This is a translation of the post „nicht Artikulation, aber Harmonik“, Aug 12, 2013
by Dr. Marshall Tuttle.
A New Perspective on the Music for Unaccompanied Violin and Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach
The slurs in the Anna Magdelana Bach copy of the Bach solo cello Suites are – contrary to conventional beliefs – not indications of articulation. Rather, they characterize harmonic processes and the dominance of harmony. This is a fact which has not been generally recognized.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote these highly complex works not merely for one solo instrument, but specifically for a melody instrument. Superficially considered, this appears paradoxical. It is therefore not a defect that a harmony instrument is missing. On the contrary, adding a harmonization to the cello Suites is a priori impossible.
The slurs therefore are not merely articulation markings, binding marks of a so-called legato. The slurs highlight pitches that are harmonic determinants. In sequences, for example, with repetitions of a motive at different pitch levels, harmonic pitches may shift within the motive. The slurs must inevitably shift within the motives to clarify these harmonic relationships.
The harmonic function of slurs stands in contrast to articulation. The noise component, the so-called “attack”, fades into the background. The slurs serve solely to indicate the relative importance of pitches. In this respect the use of slurs defines a third structural parameter in addition to pitch and rhythm.
J. S. Bach’s slurs proceed with no consideration for the meter. On first glance, this appears surprising. Often slurs stress notes that are metrically weak. The result is an agogically varied rhythm. The emphasis on strong beats characteristic of the motivic repetitions is contradicted by the bowings. Thus, an expressive tension is generated between the representation of harmony and notated rhythm. (As if “dance movements”…)
In the slurs in A. M. Bach’s copy the intentions of the composer are clearly manifested. These slurs show the cello Suites to be even more unconventional than is generally supposed. Historical performance practice is peripheral to understanding them. There is nothing comparable in the literature for violin or cello, and therefore no performance tradition for these works.
While no autograph of the cello Suites is preserved, there is an autograph of the solo violin works. In addition to Bach’s single autograph of the solo violin works, there is a copy made by A. M. Bach. The autograph seems to be an earlier version and A. M. Bach’s later version was not merely a copy of the earlier version. A significant period of time seems to have elapsed between the dates of the Autograph and the A. M. Bach copy, up to 10 years. Bach used this time for in-depth experiments on interpretation of his work. The copy of Bach’s solo violin works by A. M. Bach is an independent version that can only have been created and authorized by the composer himself.
Urtext editions of the Suites for solo cello all have to be revised. The standardization of slurs based on a generalized presumption of their function as articulations of motives is incorrect. As a result, about half of the commonly published slurs are inaccurate. The copy of A. M. Bach is only unclear in a few places with an error ratio of about 3%. This ratio is insignificant once one understands the principles behind these slurs. Those errors can be corrected. As an example of the copyist’s art it is both exemplary and authoritative.