FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Bach: Rhythmic Factors

On this page we will look at Bach‘s music for unaccompanied cello and violin from the point of view of rhythm. We will look at two main subjects: Bach’s use of dotted rhythms, and then his various rhythmical “curiosities”.

1. THE USE OF DOTTED RHYTHMS

The following table shows the frequency of use of dotted rhythms in the different movements of the different suites. Counting the dotted rythms can never be an exact process because the definition of what is (and what isn’t) a dotted rhythm is not actually completely precise, especially at slower tempi (see the article “Dotted Rhythms“). In this table therefore there are sometimes two numbers given for each movement. The numbers in brackets include the slower, “doubtful dots” which are however not included in the “total”.

FREQUENCY OF DOTTED RHYTHMS IN THE BACH CELLO SUITES

SUITE 1

SUITE 2

SUITE III

SUITE IV

SUITE V

SUITE VI

PRELUDE

0

10 (16)

0

3 (6)

Prelude 44 (52)

Fugue 2

0

ALLEMANDE

18

14

3

0 (1)

78 (82)

33 (45)

COURANTE

3

2 (6)

0 (4)

0 (2)

34

0

SARABANDE

7 (9)

4 (19)

10

43 (44)

0

31 (43)

GALANTERIE I

0 (2)

0 (1)

0

0

0

0

GALANTERIE 2

0

0

0

0

0

0

GIGUE

0

0

0

0

63

0

TOTAL

28

30

13

46

221

64

 

At slower speeds, dotted rhythms can give a mannered, courtly, lilting, even teasing (when you wait – to great effect – till the absolute last moment, before playing the short note) character. The Fifth Suite provides perhaps the best examples of this slow dotted “French style” in its Allemande and in the introduction to the Prelude. At faster speeds, dotted rhythms usually give a skipping, rollicking, sparkling, crisp, playful, dancing character. Once again it is the Fifth Suite that provides the best example of this in its Gigue.

FRENCH STYLE OR GERMANIC STYLE: OPTIONAL DOUBLE DOTTING

The use of dotted rhythms, especially in Baroque music, is often associated with the “French Style”. This is why we can consider the Fifth Suite as being very much in a “French suite”. Undotted rhythms, at any speed, give a more steady character. They can be slow and stately, or sprinting and driven, but are usually more “serious” and therefore referred to as  “Germanic style”.

What really gives us a strong  “French style” however is when we decide to “double dot” these dotted rhythms. This is optional, but was in Bach’s time perhaps an automatically assumed way of playing these rhythms, in the same way that we nowadays automatically (hopefully) play “swing” music syncopated even though is traditionally written out “square”. We can choose between playing in the German style (as written) or in this French double-dotted style in which the semiquavers (16th notes) are played later and shorter than written.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the Gigue of Suite V, whose 43 bars of classic 3/8 dotted rhythm can be even more “frenchified” and lightened by shortening the dotted note slightly as shown in the following example.

rhythm38dbledotwithword

But we can make this movement even more dotted, sparkling and “French” by converting the semiquavers that lead into the next bars, into semidemiquavers as in the following example that occurs twenty times in this movement. Not doing this double-dotting will make the movement more plodding and heavy.

rhythmdbledotgigueVnewIndependently of whether the movements are fast or slow, dotted rhythms tend to lighten the music, and this effect is heightened by the use of double dotting so prevalent in French Baroque music. Let’s look at how we can apply this to both the Prelude and Allemande of Suite V. Funnily enough, the rhythms in both examples are identical even though they come from different movements.

rhythmdbledotbachVprelandallmnde

2. RHYTHMIC NOTATIONAL CURIOSITIES:

In some movements of the Bach Cello Suites (and Solo Violin Partitas and Sonatas), Bach writes the music using “bizarre” note lengths (time signatures). Sometimes – as in the Courante of the Fifth Suite and the Sarabande of the Sixth – he uses rhythmic values that would seem to be twice too long. This is the way pre-Baroque composers usually notated their music – see Purcell, Ortiz, Dowland etc – but it is unclear why Bach did this only in these two isolated movements.

bach sara 6 and courante 5

Sometimes, in very slow music, he does just the opposite, using very small note values of half the length that we would normally expect. The Allemande of the Third Suite is one example of this, with its 204 semidemiquavers (32nd notes, with three beams) but an even better example is the Allemande of the Sixth Cello Suite:

bach over small values allemandes 3 and 6 new

The Allemande of the first Solo Violin Partita, the Grave that starts the A minor Solo Violin Sonata, the Adagio that starts the G minor Solo Violin Sonata and the first movement (Adagio?) of his Sonata Nº 3 for Violin and Harpsichord are also very good examples of this use of ultra-small note values, as illustrated in the table below.

USE OF VERY SMALL RYTHMIC VALUES IN BACH SLOW MOVEMENTS FOR CELLO OR VIOLIN

PIECE

SEMIDEMIQUAVERS
32nd NOTES
3 BEAMS

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS
64th NOTES
4 BEAMS

SEMIHEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS
128th NOTES
5 BEAMS

Allemande:
Cello Suite VI

363

56

0

Allemande:
Vln Partita nº I

107

35

0

Adagio: Sonata I
Violin Solo

157

97

4

Grave: Sonata II
Violin Solo

280

55

0

Adagio: Movt I
Sonata III for
Violin + Harpsi

376

42

0

Allemande:
Cello Suite III

204

0

0

 

This stuff is hard to read! We are not used to reading such small note values. Counting 3 or 4 beams on a note is as difficult (if not more) than counting many ledger lines on very high or low notes. Bach loved mathematics and reading this music is mathematically challenging for the normal musician. To decipher it we don’t even need our instrument: this is a mathematical exercise for which we just sit down with the music and a pencil to figure out the rhythms. Not only do all the beams make the music hard to read rhythmically, they also make the music very “black” and complicated-looking.

This level of reading complication is however perhaps unnecessary. The only real usefulness of these tiny rhythmic values is to make it clear that the essential pulse of the music is very slow. If we write this music out using more readable note values (doubling the value of each note) we therefore have to be careful not to change Bach’s original idea. He obviously wrote it like he did in order that the piece would be felt (“danced”) with a very slow crotchet (1/4 note) pulse in which the short notes are simply light, fast-flowing, floritura ornamentations (like Baroque painting and architecture). Let’s play it like that but let’s also make it readable without the need for a calculator or a magnifying glass! To maintain this ultra-slow pulse we still maintain the original bar length despite the doubling of the note lengths. A dotted barline has been placed in the middle of each bar simply as a reference point, because these doubled bars can be very long. These movements are available on this website in both the original version and the “easy to read” version (with longer note values).

To avoid having to decipher the pitch of notes far above or below the stave, editors normally don’t hesitate to change the clef or to use the 8ve sign, but rewriting a composer’s rhythms in a more user-friendly way is not very common. This is a shame: for both pitch and rhythm many types of reading difficulty can be easily avoided by simply using a more “user-friendly” notation.