Bach Partita intonation

July 8, 2023, 4:42 PM · In general, intonation is very important, especially for Bach's solo Sonatas and Partitas. I am currently working on the Prelude from Partita No. 3, and I am wondering if you have any tips for improving intonation for Bach. I have tried: droning an E, slowing down the tempo/ playing with the metronome, and practicing legato and in chords/ double stops.
In addition, do you slur the first and last 16th notes in the m. 43 section? It is easier to play with the up-down bowing when slurring them, but I've heard that it is "historically incorrect (?)." How do you play it? Do you think it matters?
Also, when working with a pianist/ orchestra, do you prefer working with sections (A, B, C,...) or measure numbers?

Replies (14)

July 8, 2023, 5:28 PM · Arpeggio and chord practice is quite different from scale practice: even in familiar finger-groupings the intervals stretch and contract diagonally.
These sensations must be established before distracting our attention with a metronome..

July 8, 2023, 9:21 PM · Practicing in 5ths is invaluable. Check out Rodney Friens’s videos on youtube.
July 8, 2023, 10:08 PM · I've been practicing scales in 4ths and 5ths, and both are pretty common in Bach; I think it's helpful practice. There's a Heifetz scale book that has them, and while I'm not totally bought into Rodney Friend's concept of turning everything into 5ths, his book on 5ths is pretty interesting.
Edited: July 9, 2023, 10:38 AM · Although it is not aboutt the Bach "Sonatas and Partitasw," I recommend the book "The Well Tempered Cello" by Miranda Wilson, which is about Bach's Six solo "Cello Suites" and the author's life with them. Ms. Wilson is Professor of Cello at the University of Idaho. The book is a memoir of her life as a woman, a wife, a professional cellist, a professor of music, and ultimately her preparation to perform a concert of all six of Bach's Solo Cello Suites. I think it is a wonderful book.

I find sufficient similarities between the Cello Suites and the Violin Sonatas & Partitas, both of which I have played some of (but never performed) over the past 73 years, to gain insights for the violin works from her insights to the cello works to recommend the book.

There are other books about Bach's solo violin works including:
Joel Lester: "Bach's Works for Solo Violin"
David Ledbetter: "Unaccompanied Bach, Performing the Solo Works"

Miriam Fried (violinist) had an on-line "masterclass" on Bach's Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin that I joined a few years ago thinking my membership was perpetual, It wasn't and I did not get full advantage of it in that one year - but I really liked what she did with them.

I think "authentic" interpretations are just taking us back to the best we think those old-timers could do 200 years ago and we should not be limited by that.

At some point in their "career" bowed-string players should read at least one good book about musical temperament!

July 9, 2023, 10:35 AM · I'll start with "well tempered 5ths" before playing the first note.

The more I explore Bach unaccompanied works, the more I want to understand about his well tempered clavier. Movements like Largo from C major sonata has plenty of what sound like a dissonant intervals with melody within, which force you to do neither "harmony biased" nor "melodic biased" tuning, which to me, lead to choosing the in between tuning.

July 9, 2023, 3:55 PM · Yes, Casey. I agree to a point. But how about Sometimes this, sometimes that? I think temperament should vary depending on the situation at the moment. At times melody should dictate tuning, and other times harmony. When it's both, well, that's the glory of these beautiful pieces. You must choose, and critics be damned!
Edited: July 15, 2023, 6:01 AM · hi C, to answer your question about the measures starting with m.43, I believe it is indeed quite standard to slur the first two, and the last two, sixteenth notes of each measure. it is violinistically very natural. if you could ask your friends for a bibliographical reference about this way of execution being "unhistorical" and post it here, I would be interested. but be assured that thousands of violinists since Bach have played it like that, quite possibly including Bach himself!
July 15, 2023, 4:37 PM · Good intonation is not just a matter of placing your fingers in the right place, it is the result of learning to adjust the pitch of a given note instantly. To train that skill there are differing ear training exercises you can utilize which force you to listen very carefully in order to adjust intonation.

One is to slowly play through specific passages, for instance m. 29-42 and 80-107 in different positions.

Another is to tune your instrument slightly out of tune and play slowly through any passage you choose.

Another is to practice microtones. For example starting on B flat on the A string move the first finger incrementally and lifting the finger slightly to B natural in 4 steps. You will find on your first try you will probably miss the B natural. Then move from B natural first finger to C natural. and so on. After doing this exercise for 5 minutes you will find that all the sudden half steps will feel huge. Also if you have listened carefully your general intonation will sound worse, which doesn't mean that it has gotten worse; you are just listening more carefully.

I agree with Jean that in historical performance, it is better to use an easier technique, rather than a more difficult one.

July 15, 2023, 5:59 PM · One suggestion about intonation in the Bach is to challenge your assumptions from time to time. Something doesn't sound right, and you're sure one of the notes is well in tune, so it must be the other, when in reality your whole hand frame has drifted. That kind of thing.

You also have to experiment a lot. Just in the first nano-phrase E-D#-E there is the question: How high should the D# be? You don't want your playing to be "merely correct." You want it to sound good!

July 15, 2023, 6:30 PM · Isn't it just fantastic that a player of Dr Berg's calibre is so willing to share his ideas? I just had to say that.
July 15, 2023, 6:52 PM · I especially appreciated the listening exercise.
Edited: July 21, 2023, 5:36 PM · This performance is interesting.
Edited: July 22, 2023, 5:01 PM · ms. 43--, yes, slur the 1st and last pairs in each measure. The mechanics of the string changes are less complicated, more reliable that way, and it sounds good. In general, I think we should have a lot more freedom with the bowing for Baroque era violin.
Intonation?- some of the replies puzzle me. Presto,-Partita 3 is one of the many single-note movements in the book. The real intonation problems are in the double-stop/chordal movements, about 2/3 of the book. That is when we need to make constant adjustments, switching between chordal or melodic tuning.
Equal tempered 5ths -really? The difference between the tempered 5th and the perfect 5th is 2 cents, 1/50 of a half-step. As a melodic interval nobody can hear that. As a fingered double-stop a perfect 5th will be a fortunate accident. We tune the open strings perfect, without beats. Piano tuners will time the beats.
The intonation margin of error for melodic intervals is a lot wider (~6 cents) compared to the double-stop intervals. Piano-style equal temperament sounds good enough, just a little dull and ordinary. A mental concept that I try to use is to think of each note on the fingerboard as a cluster of three very close spots: neutral/equal tempered, 1/2 comma (~12 cents) low, 1/2 comma high.
Which way you bend the notes, high or low, depends on the context. What sounds out of tune is bending a note in the wrong direction (25 cents "wrong"). The leading tone concept can lead us astray.
Bottom line; trust your ear and brain. If it sounds good you are probably OK. And- vibrato covers a multitude of sins.
July 24, 2023, 12:10 PM · The book "Violin Mind" offers some very interesting and helpful information on intonation that can certainly be applied to Bach. Since so much of Bach's music is chordal or broken chords/arpeggios, double stop practice helps a great deal. Simon Fisher's book "Double Stops" is a great resource.

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