Monday, February 20, 2017

Bach Sonata No. 1 in G Minor (Presto)

Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers and musicians in history, was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a respected town musician and the younger Bach’s first music teacher. During his childhood, Bach was exposed to a variety of instruments and composers, in part because so many of his family members were musicians, including his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (organ), and his second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (violin).

Johann Sebastian Bach
At age 14, Bach was granted a choral scholarship to attend St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, where he studied for two years and received organ training from noted organist Georg Böhm. Bach devoted himself to both composing and performing, and he became known for his virtuosity on the organ and harpsichord, according to several contemporary accounts.

Bach graduated from St. Michael’s in 1703, and for nearly 15 years thereafter, he served as organist, composer, and court musician at a variety of churches in Weimar, Arnstadt, and Muhlhaüsen. (He was essentially a freelance musician – if he had lived in the 21st century, he might have worked for universities, record labels, or the film/TV industry, all influencing his creative output at least to some extent.) At Weimar, Bach also served as the concertmaster of the orchestra, an indication that he was a very accomplished violinist, especially given the orchestra’s reputation at the time.

In 1717, Bach was hired by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen to serve as his Kapellmeister, or music director. Leopold was a Calvinist and encouraged Bach to write secular, and especially instrumental, music at his court. Over the next six years, Bach wrote some of his greatest instrumental works, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestral suites, and – luckily for us string players – the cello suites and sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

Bach was likely inspired to compose the violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Paul von Westoff, a renowned German Baroque violinist and composer who himself had written a set of violin partitas in the late 17th century. Bach started composing his own in the early 18th century at Weimar, but he completed the bulk of them at Köthen.

Although the sonatas and partitas are among the most popular pieces in the classical violin repertoire today, they were almost never studied or performed for nearly 150 years after their composition. It wasn’t until violin virtuoso Josef Joachim and Ferdinand David discovered them and began performing them in concert during the latter part of the 19th century did the public finally become familiar with these beautiful masterpieces.

Bach's violins sonatas and partitas
The final movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor is an uptempo Presto, and like its counterparts in the other sonatas and partitas, it is the closest thing to a virtuosic showpiece that Bach composed. It truly is a daring, explosive piece, and it is made all the more difficult by its frequent use of cross-rhythms, multi-voice dialogues, and interchange between duple and triple in the phrasing. But in addition to being a vibrant rhythmic, bowing, and fingering exercise, it is a fabulous and fulfilling work of art.

Over the last century and a half, many facsimiles of Bach’s violin music – including this movement – have altered the manner of the original notation, fingerings, measures, and articulations. I have personally transcribed and engraved Bach’s original manuscript, and I have presented it in this book as accurately as possible. On the following page, I offer my own interpretation and arrangement of the score, clearly identifying the changes I make.

The Presto is the final movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor. It has a binary structure with repeat signs at the ends of both parts, as in the final movements of Bach’s other violin sonatas. This movement in particular is exhilarating and explosive, employing running 16th notes in perpetual motion, and it completely contrasts the previous movement in the sonata, Siciliana, which is more meditative and lyrical. In fact, each movement in the Sonata No. 1 in G minor – and for that matter, each movement is every violin sonata and partita Bach composed – reflects a different mood, character, style, and tempo.

I spent many years studying Bach before developing any of my own interpretations of his music. Of course, I respect the music enough not to change things purely for the sake of change, but after thorough analysis and careful thought, I developed an American interpretation of the G minor Presto for this book. This interpretation draws from the American styles I know best – including bluegrass, jazz, old-time, and Texas-style fiddling – and contains new bowings, fingerings, rhythms, grooves, and syncopations. Although the notes themselves are as Bach composed, I added double-stops to certain notes in the repeat of the B-section. My version of the Presto illustrates how to creatively interpret a masterpiece, and it demonstrates that no piece of music, no matter how revered, must be exempt from experimentation. Here are my thoughts, using the G minor Presto as the subject of study.

The name of the movement, Presto, is an instruction for the performance of the piece. “Presto” means “extremely fast”, literally quarter note = 168-200 beats per minute (BPM). A “presto” tempo, according to Quantz, begins at quarter note = 160 BPM. I place the tempo for my arrangement of the Presto between 160 and 168 BPM, and it peaks on the repeat of the second part. Contemporary accounts indicate that Bach was very particular about his tempi and was keen on honoring them. (Although met- ronomes did not exist in Bach’s time, composers and performers referred to clocks and even heartbeats to calculate tempi.) The performance of the Presto must not be anxiety-ridden and out of control. The 16th notes in perpetual motion should flow like a waterfall in order to achieve the desired thrill and excitement.

Moreover, the character of the Presto is spirited and festive. Too often I hear heaviness and moodiness in performances of this movement, and of many other pieces in minor keys. In American old-time music, for instance, there are many minor-key fiddle tunes that sound “happy” and major-key tunes that sound “sad.” (Although I don’t subscribe to this dichotomy, it is worth noting that there are more major than minor arpeggios and phrases in the Presto).

One of the most important qualities of the Presto is its pulse, which should be stable throughout, easing only a little at cadences to mark the structure of the movement. This pulse is very present in my rendition, even during slight accelerations and decelerations in tempo. Whether it is performed with a duple or triple feel or is phrased in 3/8 or 6/16, the disregard for rhythm in Bach’s music runs counter to the spirit of the dance music that inspired his musical construction and phrasing as well as the playing style of his era (decades before the Romantic period). Many previous performance examples feature unusually long stressed notes every few mea- sures, a vestige of training (plant the left hand in preparation for the next difficult fingering or shift!) and an offense to the music itself. In uptempo music, no phrase should screech to a halt as a result of a technical challenge.

Simply put, the basic principles of time and rhythm should not be forsaken in the Presto, especially if it is a result of the difficulty of performing the piece. As Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (J.S. Bach’s son and an accomplished composer himself) wrote in 1753, “Performers should avoid exaggerated ritenutos…the attempt should be made to hold the tempo of a piece just as it was at the start, which is very difficult” (Donington, 1982 pp. 21). Violinists tackling the Presto should develop maximum bowing fluidity and left-hand finger accuracy in order to avoid sacrificing important aspects of the music during performance.

It is worth noting that the Presto alternates between “strong” and “weak” measures that form a musical dialogue, as indicated by the short measure line ticks every other bar. Phrases are in groups of 12 (rather than six) 16th notes, and the challenging string crossings in my rendition are actually suggested (I would even say encouraged) by the phrase groupings. Shifting up and out of tight spots in order to avoid string-crossing doesn’t conform to Bach’s vision for the piece.

This leads me to bowing, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough. In fact, the greatest difficulty presented by the Presto is the approach to bowing it requires. Fast bow strokes demand great bow control, which in turn necessitates an extremely facile right arm. To overcome the technical challenges of performing this movement, I utilize a combination of on-the-string and off-the string bowing (not to be confused with spiccato) to accentuate the phrasing and create articulate string crosses without sacrificing the pulse.

It is easier to play more clearly and precisely with the modern violin bow as opposed to the lighter, shorter Baroque bow of Bach’s time. That said, the modern bow, at least as most classically trained violinists use it today, seems to restrict bowing fluidity and impart a sense of seriousness to the piece that does not belong there.

Improvising violinists are good at mixing up bowings and slurs in performance. American fiddle and jazz music call for the use of a variety of bowing techniques, and lightness, fluidity, and phrasing are among the most essential attributes violinists need to develop in order to improvise effectively in these styles. Of course, the modern bow is preferable to the Baroque bow in almost any concert setting today because it is louder and allows for a wider range of articulation, but one advantage of the Baroque bow was the light- ness of playing that it allowed. Having tried a number of Baroque bows before, I can say that, when I perform the Presto, I envision my own bow as possessing the spirit of a Baroque bow in order to achieve the facility and character I desire.

It is commonly known that many of the great composers of the Baroque, classical, and Romantic eras, including Bach himself, were excellent improvisers. Bach’s written bowings were obviously intended for the Baroque bow, and indeed, they outline phrases in a very predictable and repetitive manner. But I think it is a gross misinterpretation of the music to mimic Baroque bowing slurs and instructions with the modern bow and to play each phrase the same way. First, Bach almost certainly improvised bowings and bowing patterns, as improvisation was a common practice in his day. Second, although the modern bow offers an opportunity to tackle the phrasing in the Presto in a clearer, more articulate, and more musical way, it does require re-slurring. Without re-slurring, the piece becomes heavy-handed and laborious, and I believe its integrity is diminished. On a final note concerning improvisation, I believe that, given Bach’s improvisational capacities, it is highly likely that he himself took creative liberties during the repeats of each section.

On the subject of vibrato in Bach. Vibrato should enhance music, not dictate it. Underuse of vibrato renders the music sterile, while overuse renders it too Romantic, and in some cases, it even seems to affect fingerings and tempo. According to a number of contemporary accounts, soloists employed vibrato moderately in the Baroque era, and Bach himself, being the great improviser that he was, would certainly have learned and employed the technique as well.

More specifically, vibrato should be employed in the Presto – and in any music, for that matter – in a way that honors the tempo and style. Indeed, it should vary in speed and amplitude. Improvisation, as I often say, doesn’t just consist of wiggling one’s fingers around; it also includes exploring textures, colors, sound contexts, and even spatial acoustics. (In a more ambient room, for instance, less vibrato is preferable, but in a hall with no ambience, vibrato can be used to compensate for the dryness.) Given the more measured approach to vibrato in the Baroque era, Bach very likely envisioned it as a means of augmenting expressiveness and, therefore, something that itself should vary. As for tone, it is true that the best examples of what might be considered “beautiful” violin tone are found in slower pieces featuring longer bow strokes, but by no means does every piece of violin music demand that performers showcase their absolute best tone. Although I don’t endorse forsaking tone in order to play the Presto at the appropriate tempo, I also believe it is counterproductive to slow down in order to achieve better tone. The only answer is to practice until neither need be sacrificed.

I developed this arrangement of the Presto not only to demonstrate the manner in which I believe it was intended to be played, but also to show that Bach’s music is indeed open to creative interpretation. I believe we have finally reached an era in which the leading violin pedagogues are ready to embrace this concept. I have already witnessed how a fresh approach to Bach’s music can excite audiences: I encourage you, students of the Method, to develop your own arrangements of Bach’s music. For it is this kind of creativity and experimentation that will be the driving force behind the betterment and invigoration of all music in the generations to come.

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