Sustained Baroque chords of 3-4 notes?

February 5, 2015 at 08:30 PM · According to this, Bach intended chords to be fully held instead of rolled? Apparently, Paganini also wanted it so!

It seems to make sense seeing as Bach was a violin player, did not compromise in his music, and has many false things attributed to him.

E.g.: He invented equal temperament, by which the piano/organ can play all keys equally (and boringly!) well, since every single key sounds the same (being tuned exactly the same as all the other keys).

Replies (36)

February 5, 2015 at 08:33 PM · If that kind of bow was really in use in Bach's day, we would be hearing all kinds of HIP performances using it. But we haven't, have we?

Having said that, I think sustaining 4-note chords as in those recordings is pretty cool.

February 5, 2015 at 10:13 PM · No no no...

This is a 20th century invention and curiosity. There are many voice leadings in the baroque repertoire that is impossible to sustain through even with this Bach-bow, and the beauty of the Bach violin partitas & sonatas and cello suites is how he navigates the writing and let the voices carry on in your mind without actually playing them out. Perhaps a scholar or someone well-informed on this subject here can post sources that refutes this bow's claim to historical authenticity. It's a fun concept though.

Re: Bach inventing Equal Temperament - that is one of the many false things attributed to him as you say so yourself. We know he had used a well-tempered tuning since he wrote this thing called the Well-Tempered Clavier, and we have a good guess but don't know what that is exactly. Some believe the twirls and loops on the top of the manuscript is his instruction on how to tune to this temperament, who knows, there's a good case for it. The idea of equal temperament existed long before Bach but was not popular at all, not because it was boring but it sounds ugly to the music of the time...

February 6, 2015 at 01:25 AM · Dorian, not talking about the Bach bow. I know that couldn't have existed. :)

If earlier frogs were unclipped to loosen the hair, then maybe you COULD have played the chords!

Also, Mr. Guhr said that Pag. sustained chords- maybe with a loosened German bow?

Relevant section of article:

Bach was not a sloppy writer. He made sure that his manuscripts conveyed every precise detail necessary to render the piece to his satisfaction. Indeed he annoyed many of his contemporary performers by his frequent habit of fully writing-in the trills and ornaments – normally considered the performer's perks, to be performed as the performer's own taste and mood of the moment dictated. If Bach wrote chords, then chords were what he intended to be played.

Did Bach ever intend or imagine that these pieces would be performed using an Italian bow, thus requiring broken chords or arpeggios instead of full chords? Hardly. At several points in these solo violin works, when a long chord is to be accentuated, Bach writes "arpeggio". Why would he single out the occasional chords, if all chords were to be performed as arpeggios? This "internal evidence" alone would seem to indicate quite clearly that, other than where expressly indicated, chords were to be played as full chords and not as arpeggios.

Bach composed a Sonata for Solo Flute. The flute cannot play chords, and Bach wrote no chords.

Curved bows used in concert performance.

But Bach's contemporary violinists could indeed play chords, using the simple expedient whereby the bow-hairs of an arched bow were held under tension by the player's thumb and relaxed for the performance of chords.

Concerning the piano:

I think that an equally tuned piano is ugly regardless of what you play on it. The keys have no character like on the violin!

February 6, 2015 at 01:39 AM · Great lecture-demonstration on polyphonic root of violin playing:

around 18' they address the illusion of the notation on chordal and polyphonic playing and the modern retrospective attempt at playing it in its full note length value.

February 6, 2015 at 01:40 AM · The myth of the Vega Bach bow was debunked many years ago and is not based on anything other than Albert Schweitzer's theory that this existed. He did not back up his theory with examples of 17th and 18th c. bows which exist in museums today. The actual reason for notating chords which one would think should be held through is from notational convention from the time and the practical matter that if one had to add rests to indicate lower notes were not to be sustained,

then the cost of engraving the copper music printing plates would have been much higher. Just look at Boyden, The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761 to get a much more detailed information.

Concerning Paganini and Guhr there is evidence that Paganini used a much flatter bridge in order to sustain 3 note chords such as in the 24th caprice, and also used a transitional violin bow which made the playing of these chords much easier. I know from personal experience because I have an original transitional bow made in England around 1750 by one of the Dodds.

February 6, 2015 at 05:03 AM · Listen to Vasa Prihoda (you really should, for so many reasons). He often played sustained 3-part chords in Bach.

February 6, 2015 at 02:13 PM · Baroque composers often used shorthand: many apparent chords are unplayable, whatever the bow-shape e.g. 4 quick eigth-notes against one half-note.

And Bach always writes each note of a chord with a separate stem. Why?

And Bach's (real) bow would lend itself to a more detaché style than we do nowadays.

Something I have never got used to is the first variation in the Chaconne, where the melody is in the bass, and almost all violinists do an up & down crunch that sound like an angry fox-terrier snapping at my ankle! HIPsters play a short 3-note chord, Suk plays the chords downwards.

February 6, 2015 at 05:31 PM · That up & down crunch is nearly impossible to do well with a Baroque bow. So it's safe to say that it was never played that way in the days of Bach. Now, coming from top to bottom is easily doable with a Baroque bow. So that makes one wonder if it could have been done that way.

February 6, 2015 at 05:59 PM · "That up & down crunch is nearly impossible to do well with a Baroque bow."

Why would that be Kevin? I would've thought it'd be easier.

February 6, 2015 at 06:29 PM · The way I do those is to accent the low note on the beat and keep the right arm level on the lower string height. This makes the upper notes sound weak

February 6, 2015 at 07:29 PM · For the up-down crunch not to sound like a hiccup, you need to be able to grab three or four strings at once, even for a very brief moment. It's true that the lighter Baroque bow allow you to change strings lightning fast but you normally don't want put too much pressure on it, which makes the crunch sounds a bit too broken. But what do you know, I've just tried using my Baroque bow to do a high pressure up-down crunch on a modern violin and it sounded ok. Perhaps I can use it to play some Paganini as well. LOL.

February 6, 2015 at 09:01 PM · I don't own a baroque bow but the few times I've tried it out it was a delight to play, in some ways (aside from the obvious differences in length and weight) superior in design to the modern. I once used a borrowed clip in for Don Giovanni and it was effortless to play.

I think the slack in the hair due to the convex stick makes it easier to grab the strings, whether 1 or 4. But with either baroque or modern bow, to avoid crunching it's useful to 'pinch and ride,' like a bow pizzicato, over the fingerboard. Keep the arm at a weight appropriate for the soundpoint, pinch with the hand and fingers. Release the pinch with a colle motion in the hand/fingers and ride the rest of the stroke on the string(s) you want to sustain. I'm not in love with the back and forth quad stops, so I grab the bass note followed by a quick simultaneous pinch of the triple stop, favouring the melody string, and 'pizz' with a slight flex of the wrist and raising of the forearm to ride on a weight appropriate for the fingerboard. Or at least I try to... It helps to be able to grab any string by pivoting with the fingers rather than crossing with any part of the arm.

Gotta get a baroque bow!

Edit: I guess you were thinking of 'crunching' on a baroque fiddle with pure guts and all the various original design elements, which I've not tried. I guess I'd better get a baroque fiddle to go with that bow :)

February 6, 2015 at 10:06 PM · Hi all,

The rational behind the early music folk's way of playing chords from the bottom and extremely rarely if ever at all from top to bottom is to allow the bass to lead rather than the modern aesthetic of melody as priority. There are instances I know of where chords rolled from top to bottom, such as Leclaire which he very clearly notates it that way, or ornamental flourishes of a chord from bottom to top and to bottom again added by the performer.

I think closer to the heart of the original question of how to approach these triple or quadruple stop chords is that our modern mindset of playing things exactly as notated on the page as it is expected of the 20th century doesn't work on earlier repertoire, because baroque music require a sort of common knowledge, taste, and style that the musicians back then knew.

One aspect I find fascinating is looking at baroque era exercises, take Leopold Mozart or Geminiani for example, and you will find they include the bass line in even the small examples so it's always within the context of harmony. The bass line was extremely important in Baroque music, and that's why Bach Sonatas/Partitas are so wonderful because it is specifically unaccompanied and "senza Basso" and it's up to us the performers to artfully bring the bass line out. And especially when we do those karate chops and slice the chords from top to bottom, the bass never even had a chance.

A final (I hope) thought on the webpage from A.O.'s orginial post is that it is definitely not legit, I don't know who wrote it but many of its arguments are misguided in an attempt to validate the Bach-bow invention. But why take my word for it, I would encourage you to experiment with a baroque bow and control the hair tension with your thumb and try to play these chords sustained like an organ or something, and then report back your results. I know my results because I already tried!

P.S. Stylistic issues and taste aside, Váša Príhoda's chaconne is really beautiful!

February 6, 2015 at 10:23 PM · The problem is the evidence points to the curve of Baroque bridges being considerably flatter than modern, making it harder to play one string only, but much easier to play chords. The reason people are so into denying this possibility is that most Baroque performers were raised on the modern highly curved bridge, and don't want to relearn everything so they insist on modern bridge curvature, and then assert that it is impossible to play chords, which is true to a large degree with modern bridge curvature(even with a baroque bow)0. Also everything I have read indicates baroque bows make playing chords easier than modern bows do. The COMBINATION of baroque bows and flatter bridge curvature makes three note chords possible, if not even four note chords.

Also the main reason for for the more highly curved modern bridge, is the need to play the high positions on the a and d string without bumping into the adjacent strings. Since Baroque music is less developed in the higher positions, a flatter bridge curve not only becomes possible, but practical. But it takes a lot of effort on the part of modern performers to relearn Baroque technique, and frankly, in the early music scene, people basically want modern violin specs for their violin which is Baroque only in appearance, not measurements.

February 6, 2015 at 10:43 PM · Lyndon, learning Baroque style on period instruments requires you relearn everything. I've not studied it in any depth but I've dabbled enough and had a few lessons to understand it is a full time commitment. Of all my colleagues who have dedicated their lives to this endeavour I've never met a player who denies a flatter bridge design or complains about not being able to play on a single string. Though I've not done a survey of who does and does not use a modern bridge.

But even if it were physically possible to sustain a decent sounding three note chord (which I find dubious) with period instruments and setup, it is musically ill-advised because it would be impossible to differentiate pressures on said three note chord to be able to voice lead and delineate the contrapuntal lines, the pinnacle of baroque compositional technique. Voice leading is the primary reason to drop other voices, even on a double stop where it is possible to sustain both notes equally, in order that the moving line can be clearly heard.

As for baroque music being less developed, you really should try playing some Locatelli. I guess it's plausible bridge design changed because such composers were pushing the envelope.

February 6, 2015 at 11:16 PM · Thanks for the replies.

I still wonder if I could get a flat bridge put on and grab a baroque and a classical bow in order to play Paganini and Bach with sustained 3 note chords and short 4 note ones! :)

I really want too. I always find that the modern bridge has the strings spaced too far anyways. :)

February 6, 2015 at 11:49 PM · I agree with Lyndon that the bridge curvature is a far more influential element then a some sort of mythical slack hair bow, but I am suspicious whether baroque bridges are actually that much more dramatically flatter than the modern bridges.

And by the way you occasionally encounter chords with two notes on the same string, I don't know how you would sustain that.

I'm not sure if anyone actually bothered watching the video with Hogwood and Beznosiak demonstrating the chordal playing of the lira da braccio and the curious instruction in Marini to rearrange the three lower strings closer to together to create a lira style effect. All this seems to indicate the music changed along with the curvature of the bridge.

A.O. - sure, why not? I don't know why I would do that personally but it would be interesting nonetheless to everyone when you report back your results.

February 6, 2015 at 11:53 PM · I play almost exclusively a 5-string violin. Since the bridge curvature is almost the same as a modern 4-string violin, the narrower spacing makes playing chords quite a bit easier. But it hasn't caused problems with Paganini or other romantic stuff. It is just that the margin for error in string changing much lower.

February 7, 2015 at 12:00 AM · Interesting article. If the pictures are accurate, that's a big difference in curvature, though the author doesn't take note of it.

February 7, 2015 at 12:40 AM · I also feel that it would not matter if the bridge was very flat and had gut strings, as you cannot press them and must simply use proximity to bridge and bow speed.

So you could play music from every era with sustained 3 note chords AND still play modern stuff! :)

February 7, 2015 at 01:56 AM · It's easy to dismiss the idea of sustaining 4-note chords: many finger combinations won't allow it.

February 7, 2015 at 03:32 AM · Very true Scott.

But some combinations do allow for it, and you would't need too many for non-existent chords anyways. :)

February 7, 2015 at 05:44 AM · Dorian, I have a small collection of 150-200 year old bridges, almost as a rule they are flatter to much flatter than the modern bridge.

Jeewon, by less developed Baroque music I was referring to playing in the higher positions, for one thing the shorter fingerboard eliminates the very highest positions. I wasn't talking about the music or the technique being less developed, just less tendency to play really high on the fingerboard in much baroque music.

February 7, 2015 at 06:25 AM · 10th position

e.g. Labyrinth

This kind of writing must have driven the evolution.

February 7, 2015 at 06:51 AM · Hi Lyndon,

I think everyone agrees that the bridges were flatter, but the question is whether the flatter curvature in baroque bridges indicated that chords in baroque string writing were meant to be completely sustained as the Vega Bach bow aspired to - and so far all the sources I've came across tells me no.

February 7, 2015 at 06:57 AM · You've never tried playing chords with a significantly flatter bridge and a BAROQUE bow, not this modern vega thingy, have you??

And no, I'm not suggesting that every time playing a three or four note chord is possible with baroque that it has to be played that way, but obviously that was an option they had back then that modern players don't really have with a modern set up, so obviously they must have done it some of the time, I've never heard of any historical literature telling you never to play chords but to always arpeggiate except from modern so called experts.

February 7, 2015 at 09:15 AM · I'm really not sure what we're arguing about...I'm a baroque violinist and use a baroque bow everyday.

I think the point is unless your bridge is completely flat, it is impossible to catch all the notes at once unless you use tremendous force, so with a bridge with any curvature - baroque or modern - we have to artfully roll the chords create the illusion of playing chords, take Rachel Podger's A minor andante for example. Hope we can agree on this much!

February 7, 2015 at 10:31 AM · I would think from what you are saying your bridge is nowhere near as flat as the samples I have in my possession, or is it just the same curvature as modern?? What's the radius of the curve of your bridge, I usually set up baroque transitional around 50mm to be conservative for modern players but samples I have are 60mm even 70mm, modern is 42mm.

February 7, 2015 at 05:20 PM · since harpsichordists roll chords, why not violinists?

February 7, 2015 at 08:03 PM · Greetings,

isn't the crux of this discussion 'if it ain't baroque, don't fix it?'



February 7, 2015 at 08:44 PM · No, it is "if you want to play everything authentically, you need a couple of bows and bridges on the side. :)

February 7, 2015 at 09:55 PM · or maybe:

you can lead horsehair to string but you can`t make it think?

February 7, 2015 at 11:30 PM · I've only skimmed through this thread, but I've heard of this bow before. At first, it sounded intriguing but rather unlikely.

But I think that the proof that this isn't what Bach had in mind is to listen to recordings that make use of it.

The chords sound like a silly and lifeless accordion, and completely out of place with the other notes.

February 8, 2015 at 07:47 AM · The reason a true Baroque bow aids playing chords is that when you press the bow down harder on the strings the bow bows out and upward more which effectively shorten the length of the strings(the distance from the head to the frog), slightly slacking them, on the modern bow when you push down the bow moves upwards LESS curved which effectively makes the bow longer and the string tension greater, not lesser.

Now if you have one of these bogus Chinese baroque bows that do not tension up to bowing straight or slightly outward, but bow downward like a modern bow, it won't work at all which will give you essentially the same effect as a modern bow that bows downward, not up.

February 9, 2015 at 12:30 AM · Hi Lyndon,

I have to admit I can't make any sense out of what you wrote about bowing bows outwards and how it changes string (or hair?) lengths, so I don't know how to respond to that.

I can only speak from my experience of using a baroque bow made by the wonderful historical bow maker Ralph Ashmead and as well other models, that with modern or Baroque, good or bad, one still has to roll triple and quadruple stops, however slightly, and that the performance practice for baroque repertoire is that the chords and suspensions often weren't expected to be sustained in string writing. And as Mathias has pointed out, one can sustain three note chords - with a modern bow too in Vasa Prihoda's Bach.

As to your question on my bridge, I'm quite certain it has much more curved than say, a violin used for Monteverdi. For practical purposes because I also play Classical and early Romantic stuff with this instrument, the set up is opt for a wide time range. It's not 100% historical, and in the ideal world with unlimited funding I would have multiple historical instruments, but alas.

February 9, 2015 at 12:46 AM · I suspect the problem is you are playing with a bridge with modern curvature, its very common on violins marketed as baroque today.

As to the length of a bow its simple physics, if we take a straight line and measure it end to end it has a length, then if we bow that line into a slight curve, end to end it measures slightly shorter, the more we bow it, the shorter the end to end length becomes till we reach a circle and the end to end length is 0.

Does your bow bow out, or is it still slightly curved in under tension, in which case of course it won't work well for chords.

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