Bach Sonatas

April 3, 2012 at 03:05 AM · My teacher has started me with the Bach Prelude in E Major from Partita 3. I've been studying out of Kreutzer and Mazas before this, and I still am. On average, my teacher only had me work on each etude for a week or two. The Bach Sonata is so much more to learn, so I was wondering how long it typically takes to study each one. I understand that it depends on quality of practice more than quantity, but I just wanted to hear how long most people work on each sonata.

Replies (36)

April 3, 2012 at 03:29 AM · A lifetime!

April 3, 2012 at 06:31 AM · Greetings,

5 lifetimes if you are barking up the wrong tree...



April 3, 2012 at 06:35 AM · The Partita in E maj?

I work on it since 28 years, and I come closer all the time.

(My students think this is a joke, but it isn't).

April 3, 2012 at 09:47 AM · I'm sure it can be done in 1/5th of a lifetime.

Better be, thats all I have left... :-/ (I can almost play through one movement and half of another..., the notes that is.. )

April 3, 2012 at 12:30 PM · What a relief. I've been playing around with the Chaconne for 2 years now and still can't play it. I thought maybe I had a learning disability, but 2 years is only 1/50th of my lifetime (I expect to live a long time). I guess I haven't paid my dues. If I still can't play it after 1/10 of my lifetime, then I'm going back to Twinkle.

April 3, 2012 at 12:57 PM · ...I tried playing Twinkle the other day. Still needs work...

[edit: couldn't resist posting this also on FB, seems to hit a chord as it were... ]

April 3, 2012 at 01:50 PM · Quoting Heifetz about Ernst Concerto: "You have to be able to sightread it"

Same with Bach I think. One only needs so much time beacause the unpractical approach of learning how to play it wrong first.

April 3, 2012 at 03:41 PM · LOL Elise,

My twinkle needs work too. Hopefully, it does not take a lifetime to polish it.

April 3, 2012 at 04:14 PM · The point is you can polish all you like, but there is always a way to get a better shine from it... besides, there's a million ways to play it once you get started, each of which requires polishing....

I think its easy to get lost in the strive for more and more difficult music. This is great of course for your technical and musical development - but the listener could well be equally or more happy to hear a nostalgic Twinkle than a virtuosic concerto....

April 3, 2012 at 07:29 PM · Of course all of the responses are correct in their own way but I think the question being asked is more about a realistic time to be able to play the piece more or less technically correct. I don't think it's about perfection or interpretation. That becomes a bottomless pit. Just my opinion.

April 4, 2012 at 01:50 PM · Filling up your time with technical studies and waiting on Bach is for me like relying on vitamin supplements rather than eating a nutritious meal. It may accomplish its goal, but it's an unfulfilling way to live. If you are technically able to play Bach, then I say play it. How many years must we wait until we are worthy of his music? I realize that I'm approaching this as a percussionist who has only been playing violin for about 4 years, but nothing else that I had studied ever led to the purposeful and serious study of music as did the music of Bach.

April 4, 2012 at 02:23 PM · I agree with everyone - it all depends on whether I am imagining and planning to play the Dreaded/Adored 6, or have just tried to do so...

...the ecstasy and the agony indeed....

April 4, 2012 at 02:41 PM · @Tim I agree completely. I've heard people say that young students shouldn't play unaccompanied Bach because they won't play it in tune, or whatever. But then the same kids are sawing their way through the Bach Double, and that's not so easy to get just right either. You can always be improving and polishing what you have learned already. A student who is in, say, Suzuki Book 5 or 6 will be at a stage where they will learn a lot from studying something like the Allemande from the D Minor Partita. Of course the Chiaccone will come later.

April 4, 2012 at 06:31 PM · Having been through all of the Bach, I would say that you can start relatively early with some movements and gradually work up to the harder ones over a period of years. Then, you just keep revisiting them periodically. The S&Ps are sort of the ultimate technique course of study.

April 4, 2012 at 08:36 PM · @Tom, I agree but with S&P you learn both technique AND musicality of course. And I see no reason why a young student shouldn't be learning both from Day One.

April 5, 2012 at 03:36 PM · I think Simon Streuff hit the nail on the head. You should be able to play all of the notes and have an idea of the character before you study any bach seriously. The studying part is for fully developing ideas and trying new things, seeing what works and what doesn't work.

The studying part isn't for learning notes, lol!

April 6, 2012 at 12:30 AM · Thank you Joe Hague. I really think this applies to all music. Not in a sence of "technique comes first" but more in a sence of: you should not think about technique when making music. On the other hand the Bach S&P can serve as beatiful and effective etudes! I read that they used to be known and used as "etudes" hundred or so years ago, now everybody agrees its some of the greatest music ever written. But still they are also great etudes approached in the right way of course!

John: I also feel they are difficult to play by heart, because you have not only very much to do with the left hand but also be very organised with the bow. Sometimes I play one or two movements by heart and I always have problems remembering my bowings, but not so much the left hand, wich I am forced to remember because of its complexity.

April 6, 2012 at 02:13 PM · John wrote (in polyanna mode perhaps): Simon if you watch how Bach seemed to think of everything you can see where he writes a wonderful melody and variations but then he also rams home which key this is and don`t you forget it. Then you have to sort out how to play his chords and which fingers , where .The solutions are often left as the only ones possible. He knew all this too. Then he also leaves so much room for us to explore ways to play the music. There is little restriction in that direction. He just thought of everything."

Really? Seems I've come accross examples that are physically impossible unless you terminate one of the notes in the chord before completing its full duration. Seems to me he was thinking musically, and not always violinistically, when he wrote these. Which means also that there is a large element of interpretation - and I think the latter is a big factor that makes these pieces so timeless and so interesting to listen to by different artists.

April 6, 2012 at 03:06 PM · I honestly think, the problem of different temperaments is more from the piano and hapsichord. I think violinist luckily have no frets and therefore no temperature problems. Intonation is in a way flexible indeed, but why should we play like a piano, wich is tuned in a compromise temperament? Also I think that Bach wrote his pieces on the violin and not at the piano, organum or hapsichord. So he will most likely have played them in relative perfect temperament according to the tonality.

April 6, 2012 at 11:52 PM · John wrote: "I`m sorry Bach is such a dissapointment for Elise. He did his best poor chap."

John - cut it out: don't put words in my mouth.

Nowhere have I written that I either dislike Bach or that he is a disappointment. FAR FAR FROM IT! I am working on the third partita Gavotte (and have been on and off for 3 months now). At this point I can almost play all the notes half way through - though noone would want to listen to me. The Bach S&Ps are to me one of the epitomes of both violin music and achievement and I own probably 5 different renditions. To put it bluntly, I adore this music. How do I guage? Same as any art - if I can feel the composer in the music - which I think some would call artistic honesty - then it works for me. I don't have to look at the original score (which is conveniently in my book) to feel JS looking over my shoulder, sometimes even touching it. I wonder if he wrote these really for his own satisfaction, to see if he could. I do wonder though if Bach the pianist was sometimes a little at war with Bach the violinist- but even if he was its clearly the music that was the ultimate goal. Obviously, I'm no expert at this and I hope others here will enlighten me if more is known..

On the other hand John, please can it.

April 7, 2012 at 01:02 AM · I agree with Elise that the comment suggesting she finds Bach "a disappointment" seemed unjustified.

Anyway, I'm working on the D minor partita and I first learned the Allemande. I was afraid of it, but my teacher said, "You're going to learn a lot about playing the violin." And was he ever right. Then I learned the Gigue. Now I am working on the Sarabande, and that is a heavenly piece. I can't approach the Chaccone yet, not sure I ever will, but I will learn the Corrente even though of the four movements-for-mere-mortals it is the least interesting to me, as a matter of sheer individual taste.

April 7, 2012 at 11:22 PM · John, I think Elise might be referring to some of the chords that everyone plays as varying combinations of arpeggios or broken chords. I think the important thing is not to play each printed note its full duration, but rather to understand the hidden polyphony and bring out the different voices in the music. In this respect, Bach was truly brilliant. Where did the notes come from? It had to be divine intervention.

April 8, 2012 at 07:33 AM · Yes Smiley, exactly. However, its not just because they are broken, thats obviously understood, its that Bach gave some of the notes durations that can not be played, even by trying to let the string resonate. That to me is a keyboard writing mentality that was not adusted for the violin and is why I think he wrote these partly in that mind set.

Perhaps this is also a factor why the pieces are so intriguing, each violinist has to find their own best-fix without actually being able to solve the musical puzzle...

April 8, 2012 at 12:07 PM · How come you never noticed this yourself John? Its the most infuriating thing of the music, surely anyone who tried to play a chorded passage would go through the same finger-gymanstics torture?

April 8, 2012 at 12:35 PM · Elise wrote: its that Bach gave some of the notes durations that can not be played, even by trying to let the string resonate

Well, I can get my open G to resonate for several seconds. For 3 string chords, it is important to learn how to play on 3 strings simultaneously. It happens a lot in Bach. By playing over the fingerboard and using a lot of bow speed (and assuming your violin is properly set up), you can bow 3 strings simultaneously.

April 8, 2012 at 12:37 PM · Developing the last five posts, I'd say that the main practical point is deciding when to allow oneself a bit of rubato. In my experience, this point tends to sort itself out in performance through doing one's best to 'get inside' the music.

April 8, 2012 at 12:41 PM · BTW, Because Bach is so chordal, it forces good left hand technique. In order to play the chords cleanly, it requires proper positioning of the left hand. Slight misplacement of the fingers, or misalignment of the left hand and wrist will result in less than pleasing sounds.

April 8, 2012 at 01:40 PM · Smiley - have you not come accross any cases where the finger for a long note has to be moved to make a new one before that note has ended? That is what I was referring to when I said 'even without resonance'. Not an issue of the violin which resonates happily for ages :)

April 8, 2012 at 02:57 PM · You cannot always hold all of the notes that are written for the full duration. But you do want to convey the impression of doing that, at least partially (that is, a sense of overlap and extension of the notes in a chord). I conclude that in the successful performer of solo Bach there is a measure of the illusionist.

April 8, 2012 at 04:12 PM · The 2nd time I "worked on" the 2nd Partita was around 1970. Szigeti's book, "Szigeti on the Violin," had just come out and his Bach chapter inspired me to give it another (and a serious) whirl. I also recall listening to his recording repeatedly and taking notes in my own copy of the music (they are still there).

A 2nd eye-opener came in 1996, when I took my 7-year old granddaughter to see Lara St. John at our local Borders book store. Lara performed Bach for about 45 minutes, and then talked with audience members and sign her new CD containing 2 of the Partitas. Her playing had a different feel than other performances I had heard. It was really "fresh." My granddaughter continued to take violin lessons from me for the next 10 years, and still treasures the signed CD I bought her that afternoon.

St. John issued a more recent version of the Bach sonatas and partitas, (with her Guadagnini,I think, instead of the Strad she used to play). So far I've only listened to the snipets at, but I think there was something very special in the way she played this music 17 years ago, when it was newer to her.

Just saying.


April 8, 2012 at 04:33 PM · Smiley wrote: "For 3 string chords, it is important to learn how to play on 3 strings simultaneously. It happens a lot in Bach. By playing over the fingerboard and using a lot of bow speed (and assuming your violin is properly set up), you can bow 3 strings simultaneously."

You live and learn! Thats new for me, I had sort of heard of this but more as gimmic, I had not thought of applying it to Bach... another VCE! *

VCE - V.Com Enlightenment :)

April 8, 2012 at 05:27 PM · My classical guitar teacher, decades ago, was of the opinion that Bach may have had the lute in mind when he composed the Chaconne, and possibly also the prelude to the C-minor cello suite (that's the suite with the scordatura tuning). Both work well on the guitar when played by a master. Any comments?

I'm not 100% enthusiastic about the Suzuki violin transcriptions of movements from the Bach cello suites, but maybe that's because I'm also a cellist who has worked intensively on those six suites in the past. Little differences between versions on different instruments can be off-putting.

A propos of a passing comment in a previous post, I've always understood that the simple and obvious difference between the violin partitas (suites) and sonatas is that the former consist mainly of dance movements, whereas the latter don't.

April 9, 2012 at 04:29 PM · I can't play four strings at once and make it sound good, so I'm not going to. It's bad enough hacking away at the three-string chords at the end of the Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro.

Let's talk about a couple of specific chords. In the D-minor Sarabande, measure No. 9, there is an A major triad. Do you play all three of these notes at once? I tried that and it sounded horrible. Grabbing a different bow and playing it out over the fingerboard doesn't seem like a viable option for me (or for anyone, for that matter). I just listened to Menuhin and I think he doesn't but it is hard to tell as there is a fair amount of reverb in the recording. In the same measure there is a C-sharp/D trill written over a G. The same finger used for the G is needed to play the D in the trill. Listen to Menuhin. He plays the C-sharp/G tritone, then he trills to the D (the G is silent) and then he plays again the C-sharp/G (Hahn only plays again the C sharp, not the G again too). Both Menuhin and Hahn roll the three chords in the third measure, despite the written note values. You can hear the B-flat still in the third chord because he is holding the stop tight and his G string continues to vibrate as he is playing the others (less of that with Hahn). Menuhin definitely does not play more than two notes at a time for the four-note chords in measure 21. Same with Hahn's recording.

April 9, 2012 at 07:04 PM · Paul - I think its generally accepted that you can play a note and let it resonate. Most of the 3 or 4 note chords are played by sweeping the bow over the strings - as they are in every concerto I've looked at for example.

The point at issue is that sometimes its not possible to even let the note resonate. I'll give you a current example anon John (I'm not home).

Edit: By the way John, which of the 6 have you worked on and which sections?

April 10, 2012 at 02:58 AM · Elise, okay it would be good to see measure numbers to know what you are talking about. Maybe I have just not tried any of the real hard ones yet! LOL

April 12, 2012 at 03:17 PM · I'm working on Partita#3, part 3 and for the first time I heard the 'second' violin - it was actually quite a shock, like someone else was in the room with me! Must be getting somewhere... :) :)

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