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Bach: Prelude in E, BWV 1006a

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Title : Bach: Prelude in E, BWV 1006a
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Bach: Prelude in E, BWV 1006a

In my last post, on John Williams, a tricky little passage in the Prelude to the E major lute suite came up. This passage, an arpeggiated chord sequence, is tricky for guitarists because they have a tendency to let the thumb move the downbeat from the G#, where it belongs, to the E, where it does not belong. This becomes particularly evident at the end of the passage where, when the scalar passages return, it sounds as if the downbeat is in the wrong place. Here is the beginning of the passage:

What happens, as commentator Steven just confirmed, is that the passage starts fine as the previous measure had the thumb sounding each downbeat. The arpeggio starts fine, but over a measure or two, the feeling of where the downbeat is migrates from the first G# to the last E, on the third string played by the thumb. Even when you are aware of the problem the tendency is still there. I played it this way for years, even after a violinist friend pointed it out to me.

I have made the claim that everyone plays it wrong, including John Williams, so let's do a quick survey on YouTube to see if I'm right. Just think, a few years ago, this would have taken a long time to assemble the recordings. But now, we can do it in a few minutes. Ok, first up is Andrey Lebedev and the passage starts around the 30 second mark:

Nope, same problem. He covers the "bump" at the end when we would have two sixteenth notes, both as the beginning of the beat, with a little "luftpause." Next, Sean Shibe:

Nope, same thing. He tries to cover both the entrance into the shifted beat placement and the exit at the end with a diminuendo so we aren't quite sure what we heard. Next Mateusz Kowalski:

Extra points for cool camera angles, but no, same problem. Again, he tries to cover the transition by playing a couple of notes very softly. Next Andrea González Caballero:

Aha! She actually does keep pretty strictly to the beat placement throughout as is particularly evident from the ending of the passage which transitions into the scalar passage with no "bump." Mind you, in other respects the performance isn't great, but she gets this right. Next, fellow Canadian Drew Henderson:

He does a little rubato just before the arpeggio section which obscures things a little bit and, again, a little luftpause at the end, but for the whole section, the thumb determines the beat placement. Why am I picking just on guitarists? Ok, let's listen to Arthur Grumiaux on violin:

Uh-oh, same problem but for a different reason. In this case it is because of the change of bow, but again, the beginning of the beat migrates to the lowest note in the arpeggio. Plus, his tempo wanders around and I'm not crazy about his tone. Next, Rupert Boyd.

Good job! He keeps the beat securely in the right place, so no "bump" or need for a diminuendo or pause at the transition. How about Itzak Perlman?

Nope, same problem, but he almost sells the transition to us by ignoring the problem completely! No weak-ass diminuendo or luftpause for him! One more? How about Ana Vidovic:

Nope, same problem with a diminuendo to hide the transition. I'm almost afraid to put up Hilary Hahn as she is my favorite violinist and she even makes a specialty of the solo violin suites. Oh, what the heck.

I had to listen to that three times and I'm still not exactly sure how she does it. She starts the arpeggio section by slightly extending the first G#. For much of the section it is hard to tell where the beat is exactly, so at the end, the transition seems to come quite naturally. It works. I think that this passage is really much easier on guitar if, that is, you have good control over the thumb.

I know, I know, someone is going to say, "yeah, buddy, well just put your thumb where your mouth is! Let's hear you do it!" Fair enough, but I would need a couple of weeks to get the piece back in my fingers. And I'm not going to play the whole thing because there is some stuff later on that just kills my left hand these days. But that opening couple of pages I find quite easy, yes, even with the correct beat placement.

So, was this an interesting exercise?

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