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I am asking about bars 13-19 in the first movement of J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto (BWV 971; sheet music). My ear always hears bar 13 plus the first crotchet of 14 as one extended bar of 3/4 and then the bar lines following that shifted forward a crotchet to the middle of each bar for 14-19 with a one-crotchet bar at the end of 19 to get back in sync with the written bar lines. Should I keep hearing it like this or train my ear to hear it as written?

I think one advantage of an “as writ” interpretation is that the pattern in the left hand in bar 15 becomes twice as often in 21-24, increasing the energy prior to the semi-quavers in 25-26, but it doesn't seem so natural to phrase the left hand this way. Should I maybe bring out the right hand in 15-21 more than the left to help with respecting where the bar lines are, even though the left has the more interesting part and the right seems more of an accompaniment?

  • Good question. I have some thoughts about this but no time to answer now. I'll try to post something in a few hours. – phoog Jul 28 at 13:42
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As a matter of fact, Baroque music does sometimes get a half-bar "out-of-phase" with the barlines. I've addressed this phenomenon in a previous answer here: Can you introduce fugue themes in the middle of a measure? If so, how?. In fact, just last night, I was noticing this happens in the final movement of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto. After two bars of canonic entries of the main scalar theme, there's a circle-of-fifths progression that takes three half-bars to modulate to the dominant key, and then the main theme comes back in again for two more bars. But this time, the theme begins in the middle of bar four, and straddles the barlines. See timestamp 7:30 here:

. In your case, you have almost the exact same thing: three half-bars used to modulate to the dominant.

So this is certainly something that Bach does not shy away from doing. The two things that make this particular case look odd to me is that the bars are already short (cut time), and the right hand's harmonic rhythm seems to mostly still follow the barlines. Although the later can be interpreted as suspensions. Something to remember, though, is that this was written for harpsichord, which doesn't have much (if any) dynamic control, so the music itself dictates where the accents go, and Bach is quite adept at doing so. If Bach had wanted to emphasize the barlines as written, he could have placed the low pedal C's on the barline, and left the spot where they currently are as a rest (for comparison, try playing that way!). The fact that you hear it the way you do, is likely a good indicator in this case of what Bach had in mind. So my gut feeling is: yes. This is yet another case where the music accents gets out of phase with the barlines.

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Hearing bars 13-19 as shifted by half a bar may be due to the prominent low C's on the offbeats. But Bach rarely plays games of rhythmic ambiguity like, say, Beethoven. More important is to preserve the rhythmic structure of the melodic phrases. Bars 1-8 hammer home a phrase that starts just after the downbeat. If you hear the bars as written, then when the melody flips to the left hand at bar 13, with the same after-the-downbeat phrasing, then it's clearer to the listener that the hands have exchanged roles, and at bar 13 the right hand is now merely noodling.

In bars 13-19 you needn't overemphasize the downbeat (which risks overemphasizing the noodling). Instead, underemphasize those offbeat low C's. Either treat of each one as ending a wide-ranging phrase, or (more plausibly to my ear) treat all those C's as a gentle pedal point, a new voice in the texture, whose continuation builds up suspense and tension (more frequent low C's) until the spring finally snaps at the flourish in bar 25.

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I would think of it as written. The 16th notes at the end of m.14 are a pick-up into the next bar, which would not really make sense if the previous three beats were a 3/4 measure, making the last beat of m.14 a downbeat.

If you are having a hard time hearing the groupings, I recommend that you read and play through this with the 8th note as the beat. This will make each measure have four beats, and I believe the rhythmic patterns will make more sense since you will hear the strong beats of 1 and 3. Much of Bach benefits from making the 8th note the beat. Many of his more complicated rhythms become much easier to count and comprehend.

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