The second movement was terrifying, a fugue. Its length, its impenetrable texture, and its long, sonorous subject (the tune, repetition of which forms the basis of the composition) usually played very slowly with ostentatiously sustained bowing (these days this is called “doing the ironing”), resulted in a machine huge in both proportion and form, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to intimidate. Well, it worked.
Then, at the end of last year, curious, I re-approached it. No performance planned, just filling the repertoire gap.
The intervening years had seen mainstream players adopt period instruments and rescue phrasing from the grips of violin teachers. There was a collective exhale. Short, fat violin necks or not, we were all given license to play an open E rather than scaling the G string to play a stopped note in an attempt to make it sound “vocal”. We now had the choice about whether we wanted to prioritise phrase geography, gesture, or (radically), emotive association. The arguments about what is historically correct and what is not, and whether it matters or not, offered the freedom to reject authority and listen to the music on its own terms.
Like returning to a childhood home after years of absence, the music seemed different this time, simply because I had changed. The problems had diminished. Freed from phrasing fascists, and with unexpected ease of delivery, Bach started to speak, offering more questions than answers.
Each movement presents a different challenge.
The third movement seems impossibly light. How can something marked Largo fly? Like a floating feather the size of a plane. To make magic like that, you need a huge heart. And a miracle.
The fourth movement surprised me because all the recordings in my head (other people’s live performances and recordings) were so different from what I saw on the page. No longer obliged to wallop the top note of every scale presented to me, I am confronted by a conundrum: a slur at the beginning of the first beat is where the down-bow gesture begins, with the heaviest part of the bow and the largest part of the arm’s gesture naturally making the beginning of the stroke stronger, and yet I want the slur to follow through to the top of the gesture on the second crotchet. How do I get to the top of the scale in those beats? And how do you make “Allegro” feel allegro if you’re not presenting the pulse by accenting the second crotchet? Then I realised I was listening to the recordings again. Listen to the real music Ruth! It starts to speak. Unlike in other pieces, for instance in the G minor Sonata, this fourth movement is not a show-stopper. It speaks with kindness and gentleness and it requires me to stop trying to impress everybody. It is Allegro Assai after all.
“But what about the terrifying second movement?” I hear my three twitter followers cry (or maybe not …). Well, the second movement is the most challenging of them all. Not because of competition trauma, and not just because it’s long and demanding.
First off, the second movement is the biggest commitment to C Major I have ever played in a solo setting.
Let’s talk about keys for a minute. Ask any group of young players what they think about E flat Major, and they will say things like: warm, deep, soft (except one person said solemn. I consider him an anomaly). Some would say that there is a tradition of associating certain keys with particular ideas (with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony defining F Major, for example), though I’m sure you will find other people prepared to argue against that.
The point I’m trying to make, is that we often have associations with keys, and while there may be some variation, there are things we could agree on. Of course, this provokes the discussion on how pitch has got sharper over the centuries (hence historically informed tuning) so perhaps we are superimposing associations on pitch that don’t belong there. (In fact I did practise the third movement a semitone down to see if it helped me find the right way to play it.) Nevertheless, whether or not someone felt differently about E flat Major three centuries ago than we do now playing it a semitone higher, is a difficult thing to measure, not least because the 1700ers didn’t compare the two pitches in the way that we do. So I’m going to exercise my artistic license, and play it on a modern instrument and accept that my approach is somewhat (or entirely) subjective. I know that some people will pick holes in this. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m going out on a limb here, saying what I think about C Major.
C Major is the first key we learn on the piano. It is the first key we learn in theory. It is the first key we are tested on in aural. On the piano, it is the template for all of the other keys. It is the home key of all home keys. Sometimes it’s boring. Definitely not very romantic – It’s got no inbuilt tension of F sharps or G flats. Uncompromising, plain old, every day, C Major. And it isn’t easy on the violin either. We don’t have a C string, and it is not one of the easy natural resonances in the wooden box, in fact, it’s the home of wolf notes (notes that crack). There’s nowhere to hide, no place for expressive intonation, and nowadays not much vibrato in Bach either: it’s just got to be in tune and you’re not going to get much help with that on the home note.
So how is this piece inspiring? Perhaps this is where all of those young violinists hit a brick wall. The key is, well … key …
In the circle of 5ths, C Major is the starting point for every other key. Perched between G Major and F Major, it can go either way, towards keys with sharps, or keys with flats, giving it an unpredictable power. In the first movement, that balance and power is explored, making it both more playable and more obscure, opening up multiple possible interpretative options.
On the other hand, while the fugue modulates, it cadences in sensible, related keys: C Major, D Major, E minor, and G Major. It is so straight forward harmonically that at first glance it seems that there is nothing to it.
But it is that empty aspect that holds the real secret of the piece. The harmonically unstable first movement provides the relief against which the stability of the fugue stands out.
Framed by this harmonic balance, the form of the fugue comes into its own. Writing a fugue comes with restrictions: the subject, its answer in other voices, and accompanying countersubject must appear repeatedly, in multiple voices at particular times and they must all move together harmonically. Introduce the awkward violin – designed to play one note at a time rather than four part harmony – and it is amazing that Bach manages to find the harmonic adventures that he does. He takes compositional virtuosity still further. Compared to the other two solo violin fugues, this subject, with its long singing note values (it is in 2/2), is a tuneful four bar phrase rather than just being a bar or two of motivic fodder. This makes things complicated, because the violin is tuned in 5ths, has a limited range on each string, and access to intervals between two strings is generally limited to a tenth for most people (depending on how big your hands are). That means the longer the subject, the more restrictions Bach has with where he can place the anatomy of the fugue on the instrument and still make sense harmonically. Why does Bach make his life so difficult and restricted?
That’s not the only thing that puzzles me. It’s the subject. It starts on an upbeat, rises a tone to an A, and meanders around the middle of the scale, rising again in anticipation before the next part comes in. No home note at either end of the scale! Not much there for a hook or focus for the phrase. In terms of its phrase geography and harmony, it’s so middle of the road, it can’t see the pavement. Yet the shape of the phrase and the oblique use of the emphasis of the first beats give it a mystery. What is this piece for?
Having so few anchors and so little to go on in a subject that is clearly a tune and not just a motif, but isn’t quite a complete idea, forces you to commit, or get off the train. It forces you to trust the music entirely and give yourself to that moment and see where it takes you. Through the placement of the episodes, and a structure that gradually and strategically reveals the limits and the heights, both of the singing quality of the violin, and of the harmony when placed under this fugue’s restrictions, Bach’s genius gradually emerges victorious over one’s insecurities, questioning and mistrust.
Eventually I relinquish myself to a balanced, restricted, patient, focused, repetitive, even meditative experience, in safe keys but with few obvious harmonic anchors, where the rising, almost hopeful nature of the subject infuses the fugue with a peace and stoicism that I have rarely if ever seen in the solo violin repertoire. I don’t think Bach could have found this balance in any other form, or in any other key.
Is there anything more romantic than trust? I take it back C Major! This is the piece that quietly demands: get up in the morning, and dedicate yourself to daily life, to your work, and to others, without question and without any other basis than that this is the way that you serve, the way that you hope; this is faith, and love, and even if it never finds anchor, even in the face of drama and power and uncertainty, you can still offer the best of yourself, unquestioningly, lightly, and at peace.
Well, like everyone, sometimes, and sometimes more-times, I fail. Sometimes I do anything but focus on productive action in the present. Not contributing the best I can to the world, sometimes I lose the battle against time to connect with others and offer them what I can.
But even here, Bach has an answer. The difference between live performance and composition, is that live performance, with all its risks, once over, is gone forever; composition can last for centuries, hopefully even longer. It is the longevity of the medium - composition - that crowns Bach’s message in C Major, because it matches so well with the content of the Sonata. Like re-reading messages from dear people long gone, every time I commit myself to practising this work I rediscover my immense gratitude for Bach’s humanity and guidance, where he reminds me of the great privilege offered through unquestioning, timeless, service.