Bach J.S. - Air: 4th mv, Partita No 6 in E min BWV 830
In 1723 J S Bach moved to Leipzig where he remained until his death in 1750. As Kantor of St Thomas' church he was expected to provide liturgical music – resulting in his enormous output of cantatas - and to this he added secular music-making by accepting (in 1729) the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a group of local instrumentalists founded by Telemann.
The Partitas had already appeared one at a time and no. 6 was in the Clavierbuchlein (Little Keyboard Book) for his wife Anna Magdalena, but the collection of six Partitas published as the 'Clavier-Ubung' (Keyboard Exercises) in 1731 was Bach's first venture into publishing.
The Partitas were described on their title page as 'consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, ... and other Galanteries composed for the pleasurable diversion of music lovers'.
This Air, then, is intended to be played and heard with enjoyment, without seeking to edify. The reference to Keyboard Exercises is not meant to place them in the category of studies for technical development – they are vehicles for enjoying and exploiting the skills already acquired.
Pupil Match & Suitability
Anything by J.S. Bach comes with the highest possible recommendation as a learning opportunity. This Air is challenging music, requiring sensitive phrasing, finely controlled articulation and precise fingering.
It will greatly reward the student who perseveres through the initially tough note-learning and coordination phase.
The brisk tempo at which these technical difficulties must be overcome will require great security and confidence.
The LH is given as much detailed work as the RH. So this could be an excellent experience for any student in expanding their ability to play counterpoint well, but this is uncompromising music which may present a struggle: as a performance piece it will best suit those who really relish the process of working successfully to unlock the musical treasure, and can then communicate the seemingly effortless freshness of Bach's ideas.
Style & Tempo
The choice of tempo rests on two pillars: the flow of the music and the technical ability of the player. Bear in mind that this is written with a minim beat. The student's ability to execute the semiquavers in bar 28 will limit the range of starting tempi from which they can choose.
Some recorded performances take this piece rather fast, even up to minim=93 (Glenn Gould) but his would be beyond many students and musically unnecessary. Andras Schiff takes it at about 78 bpm.
Phrasing & Articulation
Articulation of Bach's keyboard music when played on the piano is a matter for careful thought. Many performers, such as Gould here, follow the sound modelled by harpsichordists, with lightly detached crotchets and a variety of lengths for quavers.
However, with a piano there is a broader range of sounds to be exploited, including the use of dynamics and arm weight. Before placing limitations on the articulation to be used, experiment with several, including those you feel likely to reject, as this music is capable of being played effectively in more than one way. This can also be the case within the piece – there need not be only one way to play a group of four quavers in every bar.
Tone & Texture
As mentioned in 'Articulation', this music could have been played on a clavichord as well as a harpsichord. The one instrument Bach would not have had in mind was a piano!
A modern piano-based performance that emulates the rapid-fire single or step dynamics of the harpsichord will fail to do the music justice. That said, the tone will not be in any way 'Romantic'. The ideal will combine both simplicity and warmth.
This bright performance demonstrates some careful use of tonal gradation to show the phrasing, without any trace of romanticism.
Playing counterpoint is partly a matter of coordination but this only takes the music into security of execution. Different dynamic levels and different articulations in each hand need to be mastered, and at a level of detail which goes well beyond the melody/accompaniment balance which should already have been successfully used in music of later date.
As well as the pure coordination of parts the student needs to have the listening skills to hear how to balance the parts and phrase them independently, and assess whether their attempts are successful.
There is a particular technical challenge in this piece in Bars 24-27 where the RH leaps twelfths (see Practice tips).
To ensure precision and security, fingering must be thoroughly learned and never improvised or casually substituted.
Writing in all the fingerings that do not follow obvious patterns will help. Running out of fingers is a very real danger and the constant flow of quavers does not allow for hasty corrections.
Only one ornament is marked (apart from an appoggiatura in Bar 28, first time). In Bar 3 a sign is given which stands for a 'trillo und mordent' (a combination of an upper and lower mordent).
There is not time at this tempo to play a long trill so at most two shakes from above can be accommodated before turning below the A. Since the worst outcome is an interruption to the flow, even a very simple turn (semiquavers: B-A-G-A) would be better than a tension-laden attempt to fill the beat with a long shake.
The convention of the day was to improvise embellishments wherever the performer wished, especially when repeating a section. The given ornaments can therefore be taken as a starting-point rather than a maximum, at least for the most confident and stylistically aware students.
It is worth listening to different recordings – especially by harpsichordists – spotting where performers have put in extra ornaments, and what type they were. Any ornaments added by your student should be well placed, well executed and add something to the music which sounds spontaneous and joyful.
Pedal would be inappropriate.
Listen together to other Suite movements by Bach, and to the movements either side of this Air, to place it in context.
There will be a point reached when the student knows the notes but has lost sight of their musical potential. This is a time for discussing, demonstrating and encouraging the shaping of phrases and exploration of textures. Taking a small chunk at a time, work through various possibilities and try out different ways of playing. This helps to remove any mechanical repetition whilst ensuring the music is being thoughtfully repeated.
Once the hands have been learned separately, try playing duets in which you play one hands and the student plays the other. Each of you should bring out the more important line or play more softly to allow the other through, as appropriate.
Learn the RH jumps in bars 24-27 very thoroughly. They need to be completely confident to prevent your performance being undermined at what is meant to be a climactic moment of exuberance. It is worth memorising these bars, hands together, at an early stage so that you can concentrate on taking aim visually – the placing of the LH is a helpful aid to this as you will be jumping down on to a third each time.
When making these long-distance leaps, move smoothly and rapidly without tension. Stopping in mid-air is unhelpful to fluency so make sure you have targeted the next note before you leave the previous one. As an aid to security, try playing each note twice.
Once the technical issues have been overcome, the main problem in developing this piece for performance will be bringing out the contours of the musical landscape. Playing it as a duet, one hand taken by each player, will help identify how the land lies.
Even students who understand the shape of the music may fail to bring it out sufficiently for an audience to grasp. In the same way that stage make-up looks exaggerated and overdone close up, so a musical effect may need to feel overplayed to be effective.
Recording your student's playing can help show them this. If your student is shy about projecting variety, encourage them to make one recording in which they feel comfortable and one in which they feel they are over-dramatising. Compare the two and if possible get a third party to give an opinion (perhaps the next student when they arrive for their lesson).
An excellent performance will go beyond phrase-shaping, dynamics and articulation and into the realm of pure enjoyment. The performer will be clearly in sympathy with the style and intentions of the music and obviously enjoying it. There may be improvised ornaments which demonstrate a real technical and musical confidence and capability. The flow and interplay of musical ideas will intrigue and satisfy the listener.
A good performance will bring variety to the flow of quavers, with stylistically appropriate articulation. There will be an intelligent swapping of the interest between the hands. Ornaments will be an enhancement rather than a cause for concern. The opening and closing of each section will be achieved with some flair. The harmonic progress of the music will be understood and phrases well shaped, using dynamics, balance and articulation to contribute to a very pleasing overall effect.
A sound performance will be technically competent, with any slips well recovered. There will be moments of light and shade, a steady tempo and evidence of stylistic awareness. Appropriate articulation and well-prepared ornaments will provide some variety. There may be less of a sense that the performer has yet managed to start exploring the musical depths of the piece.