Opening chord in Bach's Partita II Sarabande

November 11, 2018, 10:46 PM · I'm a fiddler (with lots of training and professional experience in other areas of music), teaching himself the Bach solo Sonatas & Partitas. I say that because I want to explain my ignorance about "the way things are done," but I am very much enjoying figuring these masterpieces out. Sometimes, though, I encounter something that completely confuses me--not what Bach wrote (he seems to me to have had a handle on just about everything), but how violinists commonly deal with this music.

I have been working on Partita II for awhile, and I have just discovered that the way Bach wrote the first chord of the Sarabande is not at all how most players do it. He clearly indicates a quadruple stop, and a similar chord comes up later in the Chaconne, except with the F# at the top. It has been hard to get my fourth finger to hit that D-A fifth in the bass, but like everything else in this music, my experience has been to keep at it, build up strength and focus, and then whatever it is eventually falls into place. It's hard but not at all impossible. I really felt like I was getting a good sound on it this last week, and decided to go onto YouTube and see how everyone else does it.

While Sigiswald Kuijken and a person at her senior recital (it appeared) do what I do--play the chord Bach wrote--EVERYONE else (seriously--Perlman, Mutter, Kitchen, Heifetz, Vengerov, Podger, Chen, Fisher...) plays the opening by playing the open D and A strings, followed by a D-F double-stop on the A and E strings--it's like two 1/8th-note double stops and, um, kind-of throws the part-writing out the window. I assume that most if not all of these great players could play the quadruple stop. Why don't they? I figured somebody here might have an insight for me...

Replies (18)

Edited: November 12, 2018, 4:17 PM · If you used an "Incredibow*" or similarly arched bow you could play the quadruple stop.

But you are right, virtually everyone using a Tourte or post-Tourte bow ("Modern bow") plays it the way you hear and see it. The bow hair on a modern bow doesn't bend enough to do it any other way (well maybe a triple and a loner) - or a "fiddler bridge."


November 11, 2018, 11:40 PM · Well, I've got a nice modern bow, and no, you don't get the notes all at once on any quadruple stop (plenty of those throughout the Bach S & Ps!), but you can roll the bow and get all the notes. These people all play quadruple stops in this way, but on this chord in this particular movement, they don't even finger all the notes, but rewrite the opening by playing the open strings and then the D-F double stop...mysterious...
November 12, 2018, 12:10 AM · Playing open D allows you to sustain the bass note a little longer, anyway...
November 12, 2018, 12:21 AM · There was an interview Andrew Manze did years ago about this where he came down on the 4th finger side. If you're hell bent on this, you could try it with 3-2-1 instead of 4-2-1. I'd think it's easier with a baroque violin and bow.

There are, however, some chords that Bach wrote- some in this Sarabande- that are impossible to play exactly as written, so clearly Bach intended some flexibility. Go with what sounds good to your ear rather than trying to live up to some idealized version of 'what Bach would have wanted' (which we can't know anyway).

November 12, 2018, 2:08 AM · There's no evidence that Bach meant "play all 4 notes at once" when writing a 4-note chord. It's just as impossible with Baroque-style violins and bows as it is modern ones! The chords would have been 'rolled', somewhat like they are on a harpsichord.

In this particular case, a 2-2 split (or even treating the two midle notes as grace-notes between the D and the F) helps you achieve a dance-like articulation and voicing., in my view anyway!

November 12, 2018, 9:47 AM · IMHO, one really should study Bach S&P with a teacher who could discuss this and many other issues with the student.
Edited: November 12, 2018, 11:57 AM · Julie,
I will try using my third finger on the D-A fifth today--that's a good idea, thanks. I do something like that on the B-D-F# triple stop in m.181 of the Chaconne--I finger that 4-2-1. My third finger has a far better spread than my fourth! I don't find any unplayable chords in the piece or in any other of the S & Ps, though. Maybe you are referring to the A-a-d-f. You will probably yell at me, but... you can reach around with your thumb for the low A on the G string. When you play through the entire partita, this use of the thumb is the first instance where it's useful, and since you have plenty of time to get there, it is a bit of a warmup for the several times in the Chaconne you have to do it more quickly (again, if you want to play the chord he wrote, which is my agenda). I know you want to see video, and when I like what I have enough to show it, I will do so. Promise.

I do have a baroque bow also, and I have another violin that needs some work, and I will get it repaired and set up with gut strings to see what this is all like with original gear. I agree that with a baroque bow, quadruple stops are still rolled, and even 18th-c. writers talk about this, so it is definitely how they did it as well. It does make triple-stops easier to hit all at once, though.

I'm probably not the average student tackling these. Without going too far into appeal-to-authority, I have played traditional Irish and American fiddle music (the former preserves various aspects of baroque performance practice) professionally for over 40 years. I have BA and Masters' degrees in composition, and am classically trained on piano and harpsichord. I taught world music and music theory for a couple of decades at a major university. And of course, it seems that studying with a teacher would likely involve someone telling me not to play what Bach wrote. I wanted to work on this music and solve the problems and see what I could come up with--this really is a creative project, a bit of research to see if it could be done. And it can. That's how the thumb trick came about--and then I found out that I am not the first to consider it. My stealth reason for the project is that I wanted more facility up the neck for improvisation and that benefit has already gotten into my playing (I've been at these for several years now).

To me it seems obvious that Bach's understanding of the violin was profound, and I am certain that the S & Ps were something he wrote for himself. I think that concluding that he didn't mean what he wrote because it's hard to do is dubious. If he didn't want the A in that chord and wanted the D to ring, he would have written D-d-f (he wrote that triple-stop several other places in that Partita). If he had wanted the open D-A, followed by the d-f double-stop... he would have written that. He clearly thought that the chord was playable as written though, yes, you would have to roll through it, as was common practice in his time.

November 12, 2018, 2:23 PM · Sounds like you are in a better position to make your own informed musical judgement than someone who thinks it's always split 2-2 because their teacher said so and they know because their teacher told them. ;)

As you probably know the tradition of performing these sonatas essentially starts with Joseph Joachim, who 'rediscovered' them after a long period... so the 'tradition' comes with a lot of mid-19thC assumptions, including the bah-wah at the beginning of the Sarabande!

November 12, 2018, 3:53 PM · Playing all four notes as one chord sounds too loud and harsh.
But be our guest if that's what you want....
November 12, 2018, 5:40 PM · Nobody does all 4 strings at once. 3 strings at once is possible if you want it to sound noisy, loud and accented. So there are two options; break 3 and 4 chords 2+2, or, what the authentic baroque practice people do, roll the chord into the top note. For that specific opening chord you could also try open D + third finger D, followed by open A + first finger F (!). For a best recording with modern equipment; Nathan Milstein. I also find the guitar or lute recordings to be very successful, and they cannot sustain their notes. This topic is discussed in the out-of-print Sol Babitz edition of the Bach S & P.
November 12, 2018, 6:01 PM · Hi, that's a great question!

There are also other places in the D minor partita that requires one finger (4th finger) stopping G and D strings for D and A. I like covering G and D string so the way I arpeggiate the chord is not dictated by the left hand situation.

One useful tip (works regardless of baroque or modern bow) is that the chords and multiple stops in string writing is meant to be arpeggiate, emulating a lute or harpischord. Can be very close together or spread out, but it's not physically possible to play all four notes at once, baroque or modern.

As Bartold Kuijken keeps reminding us, The Notation is Not the Music. :)

November 12, 2018, 6:28 PM · This is an interesting debate. But it is also too theoretical for my taste. And at the end just not that important. Everyone should feel free to do as they think best. And at any rate this music is not primarily about violin playing.

I will admit that I can play the Sarabande but only by "cheating" on this chord. If I tried to play a fifth with my pinky, especially on the G and D, it would be a) flat and b) not a fifth. It is even possible that my finger is too small to cover both strings; I have never tried. Even so I think the fact that the D (the base note of the chord after all) rings on when played on the open D is quite important and a fairly strong argument for "cheating".

I agree that Bach understood the violin well, and according to Philipp Emanuel he played it well (P. E. wrote about the violin/harpsichord sonatas though, not the solo works). But if if so he would also have been able to figure out the "cheating" fingering. There is no way to know if he would have used it or not.

November 12, 2018, 6:44 PM · I tried Julie's idea about fingering the D and A on the G and D strings with my third finger. The bottom three notes sounded well, but I could not make the stretch between the second-finger d on the A string and the first-finger f on the E string. So back to my previous fingering, I am rolling the chord--of course--and I am getting the low D to ring for the quarter note duration, and I linger on the d-f at the end. I am not really in doubt that what I'm doing works--for me it's the way to go, but I have a better understanding of why most other players choose the other fingering--thanks!
November 12, 2018, 9:36 PM · I play the opening as two double stops. But I like the roll that the classical guitarist uses. It’s a nice way of introducing the movement.
November 13, 2018, 8:21 AM · I hear this as an evocation of guitar or lute music. So it would be a rolled chord (strummed, sort of), not played all at once or 2-2.

In that case, it can be executed quite well with two open strings and then 3 and 1. You could get the same effect with 4-4-3-1, but the bottom strings won't ring as well even if they were precisely in tune.

November 13, 2018, 9:27 AM · I've been listening to it obsessively recently, and can report that every recording I've heard has rolled the quad stops. I can't imagine them any other way, really.
November 13, 2018, 9:50 AM · My pet hate is the up&down scrunches in the Chaconne when the melody is in a lower voice: it sounds like a stroppy fox-terrier snapping at my ankle!
Everyone "modern" violinist I've heard does this, except Joseph Suk who breaks the chords downwards. Which is recommended by certain HIPsters..
November 14, 2018, 10:54 PM · This is the first variation, right (where the melody is in the next-to-the-lowest voice)? I think those are pretty clearly down-bows, but starting at the high note (breaking "downwards"). At first mine sounded like dogs barking (good analogy!), but as time goes by, I am getting the low note to be pretty light, while letting the "tenor" part carry on. It is as though I don't have to worry about sounding it, it just comes out anyway. As a composer, that section is among my favorites because Bach indicates what is necessary without giving you much information. That aspect of his writing is what most amazes me.

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