Bach J.S. - Courante (A Major Suite) BWV 824
The courante is thought to have originated in Italy, as a three-time folk dance with running steps. It became a court dance in France and in England too from the late sixteenth century, retaining its popularity for around 200 years.
Composers of the Baroque period began to use the courante as a movement in the dance suite, where it was usually the second or third movement, often placed in between the allemande and the sarabande.
Musically, a distinction is made between the fast, 3/4 time Italian courante, more correctly spelled corrente and the more moderately paced, French courante that was written in 6/4 or 3/2 time
Pupil Match & Suitability
Some independence of hands is needed here, although the LH is generally slower moving than the RH, meaning that the music is technically approachable for the Grade 3 pianist.
The pace is quite quick, so nimble fingers are required, but the notes lie comfortably beneath the fingers, with no awkward leaps.
The opening melodic line is particularly attractive and the piece will appeal to students who enjoy lively, cheerful music.
Style & Tempo
Being in 3/4 time, the music is more in the Italian corrente style than in the moderate French style, suggesting that a quick tempo is appropriate here.
It is fun to listen to the phenomenal playing of Glenn Gould and, at the following link, his performance of a Bach partita ends with a very fast corrente. Your pupils will certainly not be expected to play at such a quick tempo!
Phrasing & Articulation
Varying the articulation detail is one of the most useful and appropriate ways of providing interest in Baroque music.
The general principle of lightly detaching the longer notes holds good in this piece, so it may be assumed that all the crotchets will be staccato to some degree.
Minims will also be detached, but these should be held longer than the crotchets in accordance with their relative time value.
Tone & Texture
The student should begin the piece at a confident mezzo forte. In this style of music, it is most important to pay attention to the textural detail, as the melodic interest moves from one hand to the other.
The RH will need to be relatively louder than the LH until the end of Bar 8, when the quaver introduction to the LH phrase suggests that the LH holds interest and may be brought out more strongly.
The most challenging aspect of technique in this piece is showing the relative importance of the melodic lines in either hand. It is never too early to begin to draw the student’s attention to textures in their playing and students at this level will, at least, have had some experience of making a RH tune louder than a LH accompaniment.
To make a LH line louder than a RH part, as in Bars 9 – 13 and Bars 45 – 49, the LH must be known sufficiently well for the student to be able to sing it from memory and also to be able, silently, to ‘sing it in their head’. Reassure the student that the vocal quality is unimportant, since keyboard music is not always comfortably within the vocal range.
Fingering should be carefully chosen to suit the student’s hand, then consistent in use. Failing to use the same fingering each time is a common cause of errors in performance.
Ornamentation is, to some extent, optional at this level of playing but obviously a performance that features appropriate, neat ornamentation will sound more stylish than one without. The deciding factor should be whether or not the student can give controlled, unobtrusive ornamentation that does not disturb the rhythmic flow. If not, then the performance is better without it.
Baroque ornamentation nearly always begins on the upper note, that is the note above the one printed. That is the case in this piece, with the exception of LH Bar 8, where a mordent is a safer choice, starting on the actual G sharp.
The first note of the ornament must always be played on the beat it refers to, never taking time from the previous beat.
Begin by playing the piece for your student or by listening to the recording together, so that the student gains insight into the style and character of the music.
Teach the piece in a linear way, in which the student learns each hand separately as if both were melodies. This will help the student to define the textures when hands are played together.
Opinion varies as to whether the ornamentation should be taught at the same time as the melody line. The answer is probably that this depends on the capability of the student to be able to internalise a complex rhythm, whilst bearing in mind the simpler outline behind it.
Separate hands work
It is important for the student to do sufficient separate hands work, paying meticulous attention to the fingering and articulation that has been agreed in the lesson.
The LH needs just as much practice as the RH otherwise mistakes will occur when the hands are played together. One of the first things to become inaccurate in hands together attempts tends to be the fingering. If fingering is not secure, you can be sure that fluency will be adversely affected.
Hands together work
Hands together work must be very slow to begin with, taking a very small section at a time.
Memorisation of the separate RH and LH lines of each little section is suggested before trying hands together, as this will keep a feel for the linear texture, whereas reading the music note by note tends to promote a chordal approach in which the student listens only to the RH and fits the LH in without listening to it.
Students often find it very difficult to fit in ornamentation unobtrusively. A misconception is that trills should be played a fast as possible, whereas it is much more musical to begin a long trill with a slightly longer note, speed up in the middle then slow down towards the end.
Playing trills as fast as possible, using the fingers rather than rotating the wrist as well leads to tension problems. As long as we include the right number of notes, the trill needs to be only as fast as will permit us to fit the notes into the time allowed within the rhythm.
An excellent performance will show affinity with the Baroque style, in use of articulation detail and dynamics. Phrasing will be defined, textures clear and the playing will be confident in technical control with a persuasive sense of performance. The pace will be suitable lively and fluency will be assured throughout.
A good performance will be lively in approach with generally good fluency and accuracy. There will be some detail in dynamics and articulation, with a developing sense of phrase, although there may not yet be convincing textural awareness with, perhaps, some loss of rhythmic evenness or tone control.
A sound performance will demonstrate secure continuity at a steadily maintained pace and any slips will not seriously disturb the performance. A little detail might be given in dynamics and articulation, although there may not yet be sensitive tone control and rhythms might not be even in control.