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Playing Bach on the violin

Bach’s superlative works for violin are considered the pinnacle of achievement for any violinist. Both the unaccompanied Partitas and Sonatas and his violin works with keyboard accompaniment require great technical mastery of the instrument alongside a mature musicality. Players who haven’t yet scaled these heights are also keen to access his music and develop their understanding of Baroque playing techniques.

One way to do this is from carefully-written arrangements—playing original pieces from across Bach’s output that have been re-worked for violin and accompaniment at an intermediate level. Re-working music originally written for one set of forces for another instrumentation was common practice in the Baroque era, and there are many examples in the works of Handel, Vivaldi, and Bach. There is speculation that Bach’s famous organ work, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, may have begun life as a violin piece. Such arrangements can include a range of technical and musical teaching points that provide an invaluable introduction to Baroque style.

Listen to J. S. Bach – Sinfonia in D major: BWV 789, originally for keyboard, which David and I arranged for violin for an earlier anthology.

Crisp and well-articulated bowing is a corner-stone of Baroque style; the two principal types are detaché and martelé — the first a neat detached style, and the second requiring a little more attack or bite (the literal meaning is “hammered”). Lively allegro movements will give ample opportunity to develop these forms of bowing. Faster semiquaver passages in Baroque music often require the player to slur three semiquavers and bow one separately, or indeed the other way around. Organizing their bowing so as not to travel too far towards one end of the bow is an essential skill for players to master.

In his cantata movements, Bach was adept at writing obbligato lines perfectly suited to his chosen instrument; there are many examples that exploit the singing tone of the violin, such as in the aria “Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen” (“Also with muted weak voices [is God’s majesty honoured]”), from Cantata BWV 36. The violin line appears to be never-ending, and requires a great deal of stamina and good bow control to maintain an evenness of sound. It’s also a wonderful example of string-crossing technique—the right wrist needs to remain flexible throughout, and practising the string-crossing on open strings is useful at first.

Slower movements allow players to shape expressive sustained lines with long controlled bows, and a classic example amongst violin arrangements is the ever-popular Gounod/Bach Ave Maria. This is also an excellent piece to work on finding the right sound points for the bow: the higher passages and varied dynamics need careful planning for the bow in order to achieve the desired effect.

Image credit: Arrangement of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” (Meditation on the First Prelude by J. S. Bach) from Bach for Violin.

In terms of left-hand technique, as the fingerboard was shorter on Baroque violins, much of the music goes no higher than third position, and players at the time often played a good deal in first position. However, arrangements of Baroque pieces, particularly those not originally written for string instruments, can provide opportunities to explore other positions that are often overlooked.

It’s fascinating to remember that, not only did the concept of equal temperament have no meaning in Bach’s time (his “well-tempered” tuning had some variation of the 5ths across the keyboard), but string players don’t necessarily conform to this system anyway! This realization, particularly in unaccompanied movements, offers the player the opportunity to consider aspects of intonation for colour and effect. Would slightly higher thirds in sharp keys brighten the sound and give extra brilliance? Would lower thirds in minor keys establish a darker sound?

Learning dance movements such as minuets and bourrées will build understanding of these forms, while an appreciation of their playing styles—emphasising the first beat of the bar and keeping the upbeats light—will add life and character to any performance. Performing pieces in arrangements for violin and keyboard offers players the chance to develop their ensemble skills, particularly in Bach’s more contrapuntal music where understanding the interplay between the instruments and matching articulation is an important strand of musicianship.

Bach’s music has been a staple for musicians for two centuries or more. Well-crafted arrangements allow this remarkable music to be explored by new groups of players while also teaching them many important aspects of technique and musicianship. It’s hoped such arrangements might also inspire players to continue their musical journey with this exceptional composer.

Featured image credit: Photo by Serge Ka via Shutterstock.

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