J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 is the only one of his solo violin works in which every movement is in a major key.
In his complementary course on this cheerful piece, William Hagen discusses constructing a narrative, inferring dynamics, tone and mood, bow technique, and more. He talks through each movement, addressing troublesome spots, offering fingering suggestions, and pointing the viewer toward opportunities for individuality.
If you’d like to see the previously mentioned lesson this blog post is based on, click here to watch it for free — otherwise, read on!
Bach’s third partita in E is the only one of his solo violin works (sonatas and partitas) in which every movement is in a major key and an upbeat feel is maintained throughout; it’s easily the most cheerful of the set.
Working on Bach can be challenging, particularly because of the scarcity of information with which to work.
In Beethoven sonatas, for example, there tends to be a lot of detail regarding dynamics and tempo changes throughout the work.
In Bach’s music, we have to make decisions based on harmony, articulation (slurs or separated phrasing), movement title, and time signature. Even in this partita, which has more dynamic markings than the other sonatas and partitas, we are limited to forte and piano.
Hagen encourages players to consider the how and why of Bach’s dynamics and phrasing in order to remain true to the score while also allowing room for individuality.
Considering these details will build conviction and direction in your interpretation as well as forming a clear narrative. You won’t get lost or have a memory slip if you know exactly where you are in the narrative.
Also, focus on making the basic execution as simple as possible, so that you can devote more attention to your interpretative voice. Typically this will involve a “quiet” left hand – as little motion as possible. When observing violinists that play with high efficiency, their fingers simply fall into place.
A particularly common challenge in this work is intonation. Try to keep the sharps bright throughout, playing very slightly high.
This will really lift the tone and keep every movement sounding cheerful. Use open strings to keep the intonation centered and to create bright, resonating cheerfulness.
To really bring out the sense of joy (in contrast to the dark mood that dominates most of the other sonatas and partitas), the opening of this prelude needs to be confident and brilliant.
The opening may feel uncomfortable at first because it starts on an off-beat (not on the downbeat), and the first note is placed in a high register.
Make sure you have a strategy for reliably placing the first high E. As everybody’s hands and fingers are slightly different, this will likely be different for everyone. Hagen is confident in third position, so he begins by finding the high A♯, on the A string, shifting silently to B, then using this as a guide to place the fourth finger on E on the E string.
As this opening misses the downbeat, it already carries a lot of energy right from the start, almost like an interruption.
Keep the momentum through the sixteenth notes, but aim for the big beats (downbeat of m. 2) to prevent rushing through phrases. Use a larger amount of bow to keep the sound exciting and exuberant. If this opening phrase starts well, it sets up the rest of the movement for a solid performance.
Continuing, take care that the left hand does not obstruct any of the strings, and avoid any crowding of the fingers.
As this piece is in E major, this will allow plenty of resonance of the open E string and give a fuller sound. As you are working out your fingering, use as many open strings and harmonics as possible. This also helps with pitch accuracy.
The right hand is very active in this movement, and it can be quite tiring to maintain for roughly five minutes (depending on your choice of tempo).
Contrary to expectation, Hagen finds that the more musically and physically engaged he is, the less exhausted he becomes.
To maintain clarity in the sound, the bow should remain flat on the hair and play straight.
If the sound quality is poor, usually addressing these two points is enough to improve the issue. This is particularly true for the many string-crossing passages.
Adding block fingerings in the left hand may add some security as well, by using one finger to prepare consecutive notes across different strings. This reduces the amount of overall motion per note required and gives your left hand less work to do.
For example, in measure 36, Hagen suggests using finger 2 to hold both G♯ and C♯ (A and E strings) on the way down. There’s a similar concept in the next measure (m. 37) – prepare the F♯ octaves by dropping both first and fourth fingers on the string simultaneously.
Despite the tempo and continuous run of sixteenth notes, the actual harmonic changes are not particularly fast.
Be careful that the technical challenges do not exaggerate aspects of the music that do not need to be emphasized.
Keep a sense of flow rather than agitation and only bring out notable changes and developments. Think about what aspects of the movement need to be presented to the audience.
Typically, changes of harmony (lots of accidentals) and texture should be brought out. In this movement, moments that have more accidentals and no open strings will often have a more muffled tone as we will lose the resonance of the open string. Your bowing can respond to this change and present this to the audience as a moment to pay attention to.
Although Bach has given forte and piano markings, be creative with interpretations of these. Consider how passages respond to each other rather than simply change between loud and soft.
For the ending, Hagen likes leaving the last note ringing as a harmonic, which avoids a possibly abrupt ending with a simple eighth note.
Despite the relaxed tempo of the Loure, it still needs to move along like a dance. After the continuous flow of notes in the Prelude, the dance movements have a more conversational quality.
Pay attention to which notes should be highlighted, which in 6/4 will usually fall on beats 1 and 4. Although it can sound a little boring and predictable if only those notes are accented, this gives a good framework for building phrasing and making further musical decisions.
Try to use more bow and add a little vibrato to the notes you are trying to highlight.
Thinking in terms of the larger phrases, the downbeat should be stronger on measure 1 than on measure 3, for example. Aim for clarity and simplicity to guide your audience through your interpretation.
Although Hagen advises using more bow for your most important notes, he also cautions against using the complete length from the frog to the tip. For a delicate movement such as this, we must be comfortable finishing a phrase in the middle of the bow.
In this seemingly simple movement, the left hand poses the main difficulties due to the double stops.
As with the Preludio, try and prepare the next note while playing the previous note, wherever possible.
As a simple example, prepare the opening two notes (both B) before starting the movement. As you continue, try to keep your left-hand fingers hovering close to the fingerboard to make it easier to find the next note or position. In measure 8, as finger 3 holds the B, finger 2 can prepare the A♯ just beneath it.
Many of the fingerings can be approached with incremental changes without much need for big hand adjustments.
In general, most problems in this movement can be solved by trying to reduce motion in the left hand. This also frees up your attention for musical detail and such.
The delicacy and beauty of this movement mean the difficulties should never be made obvious to the audience.
Try to imagine how you would like this music to sound in a world without physical or technical obstacles.
As you are learning notes and fingerings, make sure you pursue this ideal sound. This should drive you to invent new solutions and experiment with various approaches to get as close to that perfect sound as possible.
Gavotte en Rondeau
This movement needs to be as fun and danceable as possible.
As a general rule, Hagen suggests that when playing the violin, your hands should imitate the sound you are aiming for.
In the Loure, the hands should move slowly and with a gentle motion. In the Gavotte, the bowing hand jumps off the strings, suggesting perhaps feet jumping off the floor during the dance.
Generally, err on the side of more motion in the right hand, which can be difficult to achieve in a controlled manner.
However, the more you play with a bouncy bow, the more comfortable it will be.
Hagen’s favorite way to improve is always to imagine the ideal sound he is striving for first, then figure out ways to physically achieve it. Even if it seems difficult at first, consider this an opportunity to develop rather than an obstacle.
The main theme repeats in between several other intervening sections.
Just as human experience changes our perspective, consider how each episode might affect the returning theme.
Find ways to make it sound different each time, as a response to the preceding section of music.
The first episode (starting m. 8) has a slightly more anxious or concerned tone than the main theme.
This provides some contrast and perspective with the cheerful spirit of the main theme.
For the second entry of the theme, consider not only where you have come from but also anticipate what is approaching next. The next episode (starting m. 24) brings a further level of joy and euphoria.
There are numerous ways the rondo theme and each episode could be interpreted, but the best approach is to explore and experiment.
To suggest cheer and joy, a few ornamentations could be added, and the bow might hop off the string slightly, whereas to suggest a more somber mood, avoid ornamentation and keep the bow more horizontal.
Right from the start, this Menuet has a very conversational quality.
There are multiple ways the articulation could be approached, and no matter which you choose to do, make sure it’s exaggerated and clear (e.g., groups of two measures more bouncy than elongated.)
Alter the articulations with each repetition. Make sure your changes with the repeats are clearly projected to the audience.
A subtle alteration may not be noticed, but clear and obvious contrasts will keep the audience engaged.
Measure 11 can be particularly challenging due to the perfect fifth. Hagen prefers to use fingers 3 and 4, as it avoids a position change.
Other fingerings are certainly possible, but it is worth trying this with fingers 3 and 4 as it is often overlooked and could be a comfortable solution.
Generally, the less your left hand has to move, the lower the risk of errors. Whichever fingering you choose, make sure the A♯ and D♯ are prepared together with one finger across both strings.
The sequence towards the end of Menuet I (from m. 18) is another good moment to consider articulation.
Once again, make sure the contrast between smooth and separated is kept clear to the audience. Aim for a sound that conveys ease rather than communicating the difficulty of this passage.
For the triple and quadruple stops, avoid making the chords sound too heavy.
A light roll across the strings will have a nice effect, but try not to make each one sound the same. However you approach them, make sure the focus is on the melody.
Measures 16 to 18 contain a handful of multiple stops in close succession.
Use just enough bow and stay mostly in the middle while still keeping the melody as the most prominent part.
Hagen prefers to transition into Menuet II while the last open E is still ringing, therefore not a clear break.
However, it can also be nice to have a tiny breath and take the bow off the string before you move on.
By contrast, leaving a longer gap can make it sound like an entirely new piece, so these two segments need to be close enough to feel the connection. Strive to find a middle ground that gives a rounded finish to Menuet I and naturally gives way to Menuet II.
This Menuet really contrasts with anything else in the entire set of Sonatas and Partitas.
Hagen tries to find ways to get away from the typical violin sound and explore the timbres of other instruments.
Keep a natural, light flow through the slurred melody and aim for an improvisatory feel. Then, add a little bounce to the arpeggio phrase starting in measure 5. Once again, the character often comes down to clear differences between the slurred and separated notes.
The end of this Menuet can jump right into the following Bourrée with an attacca. In fact, the final three dances (Menuets I and II, Bourrée, and Gigue) could all be treated as one extended finale to the whole partita.
Jumping into this movement straight from the previous Menuet can catch the audience by surprise in a fun and playful way. If you can have fun while performing this music, that will project onto the audience as well.
As with previous movements, pay attention to slurred and separated notes.
Remember that a slur should be a single burst of energy with the bow, so avoid giving an extra push during one gesture. This can create a far more active performance than is ideal.
Aim for a full contrast between these articulations, making the slurs as smooth as possible and maintaining bounce in the separated notes. This will keep everything interesting and avoid just occupying the middle ground for too long.
Other ways to create contrast might be to use a slur that begins with a bit of emphasis for one phrase, followed by a slur that eases in.
Explore these contrasts of articulation, slurs, and dynamics for a continually engaging and fun interpretation.
The closing Gigue is close in character to the Bourrée. Both should sound fun and alive in their delivery.
Make sure the downbeats are always the most important notes. Measures 8 to 10 tend to rush and lean forward.
Any measures that have more eighth notes than running sixteenths can be treated as a chance to be conversational, slightly more cute or poised, and fun at the same time.
The rhythm is the main show in this movement, so bouncing away from the downbeat will keep the stress in the right place and add the ideal character.
Pay attention to coordination between the two hands.
If you notice these are not entirely synced up, focus on one hand in particular, then try the other hand if there is still more improvement needed.
There are also rhythmic variations to practice that can help the two hands work together. As with the previous movement, try to have as much fun as possible with the Gigue.
To end this movement, and the whole partita, ensure the final signals to the audience that we have arrived at the end. Experiment with different ways to leave an impression on the audience and make it clear that the piece has ended in the most triumphant way possible.
Now that we’ve gone over these tips, you should be ready to handle any audition or practice session with the Bach Violin Partita No. 3 with ease.
If you’d like to watch the lesson on this topic for free, just click here.
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