Bach: Sonata Nº 4 for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1017
In its original key of C minor, this sonata uses a relatively high register, going up to “E” on the “A-string” and making frequent use of Thumb Position. Unfortunately (from the point of view of technical difficulty) it is the two fast movements (II and IV) that make the most use of the high register: of the two slow movements (I and III), the first movement rarely goes up high, and the third movement stays permanently in the low register, never even getting up above our “G” on the “A”-string. This means two things for our adaptation to the cello:
- the third movement actually sounds better in the original key because that higher key keeps it out of the “elephant register” and permanently in the cello’s melodic register
- but we have a serious register problem with the two fast movements, which desperately need to be transposed down in order to make them comfortably playable for a normal cellist.
In conclusion, if we want to play the entire sonata with all the movements keeping the same key-relation to the others, then we will need to transpose it all down, and then possibly do some octave transpositions upwards in the third movement. This is what has been done here.
INTO WHICH KEY?
Normally when we transcribe Bach’s unaccompanied violin music for cello, we transpose it down by a fifth, because he makes such idiomatic use of the open strings. But in his accompanied violin sonatas this is not the case and especially not in this sonata in which the use of the C minor key means that the violin cannot normally use either of its top open strings. This is fortunate because a transposition down a fifth would take us into the uncomfortable four flats of F minor. So we need to find another key, which must not be more than a fifth lower (in order for the lowest note not to be below our open C-string). This gives us basically two choices: F# minor (with three #’s) or G minor (with two b’s). We have opted for the G minor choice because it makes more frequent use of the D natural, allowing us the use of both the mid-string harmonic and open string on the D-string. The sonata is however presented here also in the original key, for those who only want to play the third movement but also for the brave and/or curious amongst us who might want to try the fast movements also in the high register of the original key.
The “Easier Versions” are also offered in the original (high) key, with all the high passages transposed down an additional octave in order to keep these versions in the Neck Region. As mentioned above, the first movement has very few high passages that need to be transposed down for the making of this “Easier Version”, and the third movement has none, whereas the second movement lies so high that almost all of the movement has needed to be transposed down by the additional octave. In this way we can play the entire sonata in the original key without suffering. This may be a good alternative to the transposed version and will certainly be appreciated by any accompanist who already knows the sonata because it means thay won’t have to relearn it in a different key.
The two fast movements suffer a little from the “sewing machine syndrome“, with non-stop activity, especially from the keyboard. If the accompaniment is played on a piano, the pianist will need to play very lightly in terms of volume, articulation and note-lengths, in order to imitate as much as possible the sound of a cembalo (harpsichord). A fine example of this type of playing can be seen and heard here in a magnificent Youtube recording of this sonata by Frank-Peter Zimmerman and Enrico Pace. In order to imitate this sound, the play-along audio accompaniments offered here are played by a (computer) guitar.
MOVEMENT I: LARGO
This is Bach in his most gentle, tender, melodic, singing mood. It can be quite hard to find the right tempo for this movement: Bach writes “Largo” but this probably refers to the harmonic pulse (two beats in a bar) which means that the treble voice of the accompaniment actually moves quite fast. Rachel Podger and Frank Peter Zimmerman both use a tempo of approximately 37 bpm for the dotted crotchet (quarter-note) which is what we will also use in our audio accompaniment.
Although Bach doesn’t use the term in his manuscript, this is a “Sicilienne” (or Siciliano), a lilting, gentle, delicate 6/8 dance rather than a “slow movement”. We can choose to play it in a “Romantic” (slurred, vocal, more legato) way or alternatively in a more “Baroque” manner (with less slurs and more air between the notes). It is for this reason that two different “Edited Performance Versions” are offered here. The “Romantic Version” can also be played with different degrees of legato: either fully legato for each half-bar, or else with each bow gently divided into two pulsations to give a more lilting, dancing, swaying character.
No notes have been changed for the cello adaptation, but the long note of the second bar has been prolonged and tied over into bar three in all our Performance Versions. A similair tie hasalso been added in bar 28. Bach definitely did not write these ties, but throughout the rest of the piece he did, every time. It is not only a very beautiful effect but is also one of the unifying aspects of this melody, and it seems a shame not to do it consistently and from the very beginning. This liberty to “improve” Bach is called “editorial licence” and is the reason why the prescence of the “Literal Transcription” is so important.
A computer-generated play-along audio of the accompaniment, “played” on the guitar, can be found here below. To give us time to sit down afer pushing the “play” button and also to know when to start we have added a 4 second silence and then a half-bar introduction to the accompaniment. If we actually download this accompaniment track then we can play it at different tempi with the wonderfully useful and simple Amazing Slowdowner program:
MOVEMENT II: ALLEGRO
This Bach at his most contrapuntal, the three lines weaving constantly and ceaselessly like three birds – bass, soprano and tenor – flying along tracks that seldom cross, in a hypnotic moto perpetuo. Rythmically this is quite minimalistic music, but harmonically it would merit a doctorate in mathematics. Several “corrections” have been made to eliminate dissonances: perhaps these were intended by Bach or perhaps they were inadvertent errors by somebody, certainly there are very many passing contrapuntal dissonances that sound a bit like a loose improvisation. In bar 18 the second note in the bass line has been changed to Bb. In bar 19 the second note in the bass line has been changed and tied to the next note. In bar 82, Bach’s A natural in the bass has been changed to an Ab to match the cello (violin) part.
Large sections of both hands of the “Adapted Version” keyboard accompaniment have been raised by a fifth instead of being lowered by a fourth. The cello part however has not been altered in this way: all the notes are simply transposed down a fourth (and an octave) from the violin part. In the Literal Keyboard Score also all of the notes have been simply transposed down by a fourth.
In the following play-along audio accompaniment some tiny breaths (a semiquaver long) have been inserted between the main phrases in order to break up the sewing-machine effect. This accompaniment audio is recorded at a very comfortable tempo – perhaps too comfortable – but it can be speeded up or slowed down with with the wonderfully useful and simple Amazing Slowdowner program. In any case this movement is so full of fiddly, intricate, complex notes and articulations that there is no need to play it especially fast.
MOVEMENT III: ADAGIO
Here, Bach is at his most philosophical, but this is philosophy at the most profund level: without words. It would however be an interesting exercise for us to try to find words for the cello’s melodic line that match its depth (and it is interesting that Bach chose the lowest register of the violin for this melody). We can be forgiven for thinking at times in this movement that we are playing a variation of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with the gentle meandering constant triplet figure of the accompaniment’s top voice.
Whereas the other three movements of this sonata are originally in the key of C minor, this movement is in the relative major key of Eb, therefore our cello transcription is in Bb major. This movement lies in the violin’s lowest register. If we transpose the melody down a fourth it lies deeply in the cello’s elephant register, therefore we have chosen to transpose it up a fifth for the entire movement with the exception of bars 57-59.
A computer-generated play-along audio of the “Performance Version” (adapted to the new key) accompaniment, “played” on the guitar, can be found here below. If we actually download it then we can play it at different tempi with the wonderfully useful and simple Amazing Slowdowner program:
MOVEMENT IV: ALLEGRO
No notes have been changed for this cello transcription.
In the following play-along audio accompaniment some rubatos have been inserted at the ends of the main phrases in order to break up the sewing-machine effect. The tempo of this accompaniment can be speeded up or slowed down with the wonderfully useful and simple Amazing Slowdowner program.