Bach G minor Fugue

February 5, 2004 at 06:16 AM · Greetings,

One of my worst memories of Music College was the compulsory attendance at x number of graduation recitals. There was a very good chance that in one day you would be subjected to 8 renditions of the Bach G minor Adagio and Fugue and that as one`s ears became more jaded the intensity of the butchery of the Fugue appeared to escalate exponentially. Since this piece seems to crop up on this list a lot I thought I would pen a few thoughts in the hope that other will follow through with some meaty stuff..

I suppose it makes sense to start with the edition. Basically there are two that one should have: Galamian and Szeryng. The Galamian is the simpler of the two and I like to feel it is a kind of mini representation of the way he taught. That is, he presents the basic tools and it is up to the individual player to make the most of what she is offered. This is rather different from taking his editing as the last word and refusing to deviate. If one sticks rigidly to Galamian the result will be excellent, workmanlike and efficient. What I find missing are basically just a few small places where an artist like Szeryng who played these publicly so many times really knows how to create a truly powerful musical effect. There are also a couple of places where his interpretation is much more in character with the overall piece. To study the Szeryng text is to study with a master but, the Galamian remains the fall back position for passages where Szeryng demands too much?E

Beginning the Fugue one should perhaps keep in mind the idea that as the entries get more complex the dynamic increases by step. However, the range of dynamics need never be excessive. I think the great romantic violinists were a contributory factor in the way less able violinist often mis-play the chords. The latter have paid attention to the sound more than they have understood what is being done and the result is usually too heavy and not remotely musical. The Galamian bowing, as Bach wrote it is, in my opinion, just too workmanlike, so my preference is for the two 16th notes to almost always be played on two up bows. This can be done in so many ways in so many different parts of the bow it becomes a tool for giving the whole work enormous elan.

Thus, in the Fugue it is important to discard the common mental image of triple stops as chords to finish or start show pieces with an elaborate flourish. Indeed, one perhaps needs to forget `vertical` thinking completely and view -every- segment of this piece as intertwined melodies rather than homophonic accompaniament to statements.

This rather simple idea is actually quite radical for many players who start off looking at this rather intimidating page and , sighing to themselves, sit down and begin laboriously tuning each chord, perhaps uttering the mantra `Get it in tune and then repeat 500 times so it is safe.` The alternative is to tease out each individual musical line, sing it then play it. Absorb it deeply. Then tease out the middle line and sing it play it. Then combine the lines or play one and sing another. Working this way, with a little imagination the real sound of the music is revealed to the inner ear and it really has very little to do with chords. Of course chord work is necessary but the sound needs to be constructed in the inner ear rather differenly. This thinking also helps one to recognize that many of the chords are not finger training exercises where the fingers have to all sink or swim together. By taking the long view one can become conscious that keeping fingers down, or thoughtful preparation often means that only one finger has to make a small adjustment. Much less difficult. On the question of chord playing it might be helpful to begin working with the fingers placed in sequence from first to fourth irrespective of what stirngs they are on. As the time gap between this placing is reduced one can get pretty close to simultaneously placing, I repeat that this is actually rarely necessary in this movement, but the hand retains the sense of organization. To move directly to simultaneous placing can sometimes leave the mind- to- hand connection unconsolidated and we remain groping in the dark.

A practice trick I have used is to have one of those electronic tuners play a sustained note (the ds at the end of bar 21 for example) and play around that pitch.

Getting into the bowing aspect a little, because we tend to have a conception of chords as `hit the middle string and hope the outer two sound, by golly on a good day they do,` we choke the instrument completely. The whole arm comes down -smack- and that`s it.- musical/aural death. It may help to consider the chord as a pizzicato with the bow (somewhat like spiccato) in which the most important part is the bow leaving the string. In essence a colle stroke with a little arm hovering in the background. To get a sense of what one is after it might be worth playing the passage in question pizzicato-! If nothing else we are extending our sound concept.!

Again, as an offshoot of the 19th C practices, we assume that all chords can only be played two ways. Split two and two or hit simultaneously The former was rarely used in the baroque period (according to Stowell) and the latter does not sit well on the ear all the time. In fact, interpretation of this work hinges a great deal on the recognition that the chords can be played in all manner of ways from the colle type mentioned above through various arpeggiations , being more or less lyrical or abrupt and heading towards the g string rather than the more normal way. The challenge for the player is to decide the character of the voices in the passages in question (is this section more cheerful.? Excited? Lyrical or what?) then selecting a type of bowing for the (not) chords that matches the feeling of the moment. An example of this where I feel Szeryng was correct and Galamian unusually off target is from bar 35 where Galamian advocates a chord at the beginning of the bar ad then (presumably) fairly strong eighth notes whereas Szeryng anticipates the broadly lyrical passage four bars later and begins the legato string crossings at this point. Incidentally, this passage is a really test of whether a player knows her string levels, so it is worth practicing the kind of play a note- freeze for ten seconds-play a note type of exercise that has recently been discussed in the -most boring exercise- thread.

When one follows the notion that there are not really any chords or double stops, but rather voices then the question of how much bow weight is given to each string becomes a great deal clearer and, a little more complex! Take for example, the sequence of entries in fifths starting at bar 14. By resisting the temptation to begin working on the double stops but rather trying to absorb the musical line as it changes voice (and string) the other notes can be viewed in their accompanying role rather than conceptualized as `a double stop existing in the present moment.` This reveals clearly which string needs to be given priority and this priority shifts around very rapidly.



Replies (30)

February 5, 2004 at 06:44 AM · That's one hell of a long dissection Buri. I haven't read all of it yet, but it sounds great so far.

February 5, 2004 at 11:49 AM · Greetings,

Anton , I don"t necessarily agree with everything I wrote but it was fun,



February 5, 2004 at 03:51 PM · Buri, I'm not only impressed with your dailectic (on one of my favorite subjects--fugues), but with your spelling.

I agree with the up-ups for the 16ths. I prefer Szeryng's edition, but only because it challenges my own sensibilities. I've never felt comfortable playing reverse-direction chords (is there a name for these??), but they sound good to me on recordings...

For musicality, it is important to hear the individual lines/play them separately--but practically, in some instances, doesn't the hand have to be "shaped" or approaching a shape for whatever chord it's playing? I suppose for bars 38-41 it's quite obvious, but in measure 16, I can't imagine not preparing for the F-C fifth. Likewise in 80-81, which are more difficult and crunched, I think it's certainly easier to "memorize" a hand shape, and let the bow do more of the interpretation and "hearing" of the lines. Does that makes any sense? Perhaps that is a serious cop-out on my part--I don't doubt it.

But alas, I can't even play the 16th note passages in a way that pleases me, so I doubt I'll ever be happy with the rest of it. :)

It's challenging to write about this. Takes so much time and it's difficult to articulate, but worthwhile and insightful, indeed.


February 5, 2004 at 07:52 PM · Some day I'll be able to play through that fugue without getting tense in the left hand.

I've always preferred the Galamian edition, I like it's simplicity and the fact that Bach's originals are xeroxed in the back.

February 6, 2004 at 02:12 AM · Greetings,

Kismet, in bar 16 I don`t really find I have to do anything to get the f and c. The finger just flips across and there is a slight change in the position of the left arm that always accompanies these kind of flicks, in this case , minute. I think a question of finger pressure?

My basic premise is not that we should not brush up individual chords where necessary but rather create the image in our minds of the chords by working on individual lines and making decisions about their relative values. The chords then seem to emerge automatically. this is after all, the essence of polyhonic music . It seems very much more efficient to me than thinking homophonic technique and the musical line is kept paramount. The reaosn I loathe so many perfomances of this piece is that the player has spent so much time working at @getting discrete chords in tune` that the music has ceased to exist. I find this work very singular in the that the musical impulse drives the shape of the hand and the technique. Incidentally, the semiquaver passages need some very careful decisions about mixing lance/porte and all those other effete bowings. A really complex study. I think Galamian mentions this in his book somewhere.

Tracy, I suppose if you are tensing up in the left hand , it might be possible you are pressing too hard in the double stops,



February 6, 2004 at 03:36 AM · (Haha, I'd like to blame my problems with fifths on the fact that I have narrower fingers--but I don't think that justification cuts it.)

Buri, you seem to be talking about inaugurating a holistic approach to the fugue. It seems undoubtedly more logical, but most students at least approach pieces from the ground up...tackling the technical obstacles first, which is probably why you end up hearing "discrete" chords resounding in an abstract universe of G "minor." Of course I don't agree with this, but naturally it was the way I was taught in the past, as well as most of my peers. Ricci said, "You should be able to sightread Ernst." I took that as a blow. Perhaps a bit obscene, but you get the gist...

And yes, Galamian's book pg. 69 discusses the portE, lancE bowings for the 16th notes in the fugue. Though even after studying this I don't like the way I sound. I shall never be satisfied.

I think perhaps the majority of mediocre violin playing occurs when violinists approach a piece as a technical challenge. In the meantime, they should be working on technique that will *get* them there. (note to self...)

Ideally we would approach all new pieces from a musical entree. In my own opinion, this would include a harmonic and formal analysis if applicable.


February 6, 2004 at 03:53 AM · Greetings,

Kismet, I seem less and les s able to express what I want to say the more senile I become.

I am not advocating a holistic a s opposed to ground up approach to the Fugue at all. i am saying that the `ground up` approach is fundamentally flawed and therefore a different ground up approach is necessary.` that approach is base d on the idea that it may be easier to hear three part chords if one learns the sound of one line at a time. but that one line is a small unit of the whole and what could be more ground up than that? The work of having a mental concept of each chord to guide and structure the hand is shaped by the knowledge of what a chord actually represents which is not a block of sound as in somehting like the first movement of the Bruch but rather a point where three voices coincide. This reminds me of a pianist who was able to think of each finger in terms of a particular color and sound. Why cannot violnists learn to do the same?

Incidentally, one reaosn to give primacy to horizontal rather than vertical thought is the very thing you are talking about: the hand shape is the result of a great deal of previous activity and unless this rather lengthier `run in` is taken into account the practice is not only abstract but actually qualitatively different to what the hand doe s in actuall performance.

I have a sneaky little challenge for you... either redo the G minor but better still, pick a different fugue and learn it from scratch using the line learning appraoch and only putting the chords together after a great deal of this kind of work. Something like five minutes on getting each line mmeorised and pracitce doubled with another in various combinations and so on and then that bar or so in its complete form. I would bet tha you would not only enjoy the practic e more but also be amazed by how well you were playing perhaps a page of the piec e ater just one hour`s practice....

Incidentally, our discussion has inspired me to write out the fugue for four violins and give it to students and some colleagues. I wonder what the outcome of that will be,



February 6, 2004 at 05:59 AM · Oooh! What an interesting idea, to divvy up the lines b/w players. Do share your results.

I doubt it is your senility, but rather my misinterpretation that's at fault. I think I see what you mean finally...thank you for clarifying.

I agree, I like how pianists think of creating color, and we should try it--except, is it okay that I say it's extremely difficult to do that with a bow and shades of vibrato, position and pitch?? ;)

After a bit of experimentation, I am going to abandon the C major for now...that sonata intimidates me. I will try the A minor and let you know what happens. Alas, I fear the G minor may be permanently botched...anyone know any brainwashing techniques? Perhaps a dozen episodes of Space 1999? ;)

Happy transcribing,


February 7, 2004 at 05:02 AM · One practice method I learned from my mother for Bach is to play the overtly polyphonic movements (e.g. the fugues) with the left hand "playing" all the notes, but with the right hand ONLY playing the main line. Not only does it train the player's ear as to what to listen for, it also cleans intonation up like detergent.

February 7, 2004 at 04:23 PM · Great idea! I, however, would need a coordination pill.

February 9, 2004 at 01:12 AM · Greetings,

Kismet the exercise Emil describes is eactly what I wa s trying to get at in my usual long winded way. It is an almost perfect illustration of the essence of violin playing: the mind must lead the fingers.

I think this is really worth struggling with because the degree of difficulty experienced would, to my mind, give a fairly exact barometer of the extent one is using mental control as opposed to the reverse.

In similar vein, for tehcnical work in double stops I feel that leaping progressively larger intervals is more helpful than just doing regular scales in double stops. The only way we ca straddle the finger board is by having a clear mental image of where we ae going and if one builds up one string scales in, for example thirds, in this way, (roughly something like in the Dounis Artist Technique book) then the mentla control is greatly enhanced. It often semes ot me thta people ratice regualr scales that are sort of intune with some fuzzines sround the edges, but only at the cost of countless hours wasted on no mid practice,



February 9, 2004 at 04:12 AM · Hi Buri

Thanks for the recommendation. Do you know how to get the Szeryng edition of the Bach or if anyone else knows how?

February 9, 2004 at 04:13 AM · Greetings,

Alan, as far as I know this is not out of print so any decent music shop should stock it. Sorry I don`t remember the publsiher.

The ediitons I want to see you can`t get are Bronstein and Busch...



February 9, 2004 at 08:17 PM · i dont have nearly as much to say as buri or emil. But it seems to me that the real difficult of this piece is the way you phrase with your bow. If you play legato, it sounds like muck, if you play to short it sounds unnatural, you have to use the short ringing notes to keep the excitement, because the fugues are played fairly slow. ive spent ages on the first four notes.

February 10, 2004 at 12:42 AM · Hey, cool discussion..

February 10, 2004 at 02:00 AM · Szeryng's edition is by Schott(mmm, love that Schott).

Buri, I sort of figured that's what you meant upon reflection. Sometimes it just helps to hear it from another angle. I agree, it's "easy" to go through the motions and make it sound decent, but for clarity/purity of sound, getting all the string changes pure and intonation as well, the mind has to really direct everything with incredible control. Someone who (can't remember whom) went to Meadowmount said that the biggest transformation that went on there was mental control/direction, regardless of their playing level...

February 10, 2004 at 03:08 AM · Greetings,

Kismet, there is a very in depth disucssion of Bach in the book `Szigeti on the violin` which I strongly commend to you if you have not already seen it. I reread it this morning and among his thoughful observations was a reference to the homophonic semiquaver passages that divide the fugal passages. He sugetss that they are played lighly and somewhat freely with the approach of commentating on what has gone before (and presumably what is ot come...). I know there is a healthy vogue towards precise technical desciption asoposed to this kind of vaguer deifnition , these days. But I think the idea of commenting may be a useful mind set.

Alan, I don`t usually buy music on te iNternet so I am something of a novice. But I went to Schott to see if they were selling the Bach and as far as I could see they were not but I could have missed it. I hope this does not mean it is out of print. It is certainly freely available in Japan,



February 10, 2004 at 03:37 AM · Buri,

I'm pretty sure the Szeryng edition is available at, check it out.

matthew feldman

February 10, 2004 at 04:17 AM · (I'll have to check out that book...always looking for good discussions of Bach. I like that take on the 16ths, congruent to my sensibilities...)

I STILL have a split personality when it comes to interpretation of any Bach--let alone the fugue! I don't want to bastardize it (or anything else for that matter), and I don't want to play it in a way that doesn't fit my instruments' capabilities, my training, etc. I hear a Bach in my head that I am not able to produce; I haven't been able to glean a pure approach that feels "right on". But in general it's getting a little better as time passes. As I slow down both my expectations and the clicker on the metronome.


February 11, 2004 at 06:21 AM · I am a novice--but I'd like to pose a metaphysical question, and I thought here would be the place to do it. [I don't want to totally change the subject of the G minor fugue--but I thought we could open up the floor to more players...since I'm sure most of us are working on Bach...(and in honor of my cats: Johann and Sebastian.)

I just want to pose this question: what is it about Bach that makes you want to play unaccompanied Bach (Chaconne or the 1st mvt of the A minor?? :) in the nearest VACANT cathedral on an early Sunday morning in the spring, or any time of year, as opposed to Brahms or Sibelius? Maybe it's just me.

God bless him...and I'm an atheist.


February 11, 2004 at 08:26 PM · its so fun to play bach in a cathedral, its partially the excellent acoustics, and partially it brings out the more religious aspect of bach.

February 17, 2004 at 05:52 AM · Bach was definitely a very religious composer... but you know he also had many secular works... i agree with owen though.. playing in a cathedral is great! Owen is so smart!

February 18, 2004 at 12:43 AM · Greetings,

Owen, I have played Bach in a cathedral and I can assure you it is -not- always fun. Especially when you play an opening chord and exactly half a second later the cathedral plays it back to you...

I was trolling through some other violin threads the other day was rather surprised to find the same question being asked about the key signature and the same two astonsihing answers: 1) `Oh yeah` the key signature is not quite right...never noticed that before and 2) `Oh, man, I have like, no uh idea.`

Even professional violinists it would appear, still don`t seem too alert to the music they are playing...



February 18, 2004 at 05:56 AM · Greetings,

Kismet, the most eye opening book on analysing the Bach that actually influenced the way I play it is `Bach`s work for solo violin` by Joel Lester. This really is a player`s book and I went back to it to see what he ahd to say about the 16th note passage from bar 42.

For violnists the standard harmonic analysis would be one chord per measure changing from a minor triad to a domoinant 7th . Then from b45 harmony changes every crotchet . b46 stepwise related 7th chords. String players usually mark the harmony as foolows:

42-44 low notes only

45 low and high

46 low only.

The result is that 46 soundsl like a harmoni slow down. But Lester compares this appraoch with the organ transcription where in bar 46 the harmony is a serious of suspensions with changes occuring on every quaver.

For a violnist to express the harmony the following bows stroks would need to be emphasized:

42-44 articultae the beginnin of both the 3rd and 4th beat.(The harmonic rythm is mini/crotchet/crotchet) and also stress the up beta to first beat of new bar (imitates organ pedal part) B46 play each quaver beat enrgetically.



February 18, 2004 at 05:31 AM · (In lieu of a cathedral--which is a savage space that is not only troublesome to reserve, but requires a superhuman ear AND precise reflexes that accomodate musicality--every now and then I exalt Bach in one of the most quotidien, yet cache gems of a room...the ceramic-tiled loo.)

Buri, why have I never heard of this book?? Is it new or hard to find? A few years ago I was collecting everything written about the solo violin works...

I like the idea of bringing out the harmonies with bowing. It's such a good idea, especially with Bach. I particularly agree with what you/Lester wrote re: bars 42 to 46--I shall keep that in mind next time!



February 18, 2004 at 06:07 AM · Greetings,

Kismet, the book is oup 1999

ISBN 0-19-512097-3

Should be easy to find,

Just follow your dreams ,



February 18, 2004 at 06:13 PM · Thanks, Buri!

February 19, 2004 at 02:31 AM · i suppose there's that aspect of it, i dont think i've ever played in a large enough cathedral for that to happen.

May 1, 2004 at 12:16 AM · this is one of my favorite mvmts! i saw this played in the heifetz masterclass video by erick friedman and the camera did a great job showing his bowarm in action. my question is, was he using too much bow or is that the way it's supposed to be done? is it because he's so tall that he's able to use so much bow?? (i'm just guessing here, forgive me if i sound awkward)

January 3, 2009 at 08:55 PM ·

Well that's funny, I dug up this thread by accident searching for "barometer", and it turned out ot be more interesting than barometers.

Thanks Buri, I'm practicing this piece right now and your post  was really informative. It looks like I was on the right track with regards to interpreting the fugue as not so much chordal but more contrapuntal, as well as with my suspicion that the intensity increases implicitly regardless of dynamic and that I need not exaggerate it.

My teachers have never been happy with the way I interpret romantic pieces, but it seems I can trust myself a little when it comes to Bach. Now if I can get my bowing to a point where it actually sounds somewhat presentable...

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