Bach 3rd sonata, Fugue in C major - detail

March 26, 2020, 4:24 PM · Hi to all.
I am gnawing away at the Fugue from 3rd sonata and I came to (at least) one almost unplayable bar. I am sure I am not the first violinist to be bewildered by this and surely I have heard masters pull it off...

Does anyone have any notion on how to approach bar 158 and it's first chord - A(G) A(D) C(A) C(E).

First fingering that comes to mind is just 1/4 through a broken chord (a shift between both double stops)

Second fingering is awkward as hell: A(1) A(3) C(2) C(4) and is extremely hard to pull even with flexible hands.

Any ideas?

Replies (35)

Edited: March 26, 2020, 4:39 PM · Yes, a famously tricky spot if you don't have extremely flexible hands!
I would suggest: 1424, so breaking the chord into 2+2, and only the 4th finger leaps from the D string to the E string. This way you get the best of both worlds from the 2 fingerings you mentioned above.
March 26, 2020, 5:06 PM · @james
A third atrocity. Lovely.
And the best part is... you need to reasonably nail all of them to see what’s the mot natural to your hand... Thanx for the tip.
Edited: March 27, 2020, 3:28 AM · There aren’t many options here for fingerings in this awkward spot. You could do James’ way or 1324, which is what I chose, because I felt it was easier to get to the top C (which is the melody note) quicker.
March 27, 2020, 10:16 AM · Sneak in the bottom 2 notes earlier than usual so you don't have to rush on the top 2.
It's a difficult movement, especially for its length. But the first movement is, in my opinion, probably the most difficult of them all to pull off successfully (and with some similar chords).
Edited: March 28, 2020, 11:47 AM · That spot, and that piece, are beyond my abilities, but, if you roll the chord instead of breaking it 2-2, then you delay the top C until after you leave the D string, you have a little time to set the top C, and you can also release the bottom A early. The baroque era fingerboard and string length was a little shorter. ... Looking at that again; If you precede that chord with a 3rd finger G#, a 1-3 octave A is not difficult, then give yourself a little time to move the 1st finger to the A string for a 1-4 octave C
March 27, 2020, 12:56 PM · It is true that the baroque era fingerboard was shorter. But people were also shorter and presumably their hands were smaller.
Edited: March 27, 2020, 8:09 PM · I always get yelled at when I suggest this, but it's the best solution--use your thumb. I think Bach intended this, since the problem turns up a bunch of times in the S&Ps, and I just don't buy the assumption that he could write so brilliantly for the violin and then... here's this thing that can't be played. Whenever you find a weird chord like this in Bach, and you can't play it using conventional fingering, notice if the lowest pitch is an A on the G string... Because throughout these pieces, I think that Bach clearly intended for you to use your thumb on the G string. So, I play this--Thumb on the G string for the low A, 3rd finger on the A on the D string, 1st finger on the C on the A string, and 4th finger on the C on the E string. Seriously, it works, once you get used to the odd thumb thing. Full disclosure (I guess)--I do have big hands. And yeah, this was a known performance practice in the baroque... by lutenists. Bach was a pioneer in innovative ways of using the thumb in keyboard music, too, BTW.
March 27, 2020, 4:31 PM · I have to try this thumb thing.
Sounds so deliciously sacrilegious! Can it even be done,...
March 27, 2020, 8:05 PM · Now, to be clear, I mean reaching around on the left side with the thumb. As with the mighty Chaconne--there's an A(on the G), A(on the D), C(on the A), F(on the E) quadruple-stop towards the end of the first arpeggio section. How do you play that? I've seen people bounce their first finger (because it is an arpeggio after all) between the G and E strings, but they lose the resonance of that low A. Thumb on the G string A, 4th finger on the next A, 2nd finger on the C, and 1st finger on the F. There are other spots, too, making me think that in using these chords that are unplayable otherwise, he was making a subtle case for the use of the thumb in this way.
March 27, 2020, 8:21 PM · I give Paul a thumbs-up here. Doubters, all we ask is that you just *try* it with an open mind and *then* get back to us what you think.
March 28, 2020, 7:18 AM · Well, sacrilegious or not, my violin teacher talked about this 45 years ago. He also believed that using the thumb in this way was one of Paganini's tricks.

I tried it and failed (I'll have to try again; I tried literally 45 years ago) due the inability of the joint in my thumb to bend far enough. But it is true that there are plenty of places in Bach's solo works where the trick could come in handy.

March 28, 2020, 2:36 PM · continued, - I have heard of that thumb trick. Bach had big hands. It is part of standard guitar technique, and they have frets to preserve intonation. But,- I have not seen it in any of my collection of violin technical books, so it doesn't look like it is part of any performance tradition. Does anyone have a reference from the literature?
March 28, 2020, 4:05 PM · Why must all 4 note chords be broken 2+2? How about 3+1 in that instance? The audience's ear will go to the top C... play the lower 3 notes in unison (1 4 2 fingering) and hit the C as its own note (with sizzle and electricity).

2+2 breaking gets pedantic and predicative - my two cents.

March 28, 2020, 4:13 PM · 'Why must all 4 note chords be broken 2+2? How about 3+1 in that instance? The audience's ear will go to the top C... play the lower 3 notes in unison (1 4 2 fingering) and hit the C as its own note (with sizzle and electricity).
2+2 breaking gets pedantic and predicative - my two cents.'

You have a good point about 3+1! I would venture to say however, that the more sophisticated option to both 2+2 and 3+1, is 3+2 and linger on 1. So that's GDA, stay on A and add E, then release A to let the melody note out.

March 28, 2020, 6:53 PM · @james
Yes, but 3+1 is killing it. Sure it makes it sound sizzly and all, but that’s forcing it. And most people that play this piece are forcing it almost all the time. Then it sounds like you are tying to emulate organ with violin.

No problem there, but I’d like for this piece to sound unforced and violinistic. I feel a special serenity when playing this unforced. Almost like being transported into a different world. I am affraid 3+1 in this chord transports me back to this world.

March 29, 2020, 12:46 PM · I'll agree with Tony. I don't want these chords to sound forced or crushed. We would be better off trying to copy the lute and guitar transcriptions of the Bach Violin and Cello solos, rather than try to sound like an organ. An interesting edition of the S.& P. set is the reprint of the Simrock 1st edition, edited by Sol Babitz. It has a discussion about rolling, arpegiating the chords.
March 31, 2020, 5:52 PM · it's a nasty chord - what I do is two fingered octaves, 1324 but bringing the elbow all the way under and the wrist in so I'm playing almost on the far sides of my fingers.
April 2, 2020, 8:51 PM · Just roll (or arpegiate) the chord 1-4-2-4 or 1-4-24. That is appropriate baroque performance practice and works just as well on a modern violin as a period instrument.
April 3, 2020, 9:25 AM · I think 1-4-2-4 is ok but not 1-4-24, because it is physically impossible for the 4th finger to move from the D string to the A string and play both top notes at the same time without creating a huge break in the chord. It would need to be 1-3-24, or 1-4-'2-24-4'.
April 3, 2020, 12:12 PM · What I meant by the 1-4-24 is better expressed 1-4-2-24. In other words by the time you have played 2 your 1 and 4 should have lifted then you add 4 to the 2. This will give you a very fast triplet (before the beat) followed by the double stop 24.

It is a personal musical decision how you arpegiate or break the chords. For instance in the Adagio of the A minor sonata, the first note I play 14-20 two notes and 2 notes, not arpegiated. This gives more sound so the following open G can sound quieter. Also the descending bass line A,G,F,E,D can gradually lose energy.

April 4, 2020, 7:23 AM · thanks Bruce as always for the authoritative answer!
April 4, 2020, 1:39 PM · Why not 3+1?
Here's the challenge with this movement: Eventually, the way it's written, it sounds like you're chopping wood. Playing a 3-note chord requires more forcefulness, and this is bound to make it sound even choppier.

Personally, I don't advocate for using the thumb, simply because it is doable with practice. This is true of many techniques that seem impossible at first: finger octaves, up-bow staccato, etc. Most of these seemingly-impossible techniques eventually yield to patient practice.

April 4, 2020, 2:18 PM · Hi Scott, the reason to use the thumb in places like this is not to employ a 'cheat', but because it is the most natural and musical approach. Please do give this technique a fair try before dismissing it!
Edited: April 4, 2020, 2:53 PM · And the other reason would be that there is good evidence for thumb use. First, Bach had large hands (they say that he had a huge span on the keyboard--beyond a tenth I think), and from my years of harpsichord training, it is common knowledge in that field that he expanded the use of the thumb in keyboard music. And then the other thing you have to consider is that Bach clearly knew how to write exquisitely for the violin. He is not sloppy. Ever. It makes no sense at all that he would write this fabulous music, perfectly suited for the instrument, and then there would be a few unplayable quadruple stops that start on a low A. Finally, we know that lutenists were doing the same thing.
April 4, 2020, 3:00 PM · "Playing a 3-note chord requires more forcefulness..."

The first thing you want to do before tackling chordal Bach is learn how to play chords over the fingerboard in pp, so that you have control over every chord, in particular because you don't want to play false accents on quadruple stops which occur on weak beats.

Edited: April 4, 2020, 5:13 PM · 'It makes no sense at all that he would write this fabulous music, perfectly suited for the instrument, and then there would be a few unplayable quadruple stops that start on a low A.'

Ok I think this is all getting a bit ridiculous... 1-3-2-4 is definitely the most optimal fingering for this passage and is far from unplayable. I am sure the percentage of people who can do this is higher than we actually think, and furthermore, much higher than people who can use the thumb here and make this sound acceptable. The preparation from the 2 quarter notes before this large chord also suits 1324 better than suddenly employing the thumb to change the entire hand position.

Using the thumb is optimal for the AACF chord in the Chaccone, but as far as I am aware, that is the only chord in solo Bach where that is actually necessary.

Edited: April 4, 2020, 5:20 PM · James,
Your fingering of 1324 (arpegiated) is better than mine (1424) because it sets up the 4 extension on the E strings the extension back on 2. Shoot! why didn't I think of that 50 years ago! Good job!
April 4, 2020, 6:40 PM · The Szeryng edition has 1-3-1-4. I found that a little easier than 1-3-2-4. Staying in first position.
Edited: April 4, 2020, 8:22 PM · I like Szeryng's fingering as well, which you can think of as 2nd position with an extended 1 to reach down for the low A. That makes it easier for those with shorter pinkies.

m157 b4: 3/G# shifts semitone to 3/A in m158, while 2 lifts and 1 extends to stay on A as rest of hand shifts to 2nd pos'n

April 4, 2020, 9:43 PM · Cool. I am encouraged that my suggestion is echoed by Jeewon, Raymond, and,... Szeryng.
April 4, 2020, 11:49 PM · James, I'm glad to see that you are in favor of using the thumb in some circumstances. You mentioned one chord in the Ciaccona; I am pretty sure that there are a good few more "impossible" chords in the S&P's which do "require" the thumb-- I will try to track these down. What about m54 of the C major Fuga? Anyway, in many cases using the thumb can avoid some nasty contortions.

I will admit that you are correct that your suggested fingering for the chord in m158, 1-3-2-4 is a good solution. However, the OP (Tony) had rejected this as unfeasible, and others replied with suggestions that involve moving the fingers, thereby losing the resonance of the bass note. Hence, the thumb suggestion.

Edited: April 5, 2020, 2:43 AM · Ah, just read Joel's post and I agree with him re. bowing too. You want to preserve the tenor line as possible, F#G#A, so you wouldn't want to break it 3+1. I'd go for rolled, emphasizing A on D-string, or 1+3.
April 5, 2020, 3:47 AM · 'What about m54 of the C major Fuga?' I stand corrected, nice find!

I also didn't realize Joel suggested 1314, until Raymond posted it in number form. This is also a very good fingering. Assuming 1324 is not possible, 1314 is best if you choose to break it 2+2, and 1424 is best if you choose to arpeggiate.

April 5, 2020, 12:56 PM · How about the ADBF# in m.201 of the Chaconne? It sure makes the voice-leading clearer than any other option.
Edited: April 5, 2020, 3:29 PM · You mean ADBF# with the thumb on A? It is much better to use 1022. You'd be surprised how many professional violinists have used and still use the unresonant and suboptimal 1011... a quick youtube search shows Perlman, Gitlis and (god forbid) Heifetz using 1011. Vengerov and Hilary Hahn use 1022, granted they are 'newer school' and more up to date with this kind of technology.

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