Authentic Bowing in Bach

November 8, 2021, 8:49 AM · I know the French baroque were keen on downbows on downbeats, the Italians not so much, what about Bach? Thanks.

Replies (27)

November 8, 2021, 2:03 PM · I would think there would be more emphasis on the down beats and less emphasis on the remaining beats. More emphasis on beat one in 3/4 time largo movement so a down bow works naturally in connecting melodic material across the bars. Beats 2 and 3 are more diminuendo.


November 8, 2021, 2:05 PM · Sadly Bach probably played in a family/regional style which we may never know the exact details of, but at least there is the tutor from Leopold Mozart, who grew up in Augsburg in the south of Germany during the latter part of Bach's life. His book goes into great detail on the rule of downbow and its many exceptions.
November 8, 2021, 3:04 PM · I think the term "authentic" begs the question - It's not clear that these works were performed in Bach's lifetime, although Bach was apparently an able violinist, and he may have leaned on that, or even on knowing the violinist Pisendel at the time.

There is a question of determining objective truth here - If we have a choice between what sounds better to us as performers, but wasn't practiced in the 18th century, does that somehow foul the soundwaves as they reach our ears and get processed by our brains? I would think that a solidly German tradition would tend to emphasize downbows on the beats, but that may or may not comport with my conception of the piece, and even beyond that, if I want to play that way, there are likely to be times where I will need to do the opposite, because some other factor won out.

November 8, 2021, 3:56 PM · I suspect that some care should be taken about over-generalizing. The sarabande, for example, often has emphasis on the second beat. And menuets will occasionally divert to a 3:2 figure.
November 8, 2021, 4:13 PM · Are people really unable to execute the same articulations and dynamics on both down bows and up bows?
November 8, 2021, 4:19 PM · @Carmen The 17th/18th century French obviously not!
Edited: November 8, 2021, 4:29 PM · If there's one thing I have a fairly strong conviction about, it's that Bach had a very strong feel for rhythm. After all, his solo works are often in dance forms. However you choose to bow, it should bring out the groove of the piece (Bach does groove!).

Too many players play Bach romantically, with sloppy time and fat rubatos, in my opinion. Without that rhythm it becomes wallpaper music that just floats over your ears instead of hitting home.

Edited: November 8, 2021, 5:28 PM · Bach's music is a cosmopolitan hybrid of French, Italian with the German music of his predecessors. His link with the Italian style comes from Pisendel who studied in Italy with Torelli. The Bach S&P have all of these national styles - German fugues, Italian style movements like the Preludio E major and C major Largo, and French style dances such as the Loure. The D minor Giga and E major Gigue are spelt in the Italian and French spelling respectively, possibly leading to a slower interpretation of the French Gigue. In general, although influenced by the French style, I think it unlikely that Bach would have been a devoted follower of the rule of down-bow, particularly in the Bach S&P. Part of the French bowing system was uniformity and discipline in orchestra bowing, which is obviously not needed in a solo violin work. However there is a case for being influenced by the knowledge of rule of down bow in some of the French movements, for instance the Loure, and seeing how the down bow and the subsequent frequent double up bow corrections at the end of the bar effect the overall phrasing. Personally I wouldn't be obsessed with playing every down-beat with a down bow in this movement, but I might explore it in my practice as a bowing option and see how that effects the phrase structure.
November 9, 2021, 2:53 AM · Thanks James, that's very helpful. I take it we know next to nothing about his dad?
November 9, 2021, 4:41 AM · hi Bud, I second the suggestion to read Leopold Mozart's book. it has a very long chapter on "the rules of bowing" which I found fascinating.
Edited: November 9, 2021, 6:37 AM · Have done that. I don't see Leopold (who was a modernizer) is much help for Bach. Most of his ideas come from Tartiini.
November 9, 2021, 7:19 AM · interesting, indeed he makes several references to "an Italian Master", so that was Tartini?
November 9, 2021, 9:35 AM · He copied the 'bow sections' part directly.
November 9, 2021, 10:34 AM · Forget the bowings and just play beautifully, with as minimal effort as possible.
Edited: November 10, 2021, 1:43 PM · The modern, Tourte bow makes it easier to to play anything with reversed direction bowing. I read somewhere that our symbols for bowing direction (V,n) are abbreviations of the French words Noble and Vile, strong and weak. So strong notes usually get the down-bow, at the frog, and weak notes get the up-bow, from the tip. That may or may not correspond to the notated meter. Recently I have been playing some 3 or 4 note chords on an up-bow, which emphasizes the top note instead of the low note. Part of the process of learning a piece, after designing your optimum bowing, is to play the whole piece in reversed bowing. There can be interesting discoveries.
November 9, 2021, 12:50 PM · I am with Marty on this one. While there are what purport to be some general rules governing baroque bowing style, I cannot believe Bach would have objected to any bowing style that made his music sound beautiful. Another aspect of this is that the baroque bow is quite different in some ways from the modern bow. Not clear that what worked with that bow would work as well with our bows. So, go with what works for you and don't worry about what violinist living in the early 18th century would have done.
November 9, 2021, 1:38 PM · I have a Baroque bow.
November 9, 2021, 1:44 PM · Bud--In effect Leopold was so influenced by Tartini that his putatively 'conservative' book is really more of an innovation in the sense that it introduces Italian practices into German playing?

James--I am cautious about viewing the transmission of music from another national school as necessarily transmitting performance practice or technique. Is it your view that the person-to-person nature of the transmission of music in that era makes it likely that performance practice was also transmitted?

Such circumstantial evidence as there is points to Bach using a short bow, probably even with a thumb-on-frog hold, both of which increase the strong/weak differentiation of up and down bow. I think the rule of downbow stemmed from the intrinsic strong/weak character of the bows. As with the lute before, this strong/weak character was integrated to musical expression. The application of the strong/weak bowing as a set of conventions for ensemble playing grew out of, rather than being the sole genesis of that integration.

November 9, 2021, 2:32 PM · Andres - Just to confirm I don't believe in a huge mental switch between the French movements and the Italian movements, but perhaps a pause for thought during practice for some considerations. In the same way I wouldn't get out a smaller bow after playing the Preludio to then play the Loure in the E major Partita- I'm sure even historical 'purists' would agree that would be overkill. I think people travelled in the 18th Century much more than we think. The Pisendel link from Torelli to Bach is a good example, so I think not just the music (of which Bach was an unusual collector of historical music for his time) but the different playing styles would have reached his ear.
Edited: November 10, 2021, 5:52 AM · Before "Historically Informed", there was "Authentic", to which the main objection was "there's no authentic audience". Ancients disagreed with each other, so whom are you going to choose? Their arguments were probably as silly as ours. How did Bach himself bow? We'll never know. I bow according to phrasing and rhythm and bow distribution. Some of them would have approved.

Then there's the ornamentation. Do we have to inflict that on people all the time to be authentic? Currently I'm listening to someone play Marcello on the oboe on the radio, and the ornamentation is getting on my nerves a little bit.

November 10, 2021, 9:39 AM · For me, the question of bowing in Bach boils down to hooked vs separate. In my opinion, too many slavishly follow the Galamian hooks, which make the music stodgy. A great example is the d-minor gigue. Learn to play separate closer to the frog and the movement sounds like a dance. Play it hooked and it sounds like someone with gout and a cigar binge watching Netflix.
November 10, 2021, 10:27 AM · According to Traité sur le Jeu du Violon by Jacques Thibaud, The Italians invented the downbow and French invented the upbow, and it was only when the Germans merged these two great traditions, in the early 16th century, that we had both downbow and upbow in violin playing.
November 10, 2021, 11:05 AM · "The Italians invented the downbow and French invented the upbow"

And the pieces of music were very short until someone invented off the string bowing.

November 10, 2021, 11:11 AM · They used to have handcranked, rotary-hair bows imported from the Mazda factory, but when the serfs got liberated, the violinistic gentry had to start doing their own bowing; owing to rampant hemophilia in the largely inbred musician patrician class, many lives were lost.
Edited: November 10, 2021, 11:13 AM · Treatises tend to be simplified and dogmatic.

Bach's dance movements are transfigured dances , not intended to be danced.
(Apparently Piazzolla got annoyed when folks tried dancing to his tangos: he would tell them to sit down and listen..)
But I do hate excessive rubato: it is possible to bring out the expressive richness of Bach's music while keeping a steady tempo.

And it is not for us mortals to impose our limited vision on Bach's music: he often carefully obscures "academic" groupings, e.g. 3/4 vs 6/8.
We can even vary our accentuation when sections are repeated..

November 11, 2021, 12:34 AM · Two points about this:

The first: The most important information you can get about a piece is always the score. If the score contradicts the HIP rulebook go with the score. Example: Slow movement in Vivaldi's "Winter". There are long beautifully built melodic arches that can only lose from adding ornamentation. So don't!

Second: Bach is different from all his contemporaries. He has a reputation as a conservative but in many ways he was an innovator. He advocated for the tempered tuning system (I suppose at least in part because he saw a need to modulate farer away from the home key than was customary at the time); he invented a whole new genre with his violin/keyboard and viola da gamba/keyboard sonatas. He pushed the envelope in works like the solo violin pieces, the Art of the Fugue, the Musical Offering, even in his cantatas--writing cycles for a whole year exactly to the specifications of the Lutheran calendar. He was very much his own man, took inspiration from all available sources but integrated them in his personal style. It stands to reason that he also had his own personal style of playing and did not necessarily follow common custom there either.

November 11, 2021, 12:09 PM · What Scott says about hooked bowing is important - I've been working on the Corelli 5/9 prelude with Geminiani's ornaments for a while, and it was only by carefully listening to Grumiaux a few weeks ago that I realised some of it has to be hooked, but then there's also the problem of marrying Geminiani to the original - when is he supporting Corelli and when he is subverting him (G hated the rule of the downbow)? The piece is driving me crazy.


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