J.S. Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo

From the author

Three Sonatas and Three Partitas, BWV 1001–1006 for violin solo by Johann Sebastian Bach occupy a special place in violin literature. They are are a complete work, perfect in every respect ‒ musical content, the composer’s mastery of polyphony or his knowledge of violin playing techniques. It is no wonder then that the pieces are an obligatory component of the learning programme at practically every stage of study, as they are second to none in teaching the violinist to take care of beautiful, even and defect-free sound, correct chord execution and very careful intonation control, and all this happens on the basis of exquisitely noble music material. Its reading, comprehension and interpretation take the entire life and nobody can ever claim with absolute certainty that they ‘know how to play Bach’.

The way in which Bach’s works (and any other works of music) are performed has changed over time, just like we ourselves and the world around us. Although I myself belong to the ‒ most probably dwindling ‒ group of violinists, to whom the unrivalled performances of Bach’s music are those by Henryk Szeryng, I could not but admit that executions on vintage instruments ‒ so fashionable in recent times ‒ are also capable of making a huge impression on me, provided the player is an outstanding musician.

Being a keen observer of our music circles, I have seen that very often early music is performed by musicians with largely insufficient skills and abilities as regards playing technique, who are most likely drawn to do it by fashion or a current demand for this type of art. I would not like to be misunderstood: I regard searching for answers to questions about how music from a given period was played at the time it was written, finding sources or performing early music ‘in the original style’ as something desirable and praiseworthy. The thing is that I believe this kind of performance on stage should only be undertaken by musicians who are real masters of their instruments.

Jacek Ropski J.S. Bach - Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo

Currently, the fashion for this peculiar and ‒ as many believe ‒ the ‘only proper’ way of playing baroque music has spread so much that frequently during workshops I conduct at schools of music or at music academy entrance examinations I hear parts of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas performed in just such a way by young violinists, whose skills are so mediocre that their play does more harm than good. Why is it then that so many young musicians, often very uncritically, decide to adopt the above-mentioned style of playing? The answers are dead simple: ‘because more and more people play like that’, ‘because I will never win a competition if I play differently’, ‘because I will not be admitted to a music academy’, or ‘because this is how it is played’.

This ‘because this is how it is played’ is the most common excuse. Let us consider for a moment what playing baroque music by such violinists comes down to and what can be heard in many of their performances. I will attempt to enumerate them here, offering perhaps slightly sarcastic comments, which are intended to point out how oversimplified the thinking about the performance of baroque music can often be:

  • Absurd fingering ‒ just to stay in the lowest positions (‘because this is how it was played ‒ the higher positions were not used’);
  • Use of the original bowing whatever the cost, even if this means playing contrary to what is natural (‘because only then can you hear proper phrasing ‒ as intended by the composer’);
  • Audible so-called bellies on all long notes (‘because this, after all, was the shape of the bow’);
  • Avoidance at all costs of any flageolets, even if they would turn fingering-wise cumbersome places into child’s play (‘no, simply no’);
  • Lack of care for proper rhythm, teetering on the edge of total freedom with regard to rhythm (‘because emotion is what counts ‒ this music is full of life’);
  • Trills always played from top (‘this is how it was played then’).

Furthermore, those using original instruments from the epoch and gut strings often do not care about intonation ‒ ‘because the strings become lax; and you can’t really tune them properly’.

Jacek Ropski Publikacje J.S. Bach - Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo

Once again, I would like to stress that everything I have written here is based on my observations and reflections. It is not my intention to argue with professional early music researchers or to offend anyone; I only wish to point out that many violinists’ entire knowledge about baroque music is limited to the several elements listed above. If indeed the performance of baroque music were limited to them, it would have to be regarded as the easiest one, because the incorporation of those ‘rules’ into practice would take an average violinist just a few hours. In fact, it calls for years of study, constant trials, education and practice.

Let us consider the issue in question using the following image: a teacher from a typical Polish school of music goes with their student to a national or regional violin audition/competition. During the audition, they hear a finalist, a student of a renown Polish music professor, playing for instance Largo and Allegro assai in some ‘other’ way, which is not taught at their ordinary school. The piece sounds light, is played faster than usually, the player generally stays in the lower positions and more often plays open strings (neither the teacher nor the student managed to remember the exact fingering, but they are fairly certain they know sufficiently well what this way of playing is all about). After their return to their school, they already know that ‘this is how it is played now’. Both the student and their teacher get to ‘work’ and the first thing they do is they meticulously erase all the fingering and bowing indications of from the outdated ‒ as they now know ‒ version by Wroński, and if they correctly recall the name Bärenreiter, they order via Internet the clean, German urtext edition, which is now, after all, ‘what everybody uses’. The teacher, who so far had no contact with such an approach, begins to use new, ‘epoch-making’ solutions both in relation to the fingering and purely musical aspects. As a result, many motifs are played unnecessarily on different strings, phrasing breaks, tritones are resolved with crossing fingers, and the work (what do you know!) ends with an up-bow. What is important, however, is that (at long last!) the student plays Bach ‘as he should be played’.

Clearly, as a reaction to all of the above deliberations, the following questions might be asked: does this mean that you cannot look for anything else, that you have to play in the same fashion throughout your life, that teachers should not try and change anything in how their students play, and that not-so-technically-advanced students should not attempt to play Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in a different, new way? Absolutely not! All the above deliberations only reflect my care for the Polish violin circles, in which I can ‒ unfortunately extremely frequently ‒ see the following phenomena:

  • The herd instinct, to which a significant portion of the circle has already succumbed ‒ students, often without a clue about ‘how’ and ‘why’, and their teachers, who often lack sufficient knowledge and skills, but they undertake to ‘teach’ like that, because ‘this is how it is played today’;
  • The limitation by many teachers, and consequently by many of their students, of the entire issue of playing baroque music ‒ which, in my opinion, is extremely difficult in terms of technique and expression ‒ to the several aspects I mentioned above. The result are the pseudo-baroque performances which one can more and more often come across;
  • A bad approach to teaching in general ‒ focusing on play in the first positions, with the use of open strings, while the student does not even know the basic rules of fingering; demanding light play, while there is no footing in the play at all, and gravitation almost does not exist; doing away with vibration, while it would also require a lot of work, etc.

Professor Tadeusz Wroński in his book O czym nie ma czasu mówić na lekcjach [What you have no time to discuss in class] describes how his own teacher, Józef Jarzębski, used to work with his students. He taught his students ‘to walk’. He taught them how to walk properly and efficiently, leaving ‘walking on ice’ and ‘walking barefoot in the forest’ for the future. I mention it, because in my opinion, this is how our work on Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas should be like: we have to learn ourselves and teach our students to ‘walk’ properly, i.e. to play with beautiful, even sound, with good intonation and proper rhythm, leaving ‘walking on ice’ and ‘walking barefoot in the forest’ for the future, once standard ‘walk’ has been mastered.

Why am I writing about all this? When I was setting out to work on my arrangement of the Sonatas and Partitas, I had all these issues in mind. I wanted to leave as much original Bach’s bowing as possible, but not at the cost of convenience or performance energy. I wanted players to learn certain rules and fingering habits (resolution of tritones while avoiding crosswise finger shifts, leaving or taking fingers off strings in an economic fashion, performing individual musical motifs without constantly changing strings, etc.).

I am aware that many of my propositions will not be welcome by players (or rather their teachers). Undoubtedly, the first thing to come under criticism will be my use of flageolets, but I hasten to explain that I only used them in situations in which they greatly simplify the performance of a given fragment. Those which are purely intended for colouristic effects are given as an alternative, in brackets.

Objections can also be raised against the chords which I propose to be played from top or back to one of the middle voices. I believe this manner of execution, designed to emphasise the melodic line or the theme in a fugue, is proper, provided it is implemented correctly.
At last, my fingering solutions ‒ these are open to all sorts of criticism (‘why like this?’, ‘this is much more comfortable’, ‘this is illogical’, etc.). When I browse through my arrangement, sometimes I myself wonder why. Quite often, later on I find solutions that are much more comfortable and then I look critically back on my former proposals. However, there are so many teachers or violinists who constantly seek ideal fingerings (what is even worse, there are also those who claim they have found them!), while such fingerings simply do not exist ‒ an ideal fingering is ideal only until it is replaced with another, even better one! And this is, after all, one of the things that make our profession beautiful.

I would like this publication to be, at least to a certain extent, an antidote to the following situation: during the first class devoted to a new piece, the student knows nothing about it ‒ although they have familiarised themselves with the sheet music and heard the piece performed, they are unable to get a feel for the tempo or its nature, they cannot point out the main problem areas, etc. This is why, apart from explanations of some of the solutions I propose, the book also contains some general performance guidance. Of course, a discussion of each of the elements and problems to be encountered in the Sonatas and Partitas would turn the publication into an encyclopaedia, which I wanted to avoid. This is why I decided to present some general issues concerning a given piece a little more broadly at the beginning of a given movement description, and then itemize specific technical and performance problems.

In February 2000, when I was just under 19 years old, I became a finalist of the International Tadeusz Wroński Solo Violin Competition in Warsaw. Unfortunately, Prof. Wroński had died several days before the competition, and so I lost the opportunity to meet that great Person. As time went on, I grew up, making new mistakes, both in life and in my professional career as a violinist, until I even came to dispute the Professor’s achievements. I must admit that I was one of those violinists, who without any analysis or closer familiarization with His works straight away reject the solutions proposed by the Professor, regarding them as outdated (‘nowadays, nobody plays like that any more’). However, now I can say with full responsibility that after some years have passed, His books and works regarding violin play have become to me the best guidelines and the best help in my work, both as a teacher and a concert musician. What is more, if we can talk about a Polish violin school at all, this is mainly due to Prof. Wroński. Therefore, I would like both my arrangement of the Sonatas and Partitas and this publication to be regarded as a tribute paid by me to that outstanding Artist.

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...Your thoughts and conclusions have given me great satisfaction (…) I am sure that not only Bach’s music but any music should be performed in a way to meet artistic, esthetic and style requirements. To be direct, performance doesn’t have to be pretty. I agree completely with your observations. However, in your deliberations they serve the final performance to be beautiful. You are possibly the first person who has had the courage to get away from such a fashionable but simplified performance…

prof. Wiesław Kwaśny

2018-03-12T16:18:56+01:00

prof. Wiesław Kwaśny

...Your thoughts and conclusions have given me great satisfaction (…) I am sure that not only Bach’s music but any music should be performed in a way to meet artistic, esthetic and style requirements. To be direct, performance doesn’t have to be pretty. I agree completely with your observations. However, in your deliberations they serve the final performance to be beautiful. You are possibly the first person who has had the courage to get away from such a fashionable but simplified performance…
...I have looked over the score material and performance commentary with great interest. I’m full of admiration for your undertaking such an extraordinary challenge. Your detailed and multifaceted analysis of Sonatas and Partitas evokes my true respect. (…) Your proposals sound extremely interesting. (…) I am very happy that there is such a publication on our market. Particularly, publishing and editing the commentary might have an important influence on pedagogues’ awareness (especially in high school education) regarding both the technical and emotional aspects. I am sure that your work will be received very positively by the whole violin community in Poland…

prof. Łukasz Błaszczyk

2018-03-12T16:19:35+01:00

prof. Łukasz Błaszczyk

...I have looked over the score material and performance commentary with great interest. I’m full of admiration for your undertaking such an extraordinary challenge. Your detailed and multifaceted analysis of Sonatas and Partitas evokes my true respect. (…) Your proposals sound extremely interesting. (…) I am very happy that there is such a publication on our market. Particularly, publishing and editing the commentary might have an important influence on pedagogues’ awareness (especially in high school education) regarding both the technical and emotional aspects. I am sure that your work will be received very positively by the whole violin community in Poland…
The performance commentary by Jacek Ropski of his elaboration of Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo by Jan Sebastian Bach is an interesting perspective on this great masterpiece. In it, the author touches on many technical-performance problems, comments on his own proposed solutions and presents his own point of view on solo pieces by Bach and, generally, on violin playing. (…) The work of Jacek Ropski introduces a new look on Polish violin playing, and the author himself – as an educated, titled violinist with some pedagogical experience, is in some ways proof of the presented views.

prof. Bartosz Bryła

2018-03-12T16:20:00+01:00

prof. Bartosz Bryła

The performance commentary by Jacek Ropski of his elaboration of Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo by Jan Sebastian Bach is an interesting perspective on this great masterpiece. In it, the author touches on many technical-performance problems, comments on his own proposed solutions and presents his own point of view on solo pieces by Bach and, generally, on violin playing. (…) The work of Jacek Ropski introduces a new look on Polish violin playing, and the author himself – as an educated, titled violinist with some pedagogical experience, is in some ways proof of the presented views.
...You have done huge, wonderful and undoubtedly necessary work. I admire you for your professionalism, ambition and courage. The work you have done testifies that you are not in the same place but are developing yourself beautifully, and, most of all, that you put high demands before you. (…) Regarding your proposed fingering-bowing solutions, I have found many interesting and outright innovative proposals. (…) In the violin music of Bach we always find something new and there are as many performance ideas as performers…

prof. Antoni Cofalik

2018-03-12T16:20:23+01:00

prof. Antoni Cofalik

...You have done huge, wonderful and undoubtedly necessary work. I admire you for your professionalism, ambition and courage. The work you have done testifies that you are not in the same place but are developing yourself beautifully, and, most of all, that you put high demands before you. (…) Regarding your proposed fingering-bowing solutions, I have found many interesting and outright innovative proposals. (…) In the violin music of Bach we always find something new and there are as many performance ideas as performers…
...Since the publication of the elaboration of Sonatas and Partitas by Tadeusz Wroński on the European publishing market many, many years ago, this new edition recaptures everything that has happened in the performance practice of the violin pieces of Bach in the last twenty-five years. (…) After familiarizing myself with your edition, I have come to the conclusion that this is another step towards the violin synthesis of the tradition of informed performance of baroque polyphony and the contemporary technique of violin playing with all the benefits (and drawbacks) of the contemporary instrument. Young violinists, especially when starting their adventure with Bach’s music, need support and justification for their ruminations on interpretation. In my opinion, your publication provides such support...

prof. Mieczysław Szlezer

2018-03-12T16:20:45+01:00

prof. Mieczysław Szlezer

...Since the publication of the elaboration of Sonatas and Partitas by Tadeusz Wroński on the European publishing market many, many years ago, this new edition recaptures everything that has happened in the performance practice of the violin pieces of Bach in the last twenty-five years. (…) After familiarizing myself with your edition, I have come to the conclusion that this is another step towards the violin synthesis of the tradition of informed performance of baroque polyphony and the contemporary technique of violin playing with all the benefits (and drawbacks) of the contemporary instrument. Young violinists, especially when starting their adventure with Bach’s music, need support and justification for their ruminations on interpretation. In my opinion, your publication provides such support...
...I know and truthfully admire the performance elaboration set of Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo by J. S. Bach (BWV 1001-1006) published by the printing house of the Academy of Music in Wrocław. I evaluate Bach masterpiece with the author’s publishing and editing commentary very highly. Jacek Ropski’s proposals, without exaggeration and keeping proper proportions, I place among the solutions proposed by Max Rostal, Ivan Galamian or Tadeusz Wroński…

prof. Roman Lasocki

2018-03-12T16:21:15+01:00

prof. Roman Lasocki

...I know and truthfully admire the performance elaboration set of Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo by J. S. Bach (BWV 1001-1006) published by the printing house of the Academy of Music in Wrocław. I evaluate Bach masterpiece with the author’s publishing and editing commentary very highly. Jacek Ropski’s proposals, without exaggeration and keeping proper proportions, I place among the solutions proposed by Max Rostal, Ivan Galamian or Tadeusz Wroński…
The elaboration of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin by J.S. Bach by Jacek Ropski provides an interesting look on this monumental masterpiece. Previous elaborations have been summaries of the authors’ many years of pedagogical experience. Here we have a young pedagogue who is not yet laden with routine. His proposals come from personal experience. (…) Even the elaborations of Prof. T. Wroński or Prof. K. Mostras have their staunch followers or opponents. Jacek Ropski’s performance elaboration with editing study is an important addition to Polish violinism…

prof. Krzysztof Bruczkowski

2018-03-12T16:21:36+01:00

prof. Krzysztof Bruczkowski

The elaboration of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin by J.S. Bach by Jacek Ropski provides an interesting look on this monumental masterpiece. Previous elaborations have been summaries of the authors’ many years of pedagogical experience. Here we have a young pedagogue who is not yet laden with routine. His proposals come from personal experience. (…) Even the elaborations of Prof. T. Wroński or Prof. K. Mostras have their staunch followers or opponents. Jacek Ropski’s performance elaboration with editing study is an important addition to Polish violinism…