On-line Book Review


Dimension 22.0 x 14.5 x 2.4 cm
TITLE Bach's Solo Violin Works: A Performer's Guide. By Jaap Schröder.
PUBL. DETAILS New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2007) x+190p. Hardback. £25
ISBN 978-0-300-12466-8
TO ORDER Yale University Press. 47 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP, UK. Email: sales@yaleup.co.uk
DESCRIPTION A monograph devoted to the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin by a leading international violinist.
READERSHIP Advanced students and performers of Bach's solo violin works.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Performance issues related to baroque style and technique and their execution on both period and modern instruments

S chröder’s ‘detailed but informal guide’ (quoted from the cover) to the performance of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin is the result of his sixty-odd years of involvement with the work and his continued interest in period instruments and historical performance practices, for which modern schools of music have, in his opinion, shown little regard.
The first part of the book offers an overview of baroque style and technique, starting with the development of the violin and the ways in which it was held through the ages, the recommended choice of instrument for the performance of baroque music and possible compromises, issues of notation, intonation and tuning, etc. The main part of the book is devoted to a movement-by-movement discussion of the six sonatas and partitas with suggestions for the choice of tempi, bowings, articulation, positions, ornamentation, etc.

By stating that ‘the focus of this study is by no means musicological’ in the introductory chapter (viii), Schröder defends himself against the otherwise warranted criticism that his reasoning is at times one-sided and intuitive, and lacking a scholarly basis. With astonishment we read his statement ‘I am convinced that Bach’s written slurs are really bowing marks’ (p.17) – the astonishment coming from the fact that what we have just read has been long-established.



Baroque Style and Technique


Baroque Playing: A General Approach

The Right Hand and the Bow Arm

The Left Hand: Positions, Intonation, Tuning, Vibrato, Ornamentation

Polyphony on the Violin: The Fugues

Manuscript Sources and Editions

The Sonatas and Partitas

Sonata in G minor BWV 1001

Partita in B minor BWV 1002

Sonata in A minor BWV 1003

Partita in D minor BWV 1004

Sonata in C major BWV 1005

Partita in E major BWV 1006


Appendix: Suggested Metronome Markings

Select Bibliography

The cover offers a somewhat misleading statement regarding the book’s target readership: it labels the book as intended for ‘advanced students and performers’. However, the contents and the prescriptive approach and tone of the book render it more suited for the developing musician who is just starting to gain proficiency on the instrument. To the performer, and even to the advanced student, the explanation of the tierce de Picardie (p.21), the introduction to elementary acoustics (p.19ff), or the recommendation to consult the autograph, rather than to rely on editions (p.58) are fairly superfluous. But it must be said that Schröder himself does not make those ambitious claims. In fact, he maintains that ‘increasing technical proficiency should go hand in hand with an understanding of the stylistic characteristics of successive periods’ (p.9). In other words, the development of the artist’s stylistic awareness should start from the earliest stages. The prescriptiveness and what musicologists would consider a lack of scholarly authority, should be regarded in this light; rather than getting tangled up in the heated debate on Bach’s tuning and the meaning of ‘well-tempered’, he puts forward the simplistic assertion that Bach’s system of tuning for the keyboard ‘narrowed all the fifths just enough to be still acceptable to the ear, yet allowed modulations into any key’ (p.24).

Schröder believes that a number of dilemmas and challenges posed by Bach’s Solos can be overcome naturally, by choosing to play them on an instrument suited to the period in which they were written, as the instrument itself will dictate certain aspects of technique and style. He observes that, ‘in the twenty-first century it is common to listen to a violin built in the seventeenth century, set up as a classical instrument in the eighteenth century, and played with a nineteenth-century bow while subjected to the pressure of twentieth-century steel strings’ (p.5). The transformations of the instrument have, understandably, fashioned transformations in technique, and the modern performer is presented with a new challenge ‘to “unlearn” that part of his or her technical training that stands in the way of a stylish performance’(p.6). But, as with the once contentious issue of the performance of Bach’s keyboard music on the modern piano, Schröder reasons that it would be absurd to exclude the modern violin from the performance of Bach’s music. He recommends a baroque bow or a good reproduction ‘capable of biting the gut strings with minimal effort’(p.9) as a satisfactory compromise. On the point of textual interpretation, ornamentation in particular, he advocates consultation of contemporaneous arrangements and transcriptions, particularly those made by Bach himself, which can offer ready-made suggestions to the player.

It is the wealth of practical advice derived from Schröder’s life-long exploration of the expressive, interpretive and technical possibilities of period instruments, and specifically, the baroque violin, that makes his book a worthwhile read for any violinist seeking to broaden their performance spectrum. It also represents a laudable venture of a performer, non-musicologist, to bring closer the sometimes all to separate worlds of musicology and performance.

Published online on 27 June 2008