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Slurs in J.S.Bach's "St. Anne" Prelude BWV 552i


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I am currently relearning this piece and need guidance on phrasing the dotted quaver/ semiquaver groupings in the first section. The problem is that Bach slurs only two notes in the first half of the section (e.g. bars 5-7), but then changes this later on to four notes (e.g. bars 25-28). How should I slur the unmarked groupings?

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During the middle years of the 18th century, articulation was in a state of transition. From when there was, seemingly, little or none, as we understand it (pace Harald Vogel et al.), it began rapidly to develop during Bach’s latter years.

 

In those days, composers would have assumed that those who performed their music would know what was required for different types of pieces, tempi, etc. etc. Now, we are subject to the ‘benefits’ of hindsight- where everything is known and has been uncovered (not !).

 

If you look at the autograph in Book I, composed less than a decade before, it has no slurs.

 

In this case, as you state, he himself writes two different modes of articulation for, seemingly, the same group of notes. However, this is not the case. He was not the person wilfully to confuse: all must have a purpose, for our Johann Sebastian.

 

I believe the solution is to employ the articulation indicated by the slurs, until it changes; then, use that, and so on.

 

In the autograph (see http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP03269-Bach_-_Dritter_Theil_der_Clavier_%C3%9Cbung,_bestehend_in_verschiedenen_Vorspielen_-...-_vor_die_Orgel.pdf), the first half of what we might call the ‘inégales sections’ has slurred paired notes; the second, over the group of four. (Notwithstanding his lax scribing.) For whatever reason, therefore, this is what I would play. I’m most interested to learn if anyone might suggest why he indicates the different articulations.

 

 

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It might just be worth mentioning that Clavierübung III is not autograph in the strict sense. It was produced by four engravers, with some of the items, including the Prelude and Fugue, being produced by "Paustechnik", a method that involved tracing. Such pieces should look identical in all respects to Bach's (lost) exemplar, but I do wonder how foolproof it was, especially since, in Bach's autograph manuscripts, the precise number of notes covered by a slur is not always crystal clear (as noted by Firstrees above). Nevertheless, I can't see why the engraver should carried on for a whole passage inadvertently combining two slurs into a one longer one, so I think we have to take what we see at face value. Clavierübung III is the only authority for the pieces it contains since since no pre-production sources are known and all subsequent manuscripts derive from the print. As to why Bach chose two different phrasings I really have no idea. I wonder if experts in early fingering could shed any light. I find the whole piece infuriating since my natural inclination is to play the dotted sections like a French overture, over-dotting the dots and detaching almost everything, yet Bach clearly didn't want detached playing. Bach's slurs often remind me of string writing. I am sure someone must have written an article on them somewhere.

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Somewhere I have a (very) academic book about the engraving of CÜIII. It made sense when I was reading it but I can’t honestly remember much now. I do remember that the original engraver was “let go” by JSB and I thing Bach took the opportunity to change the structure of the book at that point, which was a big deal, involving, as it did, the repagination of everything.

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I imagine innate is referring to "Bach's CIII The Making of a Print" by Gregory Butler. In this Butler contends that the prelude was engraved by Johann Krugner as part of the later additions when JSB decided to expand the collection during its creation. Though there is no detailed discussion, he does also contend that the first 18 plates had corrections engraved on to them (p81). If so it seems like JSB was happy with the slurs as printed, which leaves us with the puzzle of what he meant .....

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... I find the whole piece infuriating since my natural inclination is to play the dotted sections like a French overture, over-dotting the dots and detaching almost everything, yet Bach clearly didn't want detached playing. ...

 

 

 

I wonder if he had in mind a dry acoustic (and therefore a particular building and instrument) in mind; this might account for the apparently unnatural articulation.

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Given how little of his music was printed in his lifetime I have always assumed that there was at least a hope that the pieces Bach did publish were designed to have some measure of universality in appeal or application; adding articulation signs for a particular building or instrument would seem to run counter to that assumption. But I’m quite prepared to admit I’m wrong.

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I wonder if he had in mind a dry acoustic (and therefore a particular building and instrument) in mind; this might account for the apparently unnatural articulation.

 

There is an anecdote - unfortunately by someone too young to have heard Bach personally, although his father was a Bach pupil - claiming that a certain organist who played everything staccato "could not possibly please those who knew Bach's legato manner of playing." There may actually be something in this since there are very occasional hints in Bach's writing that could be seen as being consistent with a legato style and the slurs in BWV 552 could arguably be seen as another indication. Was the richer and fuller sonority that would have resulted from legato playing perhaps part of Bach's quest for Gravitas? I don't think it's impossible, although I can't say the idea appeals to me musically.
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There is an anecdote - unfortunately by someone too young to have heard Bach personally, although his father was a Bach pupil - claiming that a certain organist who played everything staccato "could not possibly please those who knew Bach's legato manner of playing." There may actually be something in this since there are very occasional hints in Bach's writing that could be seen as being consistent with a legato style and the slurs in BWV 552 could arguably be seen as another indication. Was the richer and fuller sonority that would have resulted from legato playing perhaps part of Bach's quest for Gravitas? I don't think it's impossible, although I can't say the idea appeals to me musically.

 

 

I tend to default towards legato in Bach, as my main place of playing is so "dead" acoustically that staccato sounds, well - silly for want of a better description! I find - rightly or wrongly -that my personal preference is for an almost Dupre-like legato for many chorale preludes (eg "O Mensch bewein", "Nun komm, der heiden Heiland" and "Liebster Jesu")

 

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Re-reading Peter Williams ("The Organ Music . . ", 2nd ed., 2003), I am reminded that D major was possibly the original key of both Prelude and Fugue (though “transposition is not demonstrable”). This key would, however, not jibe with the received view of this work as a musical representation of the Trinity.

 

There is the faintest of clues in the absence of articulation in the (“traditional German”) double fugue, bar 71 on, and bar 130 on, (“a kind of music never given dots or slurs”). This is in contrast with the French and Italian style sections, which does have articulation marks.

 

Bach, therefore, has iterated musics in three national styles in this piece (the Prelude). Does he, with the 'evidence' of these slight clues in the ‘autograph score’, expect the performer to play these sections in these different national styles ? Since he did not have, in the modern sense, a ‘unified style’, was his performance practice similarly non-unified ? He had certainly heard several distinguished executants from France and ‘Italy’.

 

There is, in addition, more than a touch of the galant (and a looking forward) in the (echo) sections starting bars 33 and 111.

 

Murky waters, indeed !

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Since he did not have, in the modern sense, a ‘unified style’, was his performance practice similarly non-unified ? He had certainly heard several distinguished executants from France and ‘Italy’.

 

The prevailing informed opinion seems to be that, in the interests of becoming an fully educated and skilled musician, Bach acquainted himself with the different national styles and genres, absorbing from them what he found useful for his own purposes and discarding what he didn't (I am sure someone could write a whole book on Bach's response to opera - if they haven't already). However, the key words are "for his own purposes". There isn't a shred of evidence to suggest that he adopted the national playing styles of those countries for their respective types of musics, but there is some to suggest that he didn't. The current thinking on notes inégales not being practised outside France is a case in point. That he clearly did not want the dotted sections of the E flat prelude to be played in the "jerkily" detached French overture style is surely another. Bach was entirely his own man.

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I once learned that notes inegales for certain French music was mainly for slurred notes and/or descending seconds, but I now cannot find any good sources for his. Did anybody else learn this too? It seems that certain sources, on the other hand, claim that slurs mean the opposite, that the notes should be played evenly.

 

Along these lines, I wonder about the tradition and background of playing dotted rhythms where the short note is connected to the next long note on the strong beat versus the longer note connected to the following short note.

 

What do you think about the cut time signature of the E-flat prelude, by the way?

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Ditto!

 

I suppose the English equivalent was Garth Benson's reply when asked how to manage the swell pedal in a certain passage of Howells: a cough and the words, "Do it when you can."

 

Kenneth Mobbs at Bristol University reckoned there was a good case for notes inegales in the Prelude of the Great C minor, and played it that way. I do too.

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I once learned that notes inegales for certain French music was mainly for slurred notes and/or descending seconds, but I now cannot find any good sources for his. Did anybody else learn this too? It seems that certain sources, on the other hand, claim that slurs mean the opposite, that the notes should be played evenly.

 

Along these lines, I wonder about the tradition and background of playing dotted rhythms where the short note is connected to the next long note on the strong beat versus the longer note connected to the following short note.

 

What do you think about the cut time signature of the E-flat prelude, by the way?

 

I have tried to answer your question about notes inégales in a new thread.

 

As for the cut C time signature, frankly I don't know. An answer to that would need someone with extensive knowledge of the sources of the time. I can only observe that Bach's normal common time signature is C, but barred-C in alla breve works. The difference must be significant in some way, but, given that the Renaissance proportional system was long dead by Bach's time*, does the barred-C imply a faster speed or just a grander manner of playing? I expect some contemporary says something about this somewhere. The most authoritative source of the Canzona is in C, but the elaborately ornamented version is in barred-C. It is hardly conceivable that the latter was played faster.

 

I once asked a noted French organ scholar about where/how to 'do' notes inégales - I received a gallic shrug and the advice to do what sounds right!

 

A

 

That's just a cop-out.

 

* Its strict application is often questionable even in mid sixteenth-century Tudor music, especially when it comes to barred-C versus barred-Ɔ.

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Ditto!

 

I suppose the English equivalent was Garth Benson's reply when asked how to manage the swell pedal in a certain passage of Howells: a cough and the words, "Do it when you can."

 

 

Yes, I found a couple of passages in Howells where a third leg would have been most handy- if that’s not too much of a confusion of limbs !

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As for the cut C time signature, frankly I don't know. An answer to that would need someone with extensive knowledge of the sources of the time. I can only observe that Bach's normal common time signature is C, but barred-C in alla breve works. The difference must be significant in some way, but, given that the Renaissance proportional system was long dead by Bach's time*, does the barred-C imply a faster speed or just a grander manner of playing? I expect some contemporary says something about this somewhere. The most authoritative source of the Canzona is in C, but the elaborately ornamented version is in barred-C. It is hardly conceivable that the latter was played faster.

 

Well, I think there is some evidence that the two are supposed to be proportional in certain cases. For example, look at p. 178 here where we have BWV 661a in common time with sixteenth notes versus the final version in cut time with eighth notes. However, there are plenty of other examples where Bach did not change the note duration but just the time signature (see a couple of pages above on p. 174, not to mention examples in countless of other works). I think that he, like any other human being, sometimes simply changed his mind and did not have the idea of a "fixed beat".

 

Regardless of whether or not cut time should keep the same "beat" as common time, however, I do think cut time means that one should be able to count each measure in two rather than in four, which provides some kind of a lower bound for the tempo. Some recordings of this work (especially older ones), feel a bit too slow to be in 2/2 rather than 4/4. (I think that the overture from the 4th keyboard Partita, BWV 828, which is also in cut time, suffers similarly, although tempi for that piece are often even slower.)

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Well, I think there is some evidence that the two are supposed to be proportional in certain cases. For example, look at p. 178 here where we have BWV 661a in common time with sixteenth notes versus the final version in cut time with eighth notes. However, there are plenty of other examples where Bach did not change the note duration but just the time signature (see a couple of pages above on p. 174, not to mention examples in countless of other works). I think that he, like any other human being, sometimes simply changed his mind and did not have the idea of a "fixed beat".

 

Yes. I think I would incline towards the view that, in the case of BWV 661 and 661a, it is more likely that Bach simply changed his mind about the speed. If the speeds of both versions came to exactly the same thing, why bother to change the notation?

 

Some recordings of this work (especially older ones), feel a bit too slow to be in 2/2 rather than 4/4. (I think that the overture from the 4th keyboard Partita, BWV 828, which is also in cut time, suffers similarly, although tempi for that piece are often even slower.)

 

Again I agree, but the (possible) problem with this is that it assumes that we would have found baroque performances to our taste. I don't see why that should necessarily follow. It is possible that they might have been more to the taste of those who performed those older recordings. Those slower speeds must have seemed perfectly musical to the performers at the time. Have you seen Beverly Jerold's online article on Baroque tempo? It's worth a read. (I posted a thread on it with a link a few months ago.)

I recall with wry amusement how, thirty years ago, my late father-in-law was always complaining about the modern fad for fast speeds in Baroque music. Nowadays it is me making the same complaint!

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In some pieces from the Art of Fugue, between the manuscript and the print version, Bach changed the signature as well as the note values; in some others, only one of either. Scholars put this down to his (supposed) wish to stress the stile antico connotation of his writing. This is supported by the fact that, in the later version, Bach preferred switching note values to the next-higher level. Since the texture generally remained the same, this does not seem to have affected the tempo.

 

In short, a cut-time signature in Bach might just be a signal to the knowledgable player that it’s serious polyphony he’s dealing with, no less.

 

Best

Friedrich

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Yes. I think I would incline towards the view that, in the case of BWV 661 and 661a, it is more likely that Bach simply changed his mind about the speed. If the speeds of both versions came to exactly the same thing, why bother to change the notation?

This is interesting. I never realized that the change in notation could be used to justify either side ("He changed it, so it must have made a difference," or "He wrote the same thing another way, so the two are equivalent.")

 

 

Again I agree, but the (possible) problem with this is that it assumes that we would have found baroque performances to our taste. I don't see why that should necessarily follow. It is possible that they might have been more to the taste of those who performed those older recordings. Those slower speeds must have seemed perfectly musical to the performers at the time. Have you seen Beverly Jerold's online article on Baroque tempo? It's worth a read. (I posted a thread on it with a link a few months ago.)

I recall with wry amusement how, thirty years ago, my late father-in-law was always complaining about the modern fad for fast speeds in Baroque music. Nowadays it is me making the same complaint!

 

I have just found that post and read the article. Very interesting stuff, although it all goes to show how few rules we should prescribe due to complexity of the issue. Now on changing ideas about speed--there was once a time when I thought Anthony Newman's tempi should be the standard!

 

 

In short, a cut-time signature in Bach might just be a signal to the knowledgable player that it’s serious polyphony he’s dealing with, no less.

 

Best

Friedrich

 

This is a very interesting view I had not heard before. Of course, "common time" (notated with a circle) also existed before in older polyphonic music, and in the "St. Anne" Fugue we have common time for 4/2.

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This is interesting. I never realized that the change in notation could be used to justify either side ("He changed it, so it must have made a difference," or "He wrote the same thing another way, so the two are equivalent.")

 

It might be worth pondering a couple of points here. Firstly, the price of paper in Bach's time, although nothing like what it had been, was still quite costly compared to today, making it less likely that a composer would waste paper (and ink) writing out something unnecessarily. Secondly, one might wonder why Bach would have bothered to re-notate a piece solely for himself, so it is probably fair to assume that, when he did make changes in the purely cosmetic aspects of the notation (as opposed to music itself), he was doing so for other users, mostly his students, but also perhaps other organists willing to pay for a copies. I find it hard to believe that Bach coupled alla breve music with a cut-C purely out of a sense of tradition (Bach's idea of tradition was to bring a Palestrina mass up to date by adding an accompaniment for wind, double bass and organ), so I am inclined to think that he must have intended the notation to convey something about the performance style. For his organ music, a sense of "gravitas" might have had something to do with it - why are most of his big bipartite organ works in minor keys and how does this ratio of minor:major compare with the rest of his output?

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This is a very interesting view I had not heard before. Of course, "common time" (notated with a circle) also existed before in older polyphonic music, and in the "St. Anne" Fugue we have common time for 4/2.

It is a common topic with the Art of Fugue, probably because the two major sources make the matter so plainly visible. Bach’s wish to stress the polyphonic, stile-antico nature of the music is often deduced from his supposed intention to publish the AoF as his third, and last, annual contribution for the Mizler society, which specifically dealt with academic matters. Bach was singularly allowed to contribute music instead of a treatise.

 

Best wishes

Friedrich

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