• The Sonatas and Partitas of J.S.Bach - Performance or Pedagogy?

    “One of the greatest violinists told me that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist than the said solos without bass.”

    So said J.C.Bach regarding his father’s six sonatas and partitas, works that have been a source of fascination and inspiration to composers, performers and musicologists since their creation. The Chaconne from the d-minor partita has achieved a status in musical history almost unsurpassed by any other single movement, and a concert violinist’s stature has long been measured by whether he/she has committed their interpretation of the six solos to disc. However the question of whether they were designed for public performance or private study is something that has troubled performers and musicologists for generations.

    Looking at editions from the nineteenth century we often find that, while public performance was not ruled out, the music as it stood was not deemed sufficient to carry off a performance on its own, and a piano accompaniment was therefore deemed essential. Schumann composed piano accompaniments to all six sonatas and partitas in 1854. The violinist Ferdinand David did not perform the works without a piano accompaniment, as he too felt the violin to be insufficient as a solo instrument on the concert hall stage, and when Mendelssohn invited him to perform the Chaconne as part of his concert series he refused, only submitting when the composer wrote a piano accompaniment for him.

    The violinist and teacher Lucien Capet saw the six solos as being ideal study material, he particularly favoured the fugue from the C-major sonata which he included in his book on violin technique, creating a table of instructions specifying bow distribution, fingerings and instructions on how to break chords. Similarly, the violinist and teacher Jan Hambourg also created a table of symbols and instructions on when and how to break chords at the beginning of his edition of the sonatas and partitas.

    Could we argue that the answer lies in Bach’s own title of the works? –

    Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato

    The public performance of any chamber work in the seventeenth century, with the exception of organ and keyboards, would have involved at least two, three or more players. Bach is instructing the violinist that these are works to be performed on their own, but does this imply that they are to be played in the privacy of one’s own home?

    Any speculation as to the impetus behind these works is pure conjecture. It is possible they were written for Meinrad Spiess, concertmaster of the Köthen orchestra, for whom Bach wrote the violin concerti. Though the six solos could have also been written for Johann Georg Pisendel or Jean-Baptiste Volumier, other violinists of Bach’s acquaintance. There is always the possibility, difficult as it may be to prove, that they were written purely as an exemplar of Bach’s own ingenuity. The sonatas and partitas are experimental in the sense that nothing had been achieved on quite the same scale beforehand, and while there had been several polyphonic compositions for solo violin written before Bach’s, particularly in Germany by Biber, Westhoff and Walther, none of these works matched Bach’s in terms of complexity or sheer magnitude. The fact that Bach himself transcribed several movements for keyboard is testimony to the fact that these works shouldn’t be taken at face value. (The g-minor fugue was transcribed for organ [BWV 539], the a-minor sonata was arranged for clavier [BWV 964], as was the opening movement of the C-major sonata [BWV 968]. Cantatas 29 and 120a both have as their introduction an arrangement for organ and orchestra of the ‘Preludio’ from the E-major partita).

    There is much in Bach’s keyboard music that would not look out of place in a violin part, and the writing of two & three part fugues and multiple stops in the solo sonatas is more in keeping with keyboard music. The third prelude from Das Wohltemperierte Clavier could easily have been conceived as a string part. Similarly, the C-major fugue would not look out of place in a book of keyboard music. This juxtaposition of styles could suggest a further advantage to the study of the sonatas and partitas. Not only is the player learning to overcome the technical difficulties of the violin, he is also having to overcome polyphonic difficulties which are usually the preserve of the keyboard player.

    While much of Bach’s music lay forgotten until the mid 1800’s, with Mendelssohn’s performance of The St. Matthew Passion, the six solos never really disappeared from the violinists armoury. Though they may have been regarded more of a source of interest and technical aid than something to be aired in the public arena. In 1802 Johann Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, wrote “for many years the great violinists considered them [sonatas and partitas] to be the best study material for those eager to master the instrument.

    Ferdinand David’s edition is subtitled:

    ‘For use at the Leipzig Conservatory, supplied with fingering and bowing indications and other editorial markings.’

    Certainly if one were to use David’s edition one could hope to gain a reasonable impression of the sonatas and partitas from both an interpretative and personal point of view. David presents us with his edited version parallel with Bach’s original, providing a concurrent appendix, a sort of ‘how to’ guide that one wouldn’t find in an edition of a concerto or sonata but wouldn’t look out of place in a book of etudes. In this respect David’s edition could be argued to be much like a copy of Kreutzer’s 42 études, each with their own suggested bowing variations and exercises. Of course to compare the six solos with a book of studies would be missing the point, but that is not to say one can’t get the same benefit from them that might be gained from an étude.

    Lucien Capet provides perhaps the most detailed explanation on the technical aspects of performing the sonatas and partitas. In La Technique Supérieure de l’archet (Paris, 1916) he creates a table of bow speed, distribution, point of contact, when to vibrate, and when to change position. Jan Hambourg prefaces his edition with details on how to execute the various technical challenges, particularly on the matter of double-stopping.

    It is interesting to note that Leopold Auer (teacher of the great Jascha Heifetz) only presents the solo works of Bach in the very last book of his ‘Graded Course of Violin Playing’, that which is dedicated to the virtuoso, and his appreciation of the works is by no means insignificant:

    This polyphonic style of writing, as applied to violin music, gained its utmost development through Johann Sebastian Bach, whose ‘Six Solo Sonatas’ are justly considered the greatest contribution which he, or for that matter any other composer, ever made to the literature of the violin.”

    While there has been a plethora of violin ‘methods’ and treatises that use the solo sonatas for instruction there is still no definitive proof that Bach wrote them for this purpose. They are clearly difficult works to master, both technically and musically, though if a violinist wanted to master a particular aspect of their technique they would do better to concentrate on one of the 19th century pedagogues first. Bach’s six solos present the player with musical challenges that require a complete arsenal of technical skills, but they also offer an invaluable musical journey which is almost unsurpassed in the violin repertoire.

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  • Christopher Hogwood instrument sale

    It was a treat to see the collection of historical keyboard instruments belonging to the late Christopher Hogwood at the salerooms in Bath this week. It's not often collections such as these appear on the open market, and there were some magnificent instruments, particularly the 1761 clavichord by Johann Adolph Hass.

    Many of the instruments fetched well above their estimates, and I hope many if not all will remain here in the UK to be admired for generations to come, rather than end up in private overseas collections.

    The auction results can be found here:

    http://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/gardiner-houlgate/catalogue-id-srgard10016

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  • New teaching studio for Bristol

    The Bristol Violin Studio will be opening its second teaching venue near Bristol International Airport. BVS has been based in Clifton since its opening in 2012 and this latest expansion is thanks to its growing reputation for providing first class tuition.

    More details can be found at www.kodurandviolinstudio.co.uk

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  • The merits of new versus old

    Many living violin makers would be overjoyed at the notion of their instrument beating a Strad to first place in a blind test, though the day when a new instrument overtakes a Strad or Guarneri in the saleroom is unlikely to arrive. Many string players would accept that a new violin can potentially live up to the qualities of the old Cremonese masters however, given the choice, most would go for the old Italian. It's the same old story of buying wine. Stick a classy label on the bottle and add a reasurringly expensive price tag and drinkers will wax lyrical over it's fruity overtones, delicate finish and fragrant nose. Stick an Italian label in a shiny old violin and it'll project to the back of any concert hall with the most resonant overtones... Dealers have been doing this for centuries, but the unfortunate reality is that most players are willing to believe them.

    http://www.economist.com/node/21542380

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  • My violin is by Hewlett Packard...

    The days of dreaming about owning a Strad or Guarneri may soon be coming to an end. Before too long you might just be able to switch on your computer and print off the the violin of your dreams...well almost. 3D printers have been around for a number of years, mainly as a tool for creating prototypes before the expensive business of mass manufacture in the factory. Though with the technology of 3D printing moving forward at an astonishing rate it may not be too far fetched to see such devices in ordinary homes within a generation or two. For the humble musician this could mean that the days of paying off bank loans and mortgages on expensive instruments could be over. Need a lighter bow for early Mozart symphonies and maybe a heavier Dominique Peccatte for Brahms? no problem, just print a couple off! Carbon fibre bows (and increasingly instruments) have proved very popular with players not able or willing to pay the £0000's needed for examples by famed old masters. 3D printing, if successful, is surely just the next step along the instrumental evolution.

    See Simon Hewitt Jones playing a 'printed' violin here:

    http://youtu.be/bJA6J5girlo

    and read the economist article on object printing here:

    http://www.economist.com/node/18114221

    Posted by Simon Kodurand

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