We usually consider chords as mainly a left-hand issue because putting several fingers down together on different strings at the same time (and in tune) poses definite problems (see Left-hand String Crossings). Here however we are looking at chords from the point of view of the bow. And here we are looking at “real” chords – not broken chords (which are looked at on the 3-String Crossings and 4- String Crossings pages).
The problems that chords pose for the bow are largely – but not exclusively – to do with the “bow-level control” (string-crossing) aspects.
HOW TO SPREAD
There is no way we can play three or four strings simultaneously, so the question is not “to spread or not to spread?”, but rather “how to spread?”.
Certainly in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic Periods, almost all chords are spread from the bottom towards the top. We have to decide whether we will “roll” from the bottom string over to the top string, in a linear curve, one string at a time as it were (choosing our degree of overlap) or whether on the contrary, we will play the chord in two clearly distinguished blocks (the two bottom strings double-stopped, followed by the two top strings double-stopped). We can call this last way of playing chords the “2+2” way.
Our choice between these two alternatives is largely dictated by style (historical period). Normally in music of the Romantic Period, a loud dramatic chord would be likely to be played “2+2”, whereas in Baroque and Classical Period music, chords are more likely to be “rolled” (arpeggiated, spread), especially for softer chords but even also for loud, dramatic ones.
These differences can be best shown by looking at some repertoire examples. The Dvorak Concerto has many passages with loud dramatic chords that we almost certainly will play in the “2+2” romantic way. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the many gentle arpeggiated chords of the Bach Suite Sarabandes and Allemandes (especially in the Sixth Suite). And somewhere in the middle are the dramatic loud opening chords of the Haydn C Major Concerto which, because they are of the “Classical Period” probably benefit stylistically from being rolled (arpeggiated). If we play “Classical” (or earlier) chords “2+2” we risk making the music sound overly “Romantic”.
RHYTHMIC ASPECTS OF THE SPREAD
We also need to decide on which notes of the chord to place “the beat” (pulse). Normally the lower notes come before the beat, like an apoggiatura, while the top notes come on the beat, but there are exceptions.
DYNAMIC ASPECTS OF THE SPREAD
Another variable in chords is the possible difference in dynamic between the bottom and top of the chord. In dramatic Romantic-music chords, we will often want to start the chord with incisive power on the bottom notes even when (as is most often the case) the bottom notes serve as an apoggiatura before the top notes (which come on the beat). In “Classical” and “Baroque” music however, even “forte” chords often benefit from a slightly gentler start on the lower strings, which allows us to do a crescendo as it were towards the top notes of the chord. Try the opening of the Haydn C major concerto in this way. It suddenly sounds “better” – more in style – as well as being easier to control.
THE CRASHING BOW
Chords are nearly always played starting from the bottom, and most chords are played on a downbow. This means that for cellists, unlike for violinists/violists, the string crossing direction in chords is in the “unfavourable” “anti-natural” direction (see “Bow’s Natural Crossing Tendencies“) which is one of the reasons why it’s so easy to crash them. Downbows prefer so much more to go towards the lower strings. Try playing some loud dramatic chords with the spread now in the opposite direction (starting from the top strings like violinists/violists): we can immediately feel a large difference in ease of control and understand how much more ergonomic it is to play chords in this way. This is one of the reasons why gentle, spread chords on an upbow are such a delight to play (see the Sarabandes from the Bach Cello Suites).
The easiest and most natural way to play downbow chords is loudly and with a big accent on the bottom notes, as for example in the Dvorak Concerto example above. It is much more difficult to start downbow chords gently and softly, partly because the speed (and control) of the string crossing across to the higher strings is easier to achieve in a forte attack than with a gentle pp start. This problem of the fast string crossing is especially important when the chord has a short, rapid upbeat on the higher strings (which occurs very often) in which case not only do we need to get quickly from the lower strings to the higher strings after the start of the chord, but also we need to get quickly from the top to the lower strings just before the chord.
In loud chords, the crunchy explosive crashing start is not necessarily a big problem, but in soft chords we definitely don’t want any of this. There are various possible solutions as to how to avoid the crunching starts to soft chord:
- practice hard on this specific problem in order to develop great “chord bowcontrol”. The Sarabande and Allemande from Bach’s Sixth suite are very good study material because they contain many chords, and almost all of these need to be played very gently
- in some very gentle chords we may prefer to play them on an upbow to avoid the crashing, thus avoiding instantly the need for delicate bow control
- systematically roll (arpeggiate) our soft chords rather than spreading them. This is also easier on upbows.