1—Principles of Interpretation
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5 My purpose in this opening chapter is to summarize information about various aspects of the topic, which will be alluded to throughout the book and provide the basis for clearer understanding of ideas that may frequently be novel or at odds with contemporary concepts of interpretation. Notation My suggestions for interpretation are based on the use of the facsimile of Bach’s autograph , with occasional reference to the copy by Anna Magdalena. Once one becomes used to reading it, the notation in both manuscripts is fairly clear, and if one is to arrive at an independent interpretation, their use is essential. Bear in mind that any “Urtext” edition has involved decision making on the part of the editor, whose task it is to decipher the numerous ambiguities. One of my goals in writing this book is to help readers in this process in the hope of liberating them from reliance on editions of any kind. We should also be aware that any system of notation represents the closest possible approximation to the composer’s intention, and that it was only in the twentieth century that composers began to micromanage, even to the extent of dictating the duration of notes. It is important, therefore, to familiarize oneself with certain conventions spelled out in treatises of the period that have to do with rhythmic alteration and rubato. Since the only information we’re given is the notes themselves, we must learn to read between the lines. Polyphony Examination of the facsimile will reveal an important feature: Bach never wrote two notes on one stem. This notational convention clearly shows that Bach was always thinking polyphonically . Hence, a double-stop, or a three- or four-voice chord should never be chapter one Principles of Interpretation 6 The Accompaniment in “Unaccompanied” Bach perceived as a vertical entity except for the purpose of harmonic identification: it is a point at which the separate voices coincide. The concept of vocal coincidence helps us to give each line its appropriate weight, according to whether its function is primary or accompanying. Harmony Awareness of the function of each chord—whether consonant or dissonant—and the nature of the harmonic progressions is essential to determining the dynamic shape of gestures and phrases, and consequently the organization of the music. Generally speaking, a dissonance will resolve on a consonance and be dynamically stronger, but as with most generalizations, you will encounter occasional exceptions according to context. I point out to my students that we, in the twenty-first century, have heard everything—or think we have—but if we are to react to music as eighteenth-century musicians did, we need to be surprised by and respond to harmonies such as the diminished-seventh chord that are familiar to us but novel or even shocking to them. Metre The metre of a movement is an essential factor in the determination of its tempo. One of my cardinal rules of interpretation is that all music is in one, by which I mean that there is one strong beat per measure and one weak, an ancient practice referred to as tactus. This concept enables us to differentiate between similar metres—2 4 and 4 4, 6 8 and 12 8 —and to understand why a composer chose one rather than the other. In the case of triple metres, in which the “tactus” will be irregular, the irregularity will be dictated by the sequence of harmonies, sometimes one-two, sometimes one-three, but only rarely one-two-three even when there are three different chords. In principle, then, when a composer has chosen 2 4 over 4 4, the eighth-note, which is a subdivision in 4 4, is the basic unit in 2 4. The affect will usually be more energetic, and the tempo at times relatively slower, due to the frequency of strong beats. Indeed, Bach’s puzzling use of 2 4 as the metre of the B-minor Tempo di Borea, notated as four quarter-notes per measure, might be interpreted as his way of indicating a moderate tempo, for there are certainly two strong beats in many bars. Alla breve, or “cut time,” a term that refers to there being one strong beat per two measures, is usually indicated symbolically. However, it is important to recognize that more often than not, throughout the Sonatas and Partitas, the second bar of a pair is weaker harmonically, thereby creating what is essentially alla breve. Note also how Bach chose 3...


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