM ·


I once did a major paper on this back in my days as a doctoral student at Peabody.  The thing is that editions reflect a variety of things, such as time, equipment, approach, understanding, etc.. For comparison purposes, I pitted editions against recordings.

In the end, the conclusion is that one has to get the feel of the intention of the music as best as possible on the equipment one is using.  You cannot make a modern violin, with modern bow and synthetic strings have the same feel as the original instruments with their original setups no matter how hard you try.  What you need to do is to preserve the spirit of the music and the phrasing as for what it was originally written by adapting it to what you are using.  Purists will kill me.  But believe me, playing Brahms sonatas on a 19th century German setup with a Graff piano is quite a different experience that with Dominants and a Steinway.  I think that the same goes for Bach.

So, the best is to research as many editions as possible (most based on the manuscript discovered by Joachim) and than make the decisions necessary that will preserve the spirit of the music.

My own two cents, late on this Canadian Wednesday evening...


May 20, 2010 at 06:28 AM ·

I posted something similar on a previous discussion about  Bach's Sonatas and Partitas but perhaps it is relevant here as well. Elizabeth Field gave an excellent lecture and demonstration in which she played  from various editions by violinists from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bowings, fingerings, articulations- all kinds of editing  from Bach's manuscript. Curiously, despite the variety that often drifted far from the original, every edition offered something of interest and for serious consideration. Some  editions created a more dance like feel than others. Some seemed to bring out the longer melodic line. Others seem to convey more counterpoint and multiple melodic lines. Still others were more forthright and steady. Others had more rhythmic sway and flexibility. Some editions with shifts that kept the melodic material on one string instead of crossing strings emphasized a consistent color to the melody. The point she was making was that the editions she played from were all artists' sincere attempts to express the essence of what they believed the music was meant to communicate. Even if we find some of them run counter to our understanding of how this music might have been played back in Bach's time, the interpretations as she presented them were still interesting and vital. It seems that this is essential to keeping music alive. If there were only one  way of doing something, we would not be as performers much more than replicators of what had been passed down as immutable and unchangeable, but music is and I feel should be a living art and who is to say that if Bach were among us today he would not welcome different points of view.

May 20, 2010 at 09:24 AM ·

"Compulsory" ? We HAD to sit in the exam room and write a fugue ! Yes, that might well have negated any intellectual rewards & artistic benefits of studying this branch of composition for some, but not all, candidates!!  I think there's not the same insistence on college courses now. That's a pity, and Marc is right to recommend younger readers of these posts to get at least a grounding if they are really serious about those S&Ps.

Bach's "Art of Fugue" might be heavy going as a starter, though. I am ashamed to confess that, for me, a mere awareness that this work exists has had to suffice, and I tended to concentrate on the organ and clavier fugues.

Ronald and Christian write brilliantly. Bravo.

May 20, 2010 at 12:28 PM ·

Christian: I am surprised to find out that Joachim discovered the original manuscripts...From what I have read so far, It was discovered by Georg Polschau in St-Petersburg. The manuscript was not in good condition.There were also two other manuscripts, one that was copied by a student of Bach, the other ,authentic,  acquired by Polschau from a Berlin library.

The first edition dates from1802 and was printed by Simrock. The second was published circa 1843 by  Ferdinand David. Robert Shumann did an edition (I Know it is surprising) in 1854 with piano accompaniment The edition of Joachim-Moser was first published in 1909 (I have a copy) and was the first to be based entirely on the original manuscript...

David: you are right, The Art of the Fugue is not easy stuff. But it is accessible for a mature student and is a lifetime companion...

May 20, 2010 at 01:09 PM ·

Ron - thanks for relating the results of Liz Fields's demonstration.   The implicit point she makes is very important:  Bach was an enormously visionary composer, and there is nothing wrong with creating your own interpretation of his complex, interesting works.  While it is important to see what a period interpretation using his manuscript sounds and feels like, to the extent you can do that, it is only a starting point.  Ultimately, you have to create an interpretation that is meaningful to you and that speaks to you.  IMHO, there is no "correct" way to interpret this music, no necessary magic to an interpretation that slavishly adheres to what the manuscript provides and the A-415 crowd dictates is the correct way to approach the pieces.

May 21, 2010 at 09:53 PM ·

I have not taken the time to look through all this discussion and the gist of the following comment may have already been made. I don't completely trust the Barenreiter urtext, especially in relation to slurs. For instance in m. 49 and 50 of the Ciaccona the Barenreiter editor puts the beginning of the slur on the 3rd 16th note of each measure, while it clearly looks like to me from the manuscript that the slur begins on the second note. Violinistically starting the slur on the second note makes better sense.

January 16, 2012 at 10:22 PM · Unfortunately music editions are littered with bowings, fingerings and often added dynamic markings as well as metronome markings.

The urtext are rubbish just as are the other editions.

It would be good to have an edition which just had the notes, time signatures and keys. Then we could start from scratch and add our own personal bowings and fingerings etc.

I spend time blocking out fingerings and bowings so I have room for my own.

David Beck - Derek Bourgeois was an old friend of mine but I have not seen him for some years. Mutual friends keep me up to date though.

There has been mention of the Peters edition edited by Flesch, and this is the copy I have (Well, it was cheap!) It has the original underneath. It has ridiculous fingering which climbs all over the instrument uneccessarily when first position is best in my opinion. I find the original bowing often better too. So many editions like this are so out of date, harping back to a past romantic concept of Bach.

January 17, 2012 at 12:06 AM · As a compromise, i have the IMC/Galamian edition which contains a facsimile of the original manuscript. If you're getting wrecked over whether something or another is original, it's easy to check. I'm glad to have something other than the original too, though, for ease of reading.

January 17, 2012 at 12:53 PM · Bach was great with a chopper. He used many. It got him around fast. His organ works are very good too.

Anyway, who is this geezer Bach? Is he the guy who wrote that tricky Chaconne piece? Good for 'im then.

(I'm sure our friends in the US and elswhere need a tranlation John, so please be good enough. I nearly called you Boris ...) (Good enough ...)

Sorry, it can't get much worse - (I'll take me pills)

January 17, 2012 at 02:25 PM · I've got the best edition of the Bach. It's the edition where a lot of the editor's fingerings and bowings have been crossed out and replaced with those recommended by my teacher.

January 17, 2012 at 02:34 PM · It won't be the last word though. Fingerings and bowings are here today and gone tomorrow.

January 17, 2012 at 09:34 PM · Peter, your wish is fulfilled. See my comment from may 12.

January 18, 2012 at 12:31 AM · Peter,

I`m pretty sure Bach wore a fanny pack when he went on his famous walks to distant churches in order to play their organs.



January 19, 2012 at 01:50 PM · Buri - I would think it might have been an organic fanny pack ...

January 19, 2012 at 04:27 PM · John, kindly leave my bra out of it!

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