not Articulation, but Harmony



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.

Michael Bach


One thought on “not Articulation, but Harmony

  1. admin Post author

    Paul Zukofsky wrote:

    I do not disagree, but in the violin works, sometimes the slurs are bowings as well.

    re meters — in my view, the notated barlines in Bach are almost always meaningless. These are not “meters” in the sense of stress every X beats. They are just a grid used for convention. Most of the time, he pays NO attention to the meters AT ALL. Why so few people understand this is a complete mystery to me.

    Michael Bach:

    This is a misunderstanding which results from the title “not Articulation, but Harmony”, suggesting that if it’s not articulation – and hence the slurs indicate no bowings. But I think, we are in agreement on this point: The slurs are certainly bowings. My analysis of the Prélude does reflect that:

    Articulation (e. g. slurs) is traditionally always bound up with the motive, theme, melody. Here, in the violin and cello solo pieces of JSB the slurs are rather linked to the harmony. Nevertheless these slurs are of course bowings. I don’t know if we could still call the bowings “articulation”. Maybe “emphasizing the harmony” would be clearer.

    I agree also with your 2nd remark, the meters are nearly meaningless in these pieces. This will become clearer in my analysis of the end of the Prélude which will follow soon.

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