4

So I came across this interesting statement about the way we should play Bach's solo violin pieces. One source claimed that Bach was not a lousy writer — he was actually a very accurate and rigorous writer in his music, not leaving out many things he wanted to put in the score. Is this true?

The importance of this has to do with his autographs of the Libro Primo for solo violin. They are beautiful and I love the modern renditions by many great violinists, but this remains: we play the chords in the broken way, simply because the bow can only touch two strings at once. However, it seemed that in Bach's day the bow was different and there might even have been a German bowing tradition which used a bow that could touch more than 2 strings, depending on how much pressure you exerted on the hair with your thumb. This would allow you to play Bach's solo violin like a keyboard player would do it.

The strongest evidence for this comes from the presumption that Bach was an accurate writer: In one of the pieces, he put "arpeggio" in front of some chords. This implies that all the other times in solo violin, he did NOT expect arpeggio style playing at all. Are we all fatally wrong in playing Bach violin?

  • 1
    I know a baroque violin teacher, specialising in Bach, who explicitly told me chords in Bach's solo violin works are meant to be arpeggiated. Disclaimer: I am not a violinist. – 11684 May 12 '15 at 17:09
  • My violin teacher, who majored in Baroque interpretation at university also said that the chords were meant to be arpeggiated (referring specifically to the Adagio in G minor from the Sonata no. 1 for solo violin) – Shannon Duncan Dec 20 '17 at 13:49
5

While there are bows for baroque performance that you can interactively tense with the thumb, those are not really historical. The historical bows still have less tension, however, and a convex rather than hollow curve which makes playing multiple strings easier.

Also baroque violin style tends to play less in higher positions and, related to that, there is less of a curvature on the bridge, reducing the angles between string planes. Also, string tension of gut strings is less than that of modern strings. As a consequence, playing three strings at least is quite more natural. Four strings would still not be played smoothly as a continuous chord, however.

There is not a lot of mystery around all that: while most good instruments from that era have been refitted for modern play in the 19th century, there are actual historical instruments and parts where one can check the state of instruments at that time.

However, as with keyboard instruments, Bach's music is written in a manner that does not acknowledge particular shortcomings of the instruments of his time.

So while playing Bach on a Grand Piano or with a variable-tension bow is not "historically accurate", if it is able to do the music better justice, one would not likely be doing Bach a favor by trying to stick to restrictions he apparently was not particularly willing to acknowledge.


The chords marked "arpeggio" are back-and-forth arpeggio passages in the Chaconne in Partita 2. In this particular case, the arpeggio is an explicitly desired bowing effect rather than a realization/execution of idealized music on an imperfect instrument.

If you transfer the score to an instrument with different characteristics like a lute, you'll keep arpeggiating the passages marked "arpeggio" while you pluck the chorded passages "perfectly". Several of the violin solo pieces have been adapted by Bach himself to different instruments. When changing to an instrument better capable of putting the score as written into execution, you will do so.

But that does not imply that baroque violins were physically capable of nicely sustained 4-course chords. It just means that Bach spelled out his music as if they were, and the executioner was expected to turn this into reality as far as the instrument permitted, but not further.

  • 3
    You should register an account rather than creating a new one each time. I've combined your other answer into this one. – Matthew Read May 13 '15 at 14:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.