Bach Partita No 2 in D minor, Allemande: to shift, or not to shift?

September 9, 2018, 8:57 AM · After the summer brake I just started with the Allemande. Since I knew it would be next in lessons I looked at different scores with and without fingerings. The fingerings included quite some shifting which makes my life easier since my hands are very small. (I position my left thumb between first and second finger but still).
Last lesson we did not have too much time due to other topics but my teacher told me to stay as far as possible in first position. I will do that.
But I am curious how all the knowledgeable people here approach this.
Buri wrote in an old post: „ On a techncil side it is good general advice to play Bah in the lower psotions. Having said that, I don`t, much to my embarassment.“

(My background, adult, just starting my 5th year of private lessons)

Thanks a lot

Replies (46)

Edited: September 9, 2018, 9:27 AM · Joseph Szigeti's book "Szigeti on the Violin" has a great discussion of the Allemande to Bach's 2nd Partita in Chapter 18 "devoted To Bach and thus...." Specifically the Chapter starts with the Allemande and details fingerings and the tempo changes Szigeti used.

This book it is worth having, and since it was reprinted by Dover it is now very affordable.

September 9, 2018, 10:24 AM · George Enescu's fingered and edited Bach parts are available on imslp.
September 9, 2018, 10:29 AM · The fingerings my teacher gave me include quite a lot of shifting. That whole Bach-in-first-position-at-all-costs thing always seemed rather dogmatic to me.
Edited: September 9, 2018, 10:56 AM · Enescu's fingerings are quite "sophisticated," definitely not shift-free. But his Bach book is a wonderful bargain at that price (0) - for sure - or can be bought AND mailed to you for about $10 (US):
September 9, 2018, 11:01 AM · Szigeti's version is interesting, if you had his long fingers. Staying always in first position for this allemande is not a good idea; that gives you too many extra string changes, 4th finger extensions and changes of strings on a half-step. Use second position often for this one, it is only a half-step away from first, which can be done with the crawl-shift.
Edited: September 9, 2018, 12:02 PM · I think the decision whether or not to do string changes instead of stretching or shifting to stay on the same string can depend (in some situations) on the evenness of one's instrument across different strings (in other situations it may depend on one's interpretation). For example, one of my violins has a D string that plays with the same richness as does moving up the G string. Unfortunately (for me) when I gave my granddaughter the choice of any of my violins for her own (after about 8 years of lessons) that is the violin she chose.

And of course - we do what we can to play what we want.
I have long fingers!

September 9, 2018, 12:41 PM · Thanks for all your thoughts.
It is nice to start such a beautiful piece. I will enjoy to read Szigeti on the Violin.
Hopefully I can do a bit of shifting.... we will see. I will try to negotiate 2nd position :-)
September 9, 2018, 2:04 PM · Bach is much more beautiful and true to the original spirit in the low positions.

Shifts, if there are there at all, should certainly not be heard.
If you are smart about your fingering, you’ll almost never need to go any further than the 3rd position.

Edited: September 9, 2018, 6:26 PM · Bach more beautiful and true in low positions? If you did any research on how Baroque-era violinists played, you'd know this is not true.
Anyways. I personally really dislike Enescu's fingerings for the Bach S&Ps. I prefer the Galamian edition.
September 9, 2018, 9:18 PM · Instead of thinking of shifts, I would encourage you to think of extensions.

When I started playing the Bach solos chin off as a baroque violinist, it led me to do use extensions and shift by half steps, and in some cases like the end of the B minor corrente double where I never found a good shifting fingering at a presto tempo jumping from first to third position, the solution came when I center my hand on 2nd position-ish, and afterwards I can get a 3rd position high D with four finger extended and within a beat extend back for first position. This is something I find tremendously useful that can be applied to modern playing as well.

It's always fun to contemplate how many violinists in the early 1700s played without their chins touching the violin most of the time.

September 9, 2018, 9:43 PM · Szeryng's edition is solid, for anyone looking for fingerings/bowings.
Edited: September 9, 2018, 10:40 PM · I think utilizing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd positions are all valid and should be considered. Simply staying in first position presents problems both technical and musical.

I also feel that if a student is considered ready for Bach, they must not simply be presented a fingering, whether Szigeti, or the teacher's.. They should be encouraged to figure it out first. It doesn't mean you let them go with whatever they come up with because often it's not very good. It's all too easy to hand them fingerings, but this is a missed opportunity for exploration and discussion.

Many of the first musical decisions that are made are ones involving fingerings and bowings. Students at this level need to learn--eventually--to think for themselves.

Violin students aren't simply learning how to play the violin. They are also learning how to make decisions.

September 10, 2018, 4:04 AM · I did do my research.

Please provide scholarly proof that players of the time preferred to play in 4-5-6th positions over 1-2-3rd and I’ll shut up

September 10, 2018, 8:44 AM · The way I have always thought about Bach is that it should have the SOUND of first position. That doesn't mean you always stay there, but you should avoid positions higher than about 4th on the lower strings because the color is just too different. There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, the bariolage in the Prelude of Partita 3 obviously requires higher positions, and in some of the slow movements it is nice to use the color of third or fourth position in some places.

As for the Allemande, I was just looking at my son's fingerings and he does quite a bit of shifting. Starts in 3rd, 2nd in m. 3, 3rd to 1st to 2nd in m. 5, 3rd in m. 6, some 2nd in m. 8, some 3rd in m. 9, 2nd to 1st to 3rd in m. 11, starts in 2nd in m.12, some 2nd in m. 13, and some 3rd in m. 14. That's just the first half, but quite a lot of not first position!

Rachel Barton Pine just came out with a new edition of the Bach S&Ps...I've only looked at it once, but she has the same teacher heritage as my son, and is heavily focused on period style. I would check out her edition -- it's a nice blend of historically informed, practical, and stylistic fingering. My son uses the Szeryng, but we do change some of the fingerings.

Edited: September 10, 2018, 9:04 AM · "Hopefully I can do a bit of shifting.... we will see. I will try to negotiate 2nd position :-)"

Sorry, I just noticed the statement. Just my opinion, but if you aren't fully comfortable in 2nd position, I don't think this piece is appropriate.
If you go back to older editions of all kinds of music, it becomes obvious that many violinists, even world-famous virtuosi, were not comfortable straying outside of 1st and 3rd positions. I generally start students on 2nd position after they are reasonably comfortable in 3rd.

I think there may be valid differences in fingerings between a baroque violin with all gut strings and a modern violin. Back-and-forth string crossings on a modern violin may end up sounding unmusical and, frankly, "studentish."

The real issue in the Allemande is the phrasing. In the beginning, it's not easy to know what to make of this run-on, perpetual motion movement. Whatever you do, you have to bring out the phrasing. Fingering can either help the clarity of the phrasing, or get in the way.

Edited: September 10, 2018, 11:59 AM · Of course I have no business playing Bach, as I am a fiddler originally (classically-trained in composition and piano), but I am deep into it, and am mystified why most people start the Allemande in third position. It seems obvious to me that it's a first-position passage, as is the beginning of the second part.

"Back-and-forth string crossings on a modern violin may end up sounding unmusical and, frankly, 'studentish.'"

That's one area in which experience in fiddling (especially Irish) can help. There is no problem doing such things on a modern violin--you just have to practice it like anything else...

September 10, 2018, 1:57 PM · paul: two problems with starting in the allemande in first position. First, the string crossing between Bb and C# will be going back and forth over two strings, which will sound bumpy and non-legato, and is a lot of unnecessary effort to smooth out when you can finger it so that it's over one string. Second, doing it in first position means that you're crossing over to the A string for the B flat (and possibly the open A). The A is a much brighter tone color generally than the D or the G, and this disrupts the line. Keeping the string crossings to more musical places avoids these color shifts and helps the violinist to phrase more clearly.
September 10, 2018, 2:40 PM · The original music does not indicate legato in that first complete measure (except in the three 1/16ths following the C#), and the string crossing from G on the D string to the open A doesn't disrupt anything. See--now this may be a fiddler thing--but I have no problem getting the C# and getting back to the Bb on the A string. String changes can be lovely and smooth, or uplifting and danceable. Here, given the bowings Bach wrote, I don't see any reason to think that he didn't want a little leap to the C# and off of it. I don't see why I ought to fear the nice little bounce there that Bach obviously intended--I would say that this is precisely the "musical place" for a string crossing. I think you folks should play more traditional fiddle music to understand how to play dance music. Observe Irish fiddle master Kevin Burke if you want to understand how to do these string crossings, IMO.
September 10, 2018, 2:45 PM · ' Irene Chen
September 10, 2018, 1:57 PM · paul: two problems with starting in the allemande in first position. First, the string crossing between Bb and C# will be going back and forth over two strings, which will sound bumpy and non-legato'
'avoids these color shifts'

It's not meant to be legato-- look at how it is articulated (where the slurs are placed). Bach should not be played as a legato-ed mush. His music is full of wonderful and dramatic contrasts and colors-- please don't play an ironed-out Bach!

September 10, 2018, 3:06 PM · One detail of my fingering philosophy in the Bach: the triplets. When string crossing occur during a slurred triplet, it sounds awkward to me. As I said, "studentish," as if someone were taking the easy way out.

I don't feel that starting in first position is effective. However, I'll end with this:
My fingerings have changed over the years. They were seldom set in stone. I encourage anyone playing Bach to consider, reconsider, and realize that whatever they do now may be subject to change in 10 or 20 years. There have been many fingerings I use for years for which I suddenly asked myself "why the hell have I been playing it like that?"

Edited: September 10, 2018, 3:28 PM · Can anyone point to a performance where the Allemande is played in first position? I'd love to hear it.

Paul Smith: Allemande is a calm, serious dance, not a jig, Bach didn't write these to be danced to, and there is no reason at all to believe that a Baroque player wouldn't be facile in 2nd or 3rd position.

I agree with Irene, the change in tone color from g to a string would be jarring. It would also emphasize the c# more than the third beat ought to be emphasized. And I agree with Scott. If the OP can't play in second and third position, this is as good a time as any to start.

OP: I learned the Galamian fingerings- I think they are the best for the purposes of learning, but I've strayed from them over the years. Figuring out the internal logic of a passage and how it needs to be played to get the sound you want is the fun of Bach! Look for the what and why of the fingerings of different editors. You'll learn so much. Good luck and have fun!

Edited to add: Unless you are going to go full Baroque, including baroque bow, gut strings, baroque violin, baroque technique, and a degree in baroque musicology, I wouldn't worry too much about reproducing the music exactly as Bach would have heard it (which we don't know anyway). To quote Fleetwood Mac: It's only right that you should/Play the way you feel it/But listen carefully to the sound

Edited: September 10, 2018, 4:40 PM · @Scott--Yes, good point. If I see an interesting fingering that someone does or I recognize another viable option, I will experiment with it, and I do change things (In fact I just did this in a section of the mighty Chaconne). And I did experiment with the standard start in 3rd position here, but at least at this point, the first-position start seems more like dance music to me, and I suspect that is how it was originally done.

@Julie. You contradict yourself here a bit. It wasn't written to dance to, so don't concern yourself with dance music (at all?), except that it's a "calm, serious dance," but we shouldn't concern ourselves with how Bach heard it unless we want to jump through all those hoops (how about powdered wigs, and bathing once a year?)? And somehow we ought not to emphasize the C# in that first complete measure--how do you know? And how does that not make this "calm, serious"? The melody does that whether or not you intend it, actually--Bach uses that melody device a LOT throughout his oeuvre and the seventh leap emphasizes that low C# even if you play it on a harpsichord (no dynamics)--check out Bach's Dm Invention #4. If you have trouble making the jump from the g to the a musical, you need to work on your bowing. Of course, an 18th-c violinist would be able to play in 2nd and 3rd position (and beyond, if you want to do all of the partita), but I do in fact play this movement in first position until the 14th complete measure. I guess I need to record this eventually, because...uh, seems to work for me.

September 10, 2018, 4:13 PM · Show me where they hop on the 3rd beat:

Also, Bach's S&P were never used as dance music.

Edited: September 10, 2018, 5:24 PM · Nearly ALL baroque-era music references dance music, except when it was references opera or Palestrina/Gabrieli, et al. When I play Irish music in a session, rarely are people dancing; it is dance music for listening. Though it is danceable, and since I play for dancing also, I can say with confidence that I play the music similarly in both contexts, but I can take more liberties in the session. As with Bach. And while someone might honk on that C# and break the flow of the music, it just isn't that hard to make it musical, which of course is what Bach had in mind.
Edited: September 10, 2018, 5:06 PM · Your fingering depends on two things: First your vision of the piece. How do you want it to sound? Second: your abilities: Safe and in tune is better than a better sounding version where the intonation is shaky. Also your individual features (small hands etc.) figure into this. Many of the most famous violinists have/had above average size hands and their fingerings are not necessarily optimal for the rest of us.

I once had to play the solo in a Handel concerto grosso. There was a passage that sounded unsatisfactory with the standard fingering in 3rd position (4th finger vibrato problem). So I practiced it in fourth. I had to be talked out of it because my intonation was off most of the time in rehearsal though at home I did it well enough when practicing. I had to accept the less satifying sound.

September 10, 2018, 5:04 PM · I think if you are new to 2nd and 3rd position, the Allemande will teach you a lot! But I would support that with some studies from Wohlhardt and Dont and Kayser which move around between 1st 2nd and 3rd positions. There are a lot of them but by paging through a book of studies you can find the ones that emphasize that issue in a few minutes.
September 10, 2018, 9:46 PM · "but I do in fact play this movement in first position until the 14th complete measure. I guess I need to record this eventually, because...uh, seems to work for me."

Yeah, I'd like to hear it.

Edited: September 10, 2018, 11:06 PM · You're going to have to wait until I get a better handle on the Sarabande--that thing is hard! IMO, probably have it nailed, but I am still getting that one where I want it. I had to sit down with the Allemande after our conversation, and I realize I slip into a little half-position work in the 2nd and 7th measures, but yeah...I guess it's shocking, but playing most of it in first position seems reasonable to me.

I'm sure you'd be horrified with some of what I do here in this partita. I keep finding places where Bach seemed to leave you no choice but to use your thumb on A (or G# in one spot), but the standard trick is to bounce your first finger over--there are several spots in the Chaconne where I don't buy that solution--the first-inversion F chord in m.118 of the Chaconne was the moment that opened that door. Bouncing the first finger doesn't really deliver that, IMO. There are several places I have identified since. Coming from my training on harpsichord, I recognize that Bach really elevated the use of the thumb in keyboard music, and I think he may have also gone there in his violin music. And seriously, Julie, I'm a fiddler. You can ignore me. If I ever get this whole partita to a point where I would be willing to let strangers critique it, I'll put it up.

September 11, 2018, 1:24 AM · Thank you all for this interesting discussion.
I am fine with 2nd, 3rd and higher positions. My hands are really small therefore higher positions are more comfortable.
But my teacher prefers to have the Allemande played in lower positions where possible.
I will sit down and take her input and your input into consideration and try to make a suggestion for a fingering. Then I can talk it through with my teacher during our next lesson.
From my perspective this discussion, the different thoughts and approaches to express the music, for me to try different ways, to listen to the sound those approaches lead to, all those aspects are a valuable learning experience.
Thanks a lot
September 11, 2018, 6:34 AM · Paul, I agree that the left thumb comes into use at times in Bach. Much more satisfying. Don't knock it til you've tried it.
September 11, 2018, 7:28 AM · I start the Allemanda with open D and quickly shift up to third to keep that line on D.

It is easier to play the G-string D with a 2 than a 4, but obviously not required.

September 11, 2018, 5:22 PM · I start in 3rd position and--gasp!--don't bother to play the open string unison. Same for the second section. Why not? I just don't. Yes, I know Bach wrote it. Whatevs.

Sue me.

September 11, 2018, 5:45 PM · I start in the 3rd position so I can vibrate on the long D and long E with the second finger.
September 11, 2018, 7:35 PM · I play the D in 6th position using my pinky toe, but I hum a "D" softly to get the proper resonance.

*Any interested in Pinky Toe strengthening exercises should look at Barislav Sabashnikovsky's book on the subject.

All Barislav Sabashnikovsky-ing aside, if you're going to advise the use of a non standard (and frankly bizarre) fingering, I'm going to insist that you back that up with a recording. Especially when you give an uninformed, yet condescending, lecture on dance music. I don't need the entire partita, just the first few bars. Thx. :)

September 11, 2018, 10:16 PM · Julie, if you really want to hear what the piece sounds like in first position, why don't you play it in first position yourself? How about we make a pact: you play the opening in first position, Paul and I will play it in second position and we will compare our impressions afterwards?

Similarly, regarding use of the left thumb, as I said above 'don't knock it til you've tried it'. One other example of where the thumb is useful would be the first chord of measure 108, Sonata II Fuga. There are others.

Your sarcastic response (funny though it undoubtedly is) makes me have to wonder if you generally feel threatened by new ideas and automatically dismiss them instead of giving them a fair consideration.

As Paul mentioned above, Bach was innovative when it came to the use of the thumb in keyboard music. Here is a quote from CPE Bach's 'Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard': 'he [JS Bach] was obliged to devise a far more comprehensive fingering and especially to enlarge the role of the thumbs' (translation by William J. Mitchell).

September 11, 2018, 10:46 PM · "I start in 3rd position and--gasp!--don't bother to play the open string unison. Same for the second section. Why not? I just don't. Yes, I know Bach wrote it. Whatevs."

Haha I definitely won't sue anyone over fingerings, but since those unison Ds are such an integral color feature and design (the Allemands starts with them and the Ciaconna ends with them), not doing them is a pity.

Hi Julie — thumb fingerings appear in the Baroque repertoire, (e.g. Leclair Op. 1 calls for la pouce, or thumb). As with Bach, he had such a comprehensive understanding of the violin, I will not be surprised if he might had utilized the thumb. That being said I have so far found no direct sources that indicate Bach used the thumb, although personally I have found chords (incidentally all in the D minor partita) where the thumb is a good possibility, although I don't use them myself.

September 11, 2018, 11:05 PM · I've never heard about thumb fingering before but that's pretty cool!
September 11, 2018, 11:40 PM · Don't turn this around on me!

If you guys are going to toss out all this oddball stuff, then I'm afraid I must request that you back it up with a recording of you executing said technique. Put up or shut up, Gentlemen...

September 12, 2018, 3:55 AM · Julie, here’s the link to a great performance of the Partita, where the violinist also happens to start the Allemande in first position:

Hope you enjoy it!

September 12, 2018, 8:50 AM · Roman, I'm not sure how you know she is in first position? No guarantee that a baroque violinist will use first. Here is Kuijken playing it in second (no one tell Julie about this, she will feel vindicated):

September 12, 2018, 12:54 PM · I know personally that Monica Huggett, Sigiswald Kuijken, and Elizabeth Blumenstock starts on second position. These wonderful violinists have quite different views regarding chin on or chin off, but that particularly fingering works for them. And for me too. :)

I would also say a good fingering is also one that works for you on stage.

Thumb fingering was quite likely a crossover technique from lute players. Or if we look two centuries ago from Bach in the Renaissance, vielles often had an extra sympathetic string hanging out on the left side of the instrument that you can pluck with your left thumb. Thumb fingering doesn't work for me for violin (so far), but if it works for you, why not.

September 12, 2018, 3:12 PM · Guglielmus, you can clearly tell she reaches A string on that first run
September 12, 2018, 3:52 PM · Here's a live video of RP showing that she does play the part at the beginning in 1st position, but goes into 2nd a couple of bars later:

I like her performance, but it's certainly not a modern one. She's got a baroque setup, so if you're trying to copy her using your modern setup, personally I think that could be making things harder than it should be. I was messing with it this morning and had a hard time making those string crossings sound like I wanted with my regular bow, but it was fine with my baroque bow.

I learned the beginning in 3rd position (Galamian fingerings), but now play it in 2nd position- I don't like the open a and I don't like the change in color when going to the a string. Like Scott, I don't double the d in the beginning because my violin has a strong bass already and it's just too much.

When I teach this piece to students, I require them play it with the Galamian fingerings because his is a great piece for learning how to move around between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd positions. It's hard to learn how to do that through avoidance. If they are using this for some sort of audition, I think it would be disappointing to the judges if they didn't play it in some position.

OP- play it however you want to play it, but make sure that your choices are based on musicality and appropriateness rather than fear of getting out of first position. If you can have a stable pitch in 1st position, you can do it in any position!

One final thought: Anyone thought about this first bit Sul G?

September 12, 2018, 10:46 PM · A Flesch edition has that first scale sul G, which makes it sound like Tchaikovsky, or a student desperately trying to win the audition.
September 13, 2018, 4:00 AM · Joel, that’s the funniest thing I’ve read today!

And actually, I think the fear of first positions is tied to the fear of not sounding flashy enough. The desire to constantly and heavily vibrate every note, the desire to go high up the strings to get a ‘fuller sound’, that’s all ways to cover insecurities about not being about to beautifully play in first position without vibrato.

September 17, 2018, 6:28 AM · Personally I'm in the mainly-first-position school of thought.

It makes no sense to me to start off the bass line on the D string and the melody on the G string. And generally, the voicing makes very good sense if you stick in just first position with the occasional extension.

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