What "level" should someone be to attempt to play the Bach Sonatas and Partitas?

January 29, 2019, 5:57 PM · Just wondering what a person that can play some of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas past repertoire or experience should be.

Replies (34)

January 29, 2019, 6:04 PM · There's a lot of stuff you'll miss in terms of musicality if you're struggling really hard to put the notes together. I think that's why a lot of teachers wait until approximately the Suzuki Book 6 level to introduce the easiest couple of movements, among which are probably the E Major Gigue and the D Minor Allemande. The "Double" movements in the B minor Partita could be reasonable substitutes for Kayser studies if you just want something different. For a lot of people these pieces are the subject of considerable idolatry and the idea that someone might practice or perform one of the movements without it being utterly perfect is anathema to them. I do not adhere to this philosophy personally. But I have experienced it among my fellow v-commers.
January 29, 2019, 6:06 PM · That depends entirely on which particular sonata, partita, or movement from the same you are intending to play.

The Allemande from the d minor Partita is accessible to the advanced intermediate player. The Chaconne from the same partita is as difficult as anything in the repertoire and should only be attempted by the most advanced players. The E Major Preludio is harder than the Allemande but easier than the fugues. Etc.

January 29, 2019, 6:13 PM · Thanks for the responses. To be specific, what about Bach Sonata No. 1
January 29, 2019, 6:22 PM · I find the first sonata more difficult than any of the partitas (excepting the Chaconne). But the movements are not all of equal difficulty.
January 29, 2019, 6:29 PM · Then to be even more specific, what about the 1st movement of the Bach Sonata No 1? I'm thinking about practicing it and trying to play it. The background of my solos is basically the Bruch concerto 1st mvt and currently the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole 1st mvt, which I am kind of struggling on the hard parts.
January 29, 2019, 6:37 PM · If you haven't played any solo Bach before, I strongly recommend you start with the d minor Partita (minus the Chaconne). The Adagio from the first sonata demands a deep musicality as well as excellent bow control. And far too many students make a mess of the rhythm.
Edited: January 29, 2019, 6:42 PM · Do you want to learn the notes or play musically? Plenty of people do the former happily without any awareness of the latter.
January 29, 2019, 6:48 PM · Thanks for the recommendation Mary. Edward, I would probably learn the notes first and then would attempt to play it musically.
January 29, 2019, 6:50 PM · Also what movement should I attempt at for the d minor Partita
January 29, 2019, 6:52 PM · Start with the Allemande.
January 29, 2019, 7:02 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen on this - very strongly.

To get some idea of musical interpretation you might look at chapter 18 of the book "Szigeti on the Violin." He has marked up the Allemande of the 2nd Partita to give some idea of the freedoms Flesch suggested. These can be informative to your future with Bach solo instrument music. Used copies of the Dover paper-back edition can be obtained very inexpensively from Amazon. I can email you the 3 pages of chapter 18 if that works for you.

January 29, 2019, 7:09 PM · Also, the Enescu notations on Bach are available at imslp.org.

http://ks.imslp.net/files/imglnks/usimg/6/6a/IMSLP371396-PMLP244087-bach-partita2.pdf

January 29, 2019, 7:14 PM · My son's teacher starts them pretty early on Partita 3 - around Kabalevsky level and sometimes even a little earlier. They don't necessarily play all the movements at tempo, but they can play the notes. After that they usually do Partita 2 and then Sonata 1. My son is on Sonata 1 right now, and he has played these full concertos (among other things): Mozart 4, Mozart 5, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Lalo, and Wieniawski. That might give you an idea of the level. My son is a little behind on Bach comparatively, though, because he is young (13) and switched teachers in the middle of learning the Partitas.
January 29, 2019, 7:17 PM · That's interesting; once you take Chaconne out of the equation, the first four movements of the 2nd partita are easier than almost all the movements of the 3rd partita with the exception of the Gigue and possibly Gavotte en Rondeau.
Edited: January 29, 2019, 10:17 PM · I agree entirely with Mary Ellen. However, why anyone would need to have studied half a dozen romantic concertos before doing the Bach D Minor Allemande is something I find mysterious. Sure there are musical depths to be plumbed, but that's true of Mendelssohn and Mozart too, no? We're talking about a piece at a moderate tempo that doesn't go beyond third position, has only a few trivial double stops, and no parlor tricks (e.g. left hand pizz).
Edited: January 30, 2019, 12:40 AM · As a kid, I learned the E major partita concurrently with the Mozart G major concerto.
January 30, 2019, 1:33 AM · Most people do the D minor partita, starting with the Allemande (and minus the Chaconne), somewhere in the late-intermediate stage of playing, I think. And then the E major partita. It's all in the lower positions, and it's a different sort of technique, so no reason to wait beyond that point.
January 30, 2019, 4:02 AM · About grade 8, I'd say.

ABRSM set the first movement of sonata 1 as a grade 8 exam piece.
And I found this list online somewhere, but didn't record the source, as it's not particularly serious information.
In order of difficulty: -
Concerto in E Major BWV 1042 (Suzuki Book VIII)
Partita in E-Major, BWV 1006
Partita in D-minor, BWV 1004 without the Chaconne
Sonata in G-minor, BWV 1001 (the first movement is a grade 8 piece)
Partita in B-minor, BWV 1002
Sonata in A-minor, BWV 1003
Chaconne from Partita in D-minor, BWV 1004
Sonata in C-Major, BWV 1005

January 30, 2019, 5:42 AM · Interesting putting the C major above Chaconne in difficulty. I haven't played either so I'm not judging, but it seems to be a very unusual statement.
January 30, 2019, 8:47 AM · I'm guessing that it's because of the Fugue, but it's a little odd in that case to not have the Fugue split out from the rest of the C-major sonata.
January 30, 2019, 9:38 AM · Bach movements with double stops should be left alone until the student has significant training on double stops, meaning completion of either Polo or Trott. Bach should not be the introduction to double stops.

Even with that experience, one would still spend significant time tuning the chords and working on sound quality.

I'm not sure how one can judge the C major fugue against the Chaconne. They are both long, with lots of double-stops. In some ways, I find the Fugue harder--the way much of it is written, it's almost impossible to make it sound like anything other than chopping wood. And there are longer lines of counterpoint under slurs.

January 30, 2019, 10:48 AM · As I said, I don't consider the list to be serious. It's just a guide. When I was a kid I was happy to hammer out the opening pages of Grieg's or Tchaikovsky's piano concertos long before I was competent to do so. When I'm about grade 8 standard on the fiddle, I'll tackle the Bach in whatever order suits, but I'll probably start with BWV1001. It's not a bad place to start.
January 30, 2019, 11:05 AM · I think there is a standard answer for this type of questions: You are allowed to attempt any music of your choice so long as you do it for your own enjoyment. You might not do much for your progress as a violinist if you pick "hard" repertoire. But you certainly can learn about the music you are working on, you can encounter it more intimately than by listening to recordings or even live performances.

However if you plan to expose other people to your attempts you need to apply some judgement.

January 30, 2019, 11:10 AM · Agree with Scott and Mary Ellen. There are three levels of difficulty with the Bach S & P set; Single-note movements, double-stop movements, and then the fugues and Chaconne. Double-stops are three times harder to tune than single notes. I think it is important to learn the high positions before starting double-stops. I started the Bach set too early, and my high notes are still unreliable.
January 30, 2019, 11:22 AM · But I would also remind people that age matters. If you are playing Kabalevsky or Mozart at age 9/10 you might have a much easier time with Partita 3 than Partita 2, because with the exception of the Loure, the musicality of Partita 3 is simpler. My son's teacher told me her first teacher tried to teach her Sonata 1 first movement at age 7/8. It was a huge struggle, even though she had the technical proficiency, because of a lack of musical (and rhythmic) maturity.
January 30, 2019, 11:30 AM · In addition to the opening parts of the D minor, I think the B minor courante is doable, and I echo Albrecht's caveat: only try this at home (when no one else is around)!
January 30, 2019, 2:22 PM · "I'll tackle the Bach in whatever order suits, but I'll probably start with BWV1001. It's not a bad place to start."

If you want to maximize your success and minimize your frustration, BWV 1001 is a terrible place to start. Start with the d minor partita.

Edited: January 30, 2019, 3:28 PM · What should I do after Allemande?
Edited: January 30, 2019, 3:53 PM · Andrew wrote, "I'll tackle the Bach in whatever order suits, but I'll probably start with BWV1001. It's not a bad place to start."

A much better place to start would be BWV1008. The prelude. It goes like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa5yony2CeA

Scott wrote, "Bach should not be the introduction to double stops." That is true because often people start with the D-minor Sarabande, and some of the double stops in that movement are really wickedly hard to get in tune. I agree with doing Trott or Whistler books on double stops first. Or just scales in sixths and thirds, nice and slow.

Mark Wang wrote, "what should I do after Allemande?" If you mean the D Minor, next in line would be the E Major Gigue.

January 30, 2019, 4:31 PM · Or the d minor gigue, if you want to stay in the same partita.
January 30, 2019, 4:36 PM · My trajectory would probably to start with some Telemann solo fantasies and Bach cello suites transposed for violin, and then tackle some movements of Bach D minor partita (minus ciacconna), then E major partita, and then G minor adagio and fuga. Anyway, refer to your teacher!
January 30, 2019, 5:45 PM · The E-major Gigue was an alternative to the usual "Study" in the Associated Board Grade VII I took in the 1950s (The accompanying pieces were 1st movement of Mozart III and Beethoven C-minor slow movement). Musically I think it is easier than the D-minor Allemande, which I find quite challenging in that aspect.
Edited: January 31, 2019, 3:31 AM · @Paul "A much better place to start would be BWV1008...prelude"

Ugh, I spent ages practising that on guitar, so I think I'd like to get the taste of that out of my mouth before I go over it again on fiddle. :-) But seriously, I'll bear it in mind.

I always hated Telemann on guitar. I don't know why. At the time I assumed they were keyboard transcriptions, but I like his music for strings. And I never had any objections to playing him on piano when I was a kid.

February 8, 2019, 8:46 AM · Bach is always played way too early. The only movements that could be taught a little earlier are the first 4 of the D minor and the prelude and Gigue of the E major. I feel the G minor's difficulty is wayyyy underrated. I've played the whole thing as well as some of the B minor, the entire E major and the entire D minor (yes the chaconne too) but I still feel the Fugue and Sicilliana are something else in terms of difficulty. First the intonation is almost impossible, and then its also extremely difficult to maintain that intonation while correctly voicing the fugue or getting that dance-like phrasing in the Sicilliana.

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