String Section: Bach

Mike Lawson • Commentary • March 17, 2014

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Bringing Bach to the Future

A hundred years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find an orchestral concert program that did not include something by Johann Sebastian Bach. These days, I find the opposite to be true. You may hear some Bach at a student recital, but on the professional concert circuit, interest in programming Bach seems to be dissipating. More than a few classical music managers have even told me that soloists who play much Bach these days are essentially shooting themselves in the foot.

Although I cannot discuss Bach’s pieces for other instruments and ensembles, I believe performances of Bach’s violin music are becoming stagnant. I wonder about the possible correlation between this development and the decline of Bach programming generally; while there is no way to determine this systematically, I thought it would be worth inquiring into interpretations of Bach’s violin music by using a few eminent Bach experts as sounding boards: Daniel Phillips, professor of Violin at the Aaron Copland School of Music of Queens College, the Mannes College of Music, and the Bard Conservatory; Ida Kavafian, professor of Violin at Curtis Institute of Music, Bard College Conservatory of Music, and Juilliard School; Edgar Meyer, professor of Double Bass at Curtis Institute of Music and Vanderbilt University; and Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin, professor of Violin at Rice School of Music and Juilliard.

I recently took a few of Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas and added my own articulations and bowings. I spent quite a bit of time creating mathematical schemes with my bowings, as Bach himself did, and all my choices were musically motivated. After I finished my versions, I sent them to the four colleagues and professors mentioned above. Below are snippets of their initial reactions:


Daniel Phillips: Your rendition is certainly musical, interesting, and violinistic, and has a personal style… yours suits your unique take and feeling in your bow arm, which is one of the finest ever. There are many older editions made by great violinists and pedagogues like Bronstein, Joachim, Dounis, Busch, Auer, who have also changed the bowings and devised fingerings to suit their contemporary style and personal understanding of the music. Most of the older virtuosi like Milstein and Heifetz also freely changed what Bach wrote to suit their style of performing. So, in that tradition, your edition has validity. Personally, I choose to respect Bach’s articulations, since I look up to him as a greater genius than me.


Ida Kavafian: For Bach, I would not be comfortable recommending this approach to students for performance. Perhaps for practice or to expand one’s abilities it could have a place, but for my own taste, I would prefer to hear and teach what the man himself wrote.


Edgar Meyer: The problem is that Bach was a great violinist and he left very specific bowings. When teaching Bach, I ask that the bowings sound like Bach could have written them… there are hundreds of string parts bowed by Bach, and he has very clear preferences, including almost never slurring outside of the rhythmic frame, i.e. no syncopated bowings. Of course that is what you do better than anyone else, but it is not Bach… your bowings make it sound a little more like Mark O’Connor.


Cho-Liang Lin: I think for most conservatory-trained violinists, your bowings might strike some fear into their hearts being so different. But the more adventurous souls might find this interesting and they will be more willing to try them out… some tough bowings, but they create some really nice agogic accents that give this presto some fabulous patterns.


The common thread in these responses is an adherence to Bach’s own articulations and bowings and thus a respect for his original intent. However, I think there is a major problem with this mode of thinking.

Attempting to guess or know Bach’s intent is risky. During Bach’s lifetime, music publishing did not exist, so it is impossible to know what kind of future he envisioned for his music, if he envisioned one at all. Many of his pieces were written down on manuscript paper only once. In fact, Bach’s wife even used some of his manuscript paper (containing original works) as packing material, probably assuming that, after a few performances, it was not necessary to keep the music around anymore.

Given how creative a thinker and prolific an improviser Bach was, how can we assume he did not want his music to be embellished and interpreted in various ways? Certainly, performing his violin music on modern instruments with modern bows and modern strings is a form of interpretation. It is at least a serious deviation from the music as Bach conceived of it. If preserving intent is the chief aim, then vibrato should be eliminated (as it was not employed in Bach’s time), and performers should use short, curved bows and short-necked violins with sheep gut strings and no chin rests.

The crux of the issue, though, is the questionable relevance of Bach’s bowings and articulations to his musical intent. Bach’s music is genius; his bowings and articulations (there are very few of the latter) are not. They certainly have much less to do with the music than the form and the notes themselves. Meyer recently produced an album by mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile performing three of Bach’s sonatas and partitas – an album many young conservatory-trained violinists consider superior to most recent recordings of the same pieces by premier violinists. Of course, the bowings are inapplicable to Thile, because he uses a pick. Yet the music still retains all of its value.

It is curious to note that the most popular edition of Bach’s music today contains many embellishments, articulations, and bowings introduced by Ivan Galamian (1903-1981), the famed professor of violin who taught at Juilliard, Curtis, and Oberlin. Most violinists today learn Galamian’s editions. Permitting and even canonizing Galamian’s edits seems contradictory to the desire to preserve Bach’s intent. To make matters more complicated, at least some of Galamian’s edits had no musical purpose whatsoever. Kavafian explains:


 “For me, Bach’s slurs are not so much bowings as they are phrasings. In the case of Galamian, they are bowings and not phrasings… I actually find that your bowings come from a purpose that is closer to the music than in Galamian’s bowings. In your case, you are striving to find the dance elements. His bowings came from making equal bow distribution and violinistic convenience more than music, because to do Bach’s bowings is really much more challenging. Galamian changed phrasing to fit the violin, and that is where I take issue. Just because it’s difficult or unwieldy is not a good enough reason to just change it, in my book.”


Kavafian speaks of the modifications as though they are both significant and unmusical. Phillips has an entirely different take:


“As to Galamian’s changes, they are minor and attempt to preserve Bach’s original intent.”


I agree with Kavafian here, for I believe any modification to music can be and usually should be construed as major, not minor, and again, none of us knows what Bach’s intent was. It is interesting that two Bach experts would diverge so dramatically on this matter. But their responses do share an underlying concern for preserving the original – a concern that appears to be at odds with the very fact that the Galamian edition is so popular. If most violin performers and instructors are afraid of undermining Bach’s intent, why don’t they just use transcriptions of Bach’s original manuscripts?

The main point, though, is that preservation is held in too high regard here. Certainly, Galamian did not do anything wrong by offering his own approach to playing the music. What he did was, in principle, no different than what Leopold Auer, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Joachim, and other violin masters of the past did when they introduced their own edits to the sonatas and partitas to suit their own preferences and inclinations, even though their edits seem to be more artistically motivated.

The problem lies in the mindset modern violinists have adopted in interpreting Bach’s music. It seems the approach to playing Bach is permeated by a rigid, almost fearful obedience to “intent” that is impossible to know. I believe that if violinists today started making their own personal, creative interpretations of Bach’s music, we might eventually see more Bach violin music on the concert circuit. Of course, as Lin indicated, if classically trained conservatory students were asked to start coming up with their own interpretations of Bach, they would feel lost. Learning how to interpret music creatively must begin at an early age.

By introducing my own bowings and articulations to the Bach sonatas and partitas, I am not trying to improve Bach, only open the door to improving modern performances of Bach. I would like other players to follow my lead, make Bach’s music their own, and reveal to audiences new, refreshing takes on the music written by one of the greatest musical geniuses this world has ever known.


Mark O’Connor is a multiple Grammy Award-winning composer and violinist who teaches at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and directs an internationally renowned Summer String Program at the Berklee College of Music.

O’Connor has authored the O’Connor Method for violin, viola, cello, and string orchestra. In addition to promoting standard technical acquisition, the O’Connor Method incorporates American music and styles into a holistic approach to musical creativity, improvisation, music history, and cultural diversity. More information on the New American School of String Playing, teacher-training seminars, O’Connor Method Camps, and O’Connor’s residencies can be found online.

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