Břetislav Novotny’s interpretation of Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin by J. S. Bach:
The following text is an excerpt of the text accompanying the CD recording of Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin by J. S. Bach performed by Břetislav Novotný. The text, which was written by the recording’s director Dr. Eduard Herzog, includes also Břetislav Novotný’s explanation of his new way of the interpreting this Bach’s work.
Even a perfunctory glance at the score of the Sonatas and Partitas presents us with an unusual picture. Its polyphonic style, in certain places expending even to full four-part writing, entirely conflicts with the common idea of music for the violin, as an explicitly melodic instrument, from which we accept even simple double-stoppings and chords as an unusual ornament of a more or less virtuoso nature.
However, polyphonic composing for the violin at the time when Bach wrote his Violin Sonatas was nothing out of the ordinary. Bach had his predecessors in Biber, Walther, Bruhns, and others. They were, themselves, all violinist-composers working in Germany, whereas it was the Italian masters who shunned the polyphonic style. The explanation lies in the fact that in Germany the violinists used a bow bent like an archery bow, and the bow-hair was not drawn as tight as we are accustomed to have it today, likewise the bridge of the violin was not so curved as nowadays. That is why the bow-hair could play several strings at once, and this made polyphonic playing easier. However, the laxer tension of the bow had an unfavorable effect on the quality of the tone, which sounded more opaque and was not very resonant. For this reason, as time went on, the Italian manner won out, was accepted generally and the German type of instrument, together with the polyphonic style of violin playing, fell into disuse and was forgotten.
Modern attempts at reconstructing the instrument did not lead to very satisfactory results in the interpretation of Bach’s Sonatas. They continue to be played on current standard instruments. The neglected polyphonic style, however, still presents various unsolved problems. In the main it means that players who really want to play what is written in the score are faced with extremely tricky obstacles. And how many violinists are there who take Bach’s manuscript all that seriously? Do we hear his polyphony as he wrote it in the performances given by the famous violinists?
Albert Schweitzer, a great expert on Bach, wrote about this in his famous monograph, much of which is still very stimulating to this day:
“The fact that the actual pleasure derived from hearing this work is noticeably less than what could be expected ideally, is something what no listener has yet been allowed to forget. Many things in these sonatas cannot be reproduced by even the very best players without harshness. The arpeggio chords have a particularly disturbing effect. Even the most perfect art of playing is unable to banish a certain feeling of discomfort engendered here. Polyphonic music played in arpeggios is and will always remain nonsense.
It is well justified to ask whether Bach overstepped the bounds of artistic possibilities in these compositions. If he did, he would have been acting in contradiction to his principles, since he was always most concerned to put only such demands on an instrument which would provoke an absolutely satisfactory sound.”
When Schweitzer wrote this he had great hopes that something would come of the reconstruction of the violin bow and the bridge in accordance with its former shape. We have already pointed out that this hope came to naught. But at least Schweitzer threw a sharp light on the cardinal dilemma: the fascinating impression evoked by reading and imagining the manuscript in its ideal rendering is so spoiled by the harshness and dullness of the sound when actually played that it evokes feelings of discomfort. Is this the fault of the composer who, in the heat of his creative fervor, overrated the capabilities of the instrument, or is it that of the interpreters, who do not faithfully reproduce what the composer demanded of them?
Great strides towards the faithful interpretation of the work have been taken since Schweitzer originally wrote his book on Bach. The older recordings by even the most famous violinists witness it. They frequently show a lack of understanding of what the composer intended. Deep-ingrained habits in traditional violin playing led to gross violations of the manuscript as written, to distortion that almost made the work unrecognizable in places. In contrast, today there are artists whose interpretations are drawn straight from the composers manuscript itself, and, along with careful examination of the actual music, also take note of the knowledge acquired by musicological research. Nevertheless, so far they have not yet succeeded in reproducing the polyphonic effect in sound which the composer quite unambiguously expressed in his manuscript. Schweitzer’s dilemma is still there: Did the composer overrate the possibilities of the instrument as far as the polyphonic structure of the work is concerned, or does the homophonic style of the majority of violin literature have such a strong effect that even in this exceptional case it prevents the players from selecting a more suitable style of playing?
After years of painstaking effort, the Czech violinist Břetislav Novotný decided to come forward with a contribution towards the solution of the problem, in the sense that he believes that it must undoubtedly be possible to bring Bach’s intentions to life. How far Novotný has succeeded in finding a way out of the dilemma can be judged best by the listener himself. Novotný takes, as his basic premise, the fact that the polyphonic effect must be achieved by the simultaneous sounding of as many as possible voices. This, in the first instance, means that the notes must be held in sound according to their written values. Surely this seems a very simple, obvious demand. One would think so, yet generations of violinists have in fact been sinning against it – all of them without exception. Long notes were shortened and the listener was supposed to imagine their full length for himself. Although Bach, no doubt, was the one who knew best when the listener was supposed to imagine the continuation of the sound of the tones and when not, the musicians, who played homophonic music all the time, did not worry their heads much about it. They played melodies and accompanied them, every now and again, with harshly drawn arpeggio chords.
In contrast, Novotný humbly let himself be guided by Bach’s instructions. He followed the various voices, as they are written in the manuscript, which, of course, made his task far more difficult. He had to master difficult chord stoppings, unusual fingerings and bowings. And then, there was the problem of the arpeggios. Even this could only be solved by a consistent guiding of the individual voices. With today’s violin bow and bridge it is not possible to play a full four-note chord except by spreading it. On this point, Novotný’s performance proves Schweitzer wrong. Arpeggio playing is not a priori incompatible with polyphony. However, he uses dozens of different ways of playing arpeggios and he selects the method which is best suited in each individual case for the guiding of the voices. Very often he plays even three strings at once without arpeggio.
One can get a concrete idea of Novotný’s method perhaps best by examining several examples in detail. Here we shall hand over the floor to the musician himself. This is what Novotný has to say about his new method of interpreting Bach’s polyphony:
“In my arrangement of the polyphonic movements of these works, I always try and give precedence to the horizontal rather than vertical relationships. The four-note chords, in my opinion, are not a homophonic sounding of four tones, but a moment of intersection of four parallel contrapuntal voices, each having its own independent line and each its own importance. I emphasize the notes of the thematic voices by giving them the full length of values, in strict accordance which those given in the composer’s manuscript, and, on the other hand, I shorten the notes of the subsidiary voices.
I can best illustrate this by an example from the Fugue of Sonata No. 2, bars 9 to 12:
Up to now this has usually been played as a melody in the upper voice accompanied by homophonic chords:
According to Bach’s manuscript, however, there should be three independent voices, with the two upper ones alternating in playing a part of the theme:
My arrangement preserves the two thematic voices with their full time values (the quarter notes played tenuto) as given in the composer’s score, and thereby the polyphony becomes clear and understandable. Only the notes of the bass voice – a voice of this point of less importance – are shortened. The technique of my performance:
I consider the consistent observance of values in the two-voices writing to be a basic condition for real polyphonic interpretation, there being no technical reason for shortening the notes. But not even the fact of making things technically easier is a justification for such a procedure.
A further example from the Fugue in A minor, bar 18 a seq. demonstrates the way in which the length of the notes can be preserved and also the contrasting nature of the two voices:
All previous arrangements have shortened the upper voice in to staccato eighth notes, suppressing the polyphony and the contrast between both voices:
The objection that this way of bowing is too complicated or even too virtuoso and thus, for Bach’s music inappropriate, is indefensible, because Bach himself makes use of exactly the same way of bowing immediately in the subsequent movement (Andante) of the same sonata. As a matter of fact, the movement in question is playable only using this particular way of bowing.
An analogical way of bowing also provides the basis for the solution of playing the polyphony of the Fugue of Sonata No. 3 in C major in the bars 11 and 12 and all similar places:
Here I take the four-part chords as a consonance of two pairs of voices:
1. The pair of voices with the main subject and its constant counter-subject in chromatically descending half notes. I perform this pair of voices in its unshortened form, it means the half notes played tenuto.
2. The third and fourth voice represent two complementary subsidiary voices, which are therefore clearly to be shortened:
Conventional arrangements reproduce these bars as a main theme with a chord accompaniment, due to which the important chromatic counter-subject is lost completely:
The 137th bar of the Ciaccona provides another good example of the need for the consistent observance of the horizontal counterpoint.
Here I get away from the conventional method of playing the d – f sharp – b chord arpeggio on three strings, which makes it impossible to give the full time value to the important bass note d, which is an integral part of the thematic line. I play the above mentioned three-note chord on only two strings (G, D), so that the horizontally least important tone, the f sharp, sounds shortly as an acciaccatura. Thanks to this, the bass and soprano lines remain uninterrupted.
My way of interpretation:
The till now conventional arpeggio manner of playing, where the theme in the bass voice is interrupted:
I also play bar 2 of the Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in the same unconventional manner:
Here by the analogy with the first bar, I give to the upper voice its full time value, it means a tenuto quarter note according to the manuscript:
The aim of my arrangement, as becomes clear from the examples, is thus not an attempt to get over the technical problems in a facile manner by taking the usual liberties with the score, but, on the contrary, to try and comply with the manuscript and the composer’s intention as far as possible, as well as to try and get as close as possible to the sound of an organ in its polyphonic movements, even at the price of having to work out unusual and possibly even more difficult techniques of playing.
imagining on merely reading the polyphonic text of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, and to the rich colorfulness of the various registers which emerges when the polyphony is faithfully reproduced by the actual sound of the violin. With the impression of this effect in mind, we can safely answer Schweitzer’s doubts with the assurance that not even here did Bach make the exception in overrating the possibilities of the instrument, on the contrary, he extracted from the violin sounds of captivating beauty that had so far remained hidden.