Sonatas & Partitas: dovetail phrases (Adagio, 1st sonata, 4th bar)

February 25, 2014 at 03:36 PM · In the 4th bar of the Adagio, almost every violinist I've heard on record will link the "ddg-f#" with the "a" before digging into the "dc gdb" chords that follow. I've read in a thick history of violin playing (blast me if I remember the title and author) that the phrasing "ddg-f# a / dc gdb" is incorrect and should be played "ddg-f# / a dc gdb". Any thoughts on this?

PS: Feel free to point out other places of dubious articulation in S&P and discuss them here.

PPS: the book is David D. Boyden's "The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761: and Its Relationship to the Violin and Violin Music".

Replies (23)

February 25, 2014 at 05:32 PM · Interesting ! I've no idea whose "thick history" you read but I looked at my copy, heavily edited by me from a facsimile MS in preparation for an important exam, and it does look as if back then I agreed with nearly every other violinist in wanting to start a new phrase after the "A".

If Bach had wanted us to end the phrase on the F sharp, I rather think he would not have put a trill on it.

To me, the clincher is the previous bar, where a new phrase seems to begin on the B flat, on what we this side of the pond call the fourth quaver. It seems to me that the music wants us to "echo" that in bar 4.

Throughout this movement, there are places where the third quaver is strong, (e.g. bar 5) but others where it's weak. Much depends on what the bass line's doing at the moment.

I'm ashamed to have to confess that I took that exam well before the "A - 414 & no vibrato" fashion took hold, and being a Symphony-Orchestra player subsequently took me away from early-music scholarship.

However, I did pass that exam !!

February 25, 2014 at 05:41 PM · Harmonically, the A belongs to the D and F#. That being said, there may be room to make it ambiguous, as Bach sometimes seems to let phrases run past their obvious endings.

Also, the C could be seen as completing a V-7 with the previous pitches. Which complicates things a little.

February 25, 2014 at 05:48 PM · The book is David D. Boyden's "The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761: and Its Relationship to the Violin and Violin Music". I've read it in my conservatory library sime 6 yeats ago and nolonger have access to it.

February 26, 2014 at 07:41 AM · I think it is important to identify one approach is fueled by Romantic traditions, and the other attempts a more period interpretation. A musician must be able to show or explain why they do something, as opposed to just doing it unconsciously, picked up from someone else. Also, careful not to confuse "harmonically" with "according to X performing tradition".

From an Academic point of view, linking the note 'A' is a Romantic approach, not really how people phrased back then. This would make the following 'DC' function like a pickup to the next chord. The score indicates, if anything, that this should not be done, as Bach uses this exact rhythmical motif all over the place very much on purpose. So one can say this conscious effort on his part goes to waste when romanticizing the music by playing what reminds us of Meditation from Thais as we would play Meditation from Thais. Maybe "every violinist' does it because they never thought of not doing it - tradition, and a mind raised by Romantic era harmony. However, the Period Performance movement has people thinking more their choices.

On the flip side, everything is open to interpretation, and a convincing performance is just that, no matter the details. Also, one can argue Bach's bowing are not nearly as meaningful in terms of "phrasing" as we think, because they change all the time. Composers often wrote the variety into the music back then to keep it interesting.

I hope I have been clear with my thoughts. There are 1000000 crazy things in Bach sonatas and partitas to discuss, I would love to do it all day :)

February 26, 2014 at 08:05 AM · It seems that "the following 'dc' " is going to sound like a "pick up" to the chord on the half-bar whatever the player decides to try to do.

That's because to get "the following 'dc' " to sound simultaneaously together with itself, i.e. without the d sounding late, we cannot slur the high "a" onto the 'dc' in one bowstroke.

As the bow angle changes, the 'c' would sound before the 'd'.

So, for this simple technical reason, the top "A" and the 'dc' have to be separated unless that "pick-up" is to sound sloppy.

Were we to play the same thing on the organ, say, the Boyden idea would work very well, phrases dove-tailed.

And, had Bach wanted a break after the g - f sharp, wouldn't he have put the trill on the g, rather than the f sharp ?

February 26, 2014 at 08:23 AM · I think it's fairly easy for a skilled player to slur the 'A' and then seamlessly play 'DC' together if they were so inclined...I don't believe there is reason to think Bach was this conscious and unfaithful in performers :)

I do agree the trill on the f# is indicative, and a reminder of something romantic composers wouldn't do. I personally think the truth lays somewhere in the middle. It would seem a-musical to just separate the A as something new. It clearly 'belongs' with the previous notes, but what I would say is that the bowing/articulation motif that Bach uses and repeats often supersedes (but not extinguishes) any desire to sing a beautiful legato line there. Bach was an a true architect of sound, so I think it's important to always try showing the structures he created, from the large scale, to small motifs.

February 26, 2014 at 05:01 PM · If I'm interpreting your view correctly, you're saying that the phrase ends on the f#- a half cadence-and a new phrase begins on the A.

However, there is another possibility: that the f# resolves, but later on the G of the third big beat of the bar. The next phrase thus begins on the very last chord of bar 4, leading to a V in the key of d minor. D minor then lasts until, and is emphasized, at the downbeat of bar 9. The A is functioning as the top of a double-neighbor to the G on beat 3.

I would also add, rhythmically, this place in a bar would be an odd place for Bach to end a phrase (and it would create a weirdly short snippet of phrase).

What those other violinists you heard on recordings were doing were making longer phrases, and not being led astray by the A. I don't know what that "thick book of violin history" was, but I don't agree with it.

In order to interpret Bach, you have to understand the harmony, and not just use intuition (or even other violinists' recordings). That's why, for example, there's been debate about whether or not the E in the bass of bar 3 is an E-flat or not (it is): they either don't understand basic harmony, try to play by ear, or get confused by something they read about hexachords.

February 26, 2014 at 06:02 PM · That "there's been debate about whether or not the E in the bass of bar 3 is an E-flat " surprises me. Really ? Gosh !!

Scott is on the ball - the F sharp and A remain "suspended" in our memories (as per the Brisé style of the lutanists) until finally resolving onto the high g over a g minor chord. The main thing seems to be to make the tiniest of breaks after the first a to facilitate a clean d&c - which is the reason why some hear the A as the very end of a phrase - which it is not.

February 27, 2014 at 02:49 PM · The answer to the question is pretty clear. Look at the parallel measure in the return, measure 17. The c natural resolves to the b natural.

February 27, 2014 at 04:33 PM · Bach did not write any "murky phrasing" or "dubious articulation" anywhere in the Partitas and Sonatas. The places discussed above are opportunities for the performer to express a personalized interpretation. Bach was the greatest improviser of his era, and he wrote to encourage personalized interpretation.

The idea that there is only "one proper way" to play is a recent (past 100 years) and awful invention in solo performance. It sucks the life and personality out of both the music and the performer, and turns discussion of performance into micro-management, rather than a discussion of creative, musical expression.

Play these sections, and others, consistent with the overall emotional expression that you intend. If you haven't thought that out, then you are working in the realm of technique and not in the realm of artistry. Express yourself.

February 27, 2014 at 05:38 PM · "Look at the parallel measure in the return, measure 17. The c natural resolves to the b natural."

Yes, indeed, but the waters are muddied in measure 4 by that pesky trill on the F sharp ! It tends to lead us towards the "a", which, incidentally, is a single tone, not part of a double-stop. That's why some of us are so easily tempted to "link the "ddg-f#" with the "a" before digging into the "dc gdb" chords that follow". Note that there's no trill on the measure 17 b natural.

I have wondered if the f sharp trill is wrong - but I don't have an "urtext" to hand - and in any case the MS on which these are based are not in Bach's own hand, as far as I know.

Could it be that as the layout of these recapitulated measures in the subdominant key does not, and cannot, be a literal transposition, a different approach to the phrasing might be not only permissible but expected ? After that measure 17 b natural come paired d & f, more emphatic than the weedy single "a" in measure 4.

These questions are all part of Bach's rich tapestry, I guess !

February 27, 2014 at 11:14 PM · David,

Drat! Just when I thought I had achieved an age in which I could be set in my ways, you've ruined the whole thing! I see your point.

FYI, the ms. copy is in Bach's hand (as opposed to the Anna magdellena Bach cello suites.) I had thought the autograph would be available on IMSLP, but I couldn't find it. Anyway, the trill on f# looks genuine.

I'm going to do a little extra research and look at my copy of Joel Lester's Bach's Works for Solo Violin (Oxford Univ press). He does a harmonic analysis of the Adagio. I will submit some questions to the resident music theory experts at my university to see what they think of.

When I describe the challenges of interpreting Bach to my students, I say it is like entering a dense forest. You get lost for a while and wander around having lots of interesting adventures, but finally end up either where you started, or at an exit you never knew existed.

February 28, 2014 at 01:21 AM · ".. the waters are muddied in measure 4 by that pesky trill on the F sharp ! It tends to lead us towards the "a", which, incidentally, is a single tone, not part of a double-stop..."

The A may not be part of a double-stop, but it is part of a linear series: a double-neighbor of G-F#-A-G. It's a very typical figuration, and I don't see the trill as leading to the A, which is really just an upper decoration of G. Regardless, the phrase doesn't end till beat 3, and in my view the harmony comes first in Bach.

February 28, 2014 at 05:08 AM · Bach's phrases are often ambiguous with few clear phrase endings. They are often extremely long just like the sentences in his letters. One sentence could easily be divided up into three or four sentences of normal length. This adagio is typical of that mode of super-long phrases. The first clear phrase ending is in m. 2. The next one is after the first note in m 9. Everything between is ambiguous and subject to personal interpretation. And rightfully so -- there is no single right way. Bach's music is filled with suggestions of melodies, suggestions of bass lines, suggestions of phrasing. In the matter of where the small phrase ends in m. 4, or whether it ends at all, my guess would be that Bach himself would have played it differently each time and would have expected us to do the same. Of course we are pretty sure that he never performed it at all, and there exists no record of anybody every hearing him play it privately. We do know, however that CPE Bach heard JS playing the S&P on clavichord. But he didn't tell us any details about the performance.

I just reread Mike Laird's comment. I agree wholeheartedly.

March 4, 2014 at 12:28 AM · And here is a comment from another composer of that era, who today, isn't even known for his improvisation.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s thoughts on the importance of improvisation in music education (1829):

I recommend free improvisation in general and in every respectable form to all those for whom [music] is not merely a matter of entertainment and practical ability, but rather principally one of inspiration and meaning in their art. This recommendation, to be sure, has never been so urgent now, because the number of people whose interest belong to the former category and not to the latter has never been so great. Even if a person plays with inspiration, but always from a written score, he or she will be much less nourished, broadened, and educated than through the frequent offering of all of his or her powers in a free fantasy practiced in the full awareness of certain guidelines and directions, even if this improvisation is only moderately successful. (Hummel, 1828/1829, p. 468; Goertzen, 1996, p. 305)

March 4, 2014 at 03:20 AM · Yes!! Hear, hear!!! Thanks for that quote Mike. I'll be sure to recycle it!!

March 5, 2014 at 04:33 PM · "Bach's phrases are often ambiguous with few clear phrase endings."

Sorry Roy, but I must disagree: the cadences are very clear in Bach, and inform the structure for interpretation. While it's easy to be distracted in slow, highly ornamented works like the G-minor Adagio, that work is really not so different than a chorale. Most people, including me, started studying Bach before they studied harmony. However, studying and teaching harmony has changed my thinking on interpretation. Perhaps I'm just a conservative Bach player, but to me, simply improvising without a logical structure in Bach isn't terribly convincing to me.

March 6, 2014 at 03:26 AM · Thanks, Scott, for your thoughtful comment, and I'm afraid I must in turn respectfully disagree. My convictions about phrasing in Bach are the result of studying his works over and over again over a period of fifty years and agonizing over questions like this. Where does the phrase begin and end? How much of a breath should we take and where should we pause or separate and where shouldn't we. Let me assure you, I know where every cadence is in a work such as the G Minor Adagio, and that knowledge does not tell us everything we need to know. I still insist that there is a clear breathing space in measure 2, and another in m. 9. Everything between is up for grabs. After that you may or may not take a breath after the second note in m. 10. Possibly after the 3rd note in m. 12. Definitely after the first note in m 13 even though that is not the end of a phrase. The third main section of the piece starts at the beginning of m 14. Should we take a breath before that? Or after the first note? Or not at all? Again, up for grabs. After the 3rd beat in m. 15, similarly to m 2 -- yes. Is there a new phrase after the 2nd beat of m 20? Or maybe after the 3rd beat?

Returning to the beginning, is there a new phrase starting after the 4th beat of m. 4? Or not?

After years of studying Bach, not just the S&P but also the keyboard works, after years of listening to countless recordings by great and not so great artists, and reading everything I could find about baroque style and interpretation, I have arrived at the conviction that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, that it is up to us, and that this is the meaning of "interpretation" in the finest sense of the word.

March 8, 2014 at 03:19 AM · I agree about the "ambiguous" comment in some of Bach. For example, in the Allamade from the D minor Partita it's difficult to determine where the phrases begin and end. I guess that's part of what makes this music so interesting.

March 8, 2014 at 04:07 AM · I think the phrase "dovetail" in the OP, and the word "tapestry" in many posts sum Bach up very well. Many of the beginnings of one phrase are contained in the endings of another, and they can seem different at different time. His transitions are typically seamless, very fluid, and open to different interpretations. To me, if someone thinks they are static, that is more a statement about themself than about Bach.

March 8, 2014 at 07:37 PM · To me, the phrase beginning and endings of the Allemande are very clear. One just has to look for the cadences, and the start and end of the sequences or other patterns. I really see little ambiguity at all.

However, please don't misunderstand me: that is NOT to say that everyone should interpret them the same way. In Mozart, the phrases couldn't be clearer, but that doesn't mean that everyone plays them the same way either. In Bach, one can minimize or bring out a cadence or change of pattern, and there is much variability in how one travels through a phrase. But to insist that Bach's music is ambiguous--that I don't agree with. The cadences, the key changes, the sequences; all are clear as day.

March 8, 2014 at 08:18 PM · I disagree, but who am I?

March 9, 2014 at 01:49 PM · Well, Scott, it looks like we'll just have to agree that we disagree on this point but we won't let it interfere with our friendship. Meanwhile I'd like to invite you to check out my instructional video on this Adagio.

Bach Masterclass -- Bringing the Adagio to life

It deals with these topics:

1. Shaping the small phrases -- the improvisatory style.

2. Practicing the melody alone — finding the natural melodic expressivity

3. Practicing with a metronome -- developing grace and comfort within the rhythmic framework

4. Some aspects of chord playing -- melodic connections and tone quality

5. Experimenting with moods

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