Bach J C F - Allegretto in F
Interpreting the Music
J C F Bach's Allegretto in F is set for the Grade 5 ABRSM piano examination 2013 - 2014.
This is an elegant piece that needs sensitivity in interpretation. There is scope for tasteful contrast in dynamics and gracefully shaped phrasing, as well as for interest in articulation detail.
The pace should be sufficiently lively to reflect a two-in-a-bar feel, but without sounding rushed and the hands need to be carefully balanced to allow the melody lines to sing above the LH accompaniment.
Ornamentation should be unobtrusive, enhancing the musical lines without disturbing the fluency. The realisation of ornamentation demonstrated here is based on an interpretation that is stylish and authentic, whilst remaining within the grasp of most Grade 5 pianists.
Teaching & Learning the Piece
J C F Bach: Allegretto in F
• F major
• Cheerful 2/4
• Alberti style LH accompaniment
• Many ornaments
• Some awkward shapes for fingering
• Some leaps but not impossible for small hands
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), Johann Sebastian Bach’s ninth son, was employed as a musician and composer by a German aristocrat. His life coincided with the musical transition between the Baroque style of his father and the new Classical style of Mozart and Haydn, and his composing style reflects this. This Allegretto, from his collection “Musical Leisure hours”, illustrates this, as it includes the Alberti bass patterns and regular phrasing of the Classical style, whilst retaining a more Baroque style of ornamentation.
Fingering choices and consistency are essential to prevent slips. To avoid inconsistency and save time, write in the chosen fingerings in all the places where the same music repeats (e.g. bars 3-6, 11-14 and 31-34). Some of the passages could be fingered in several different ways depending on hand size and preferred articulation. Bar 23 seems awkward regardless of which fingering is used! Fingering alternatives for various bars are suggested in examples 5A1/1.
Ornamentation will be a big feature of performance. It must be fluent and stylish, giving an impression of effortlessness. The pianos of JCF Bach’s day were much lighter to play than the modern instrument, so ornaments could be quite elaborate. Where students find it difficult to fit in all the suggested notes, it is allowable to simplify the ornament, as in example 5A1/2.
The ornaments in bars 5 and 6 (and 13-14, 33-34) need to be carefully measured into the music. Be sure to know how the rhythm of the ornament fits note-by-note into the steady LH semiquavers, especially if using the ABRSM publication, in which the second turn in bars 5 and 6 are both editorial additions that can be omitted without any detriment to the sense of style. Simple ornamentation that fits neatly and unobtrusively into the flow of the musical line is much preferable to elaborate ornamentation that causes anxious fluency.
Articulation on the piano was still generally quite detached when J C F Bach was composing. It is not at all necessary to strive for legato, even in the Alberti LH accompaniments. However, this is not a licence for unevenness and random note lengths. Aim for expressiveness and have a reason for choices of articulation. Editorial articulations, including most of the staccato dots, are helpful here. Where there is no editorial marking, look for parallel or similar places through the score and work out whether to adopt the same articulation (e.g. bars 15 and 35 are the same but bar 27 could also be considered).
Chord playing must always be precise, with staccato chords crisp. Slow practice is helpful: placing the fingertips on the notes and feeling their equal readiness to play, before pressing down at exactly the same time. This momentary pause before playing also ensures complete accuracy. As the tempo increases towards performance speed, check that this precision is not being lost.
Dynamics are given without crescendo or diminuendo markings. However, the slight rise and fall of a phrase should still be audible within the overall dynamic level, otherwise the musical shape is hard for the listener to follow. For example, there could be a gentle diminuendo in bars 5-6 followed by a little crescendo in bar 7 and a slight reduction in the last notes of bar 8. Starting bar 9 piano is quite difficult to do without putting in a “breath” or slight break in continuity, which is also helpful for repositioning the hands.
Achieving a good balance of tone between the hands will not be a new idea for players at this grade. It is still an area for attention, since the semiquaver movement of the LH can gain dominance over the RH melody just by being busier, and therefore more noticeable for the ear.
The sustaining pedal was not used in the way we use it today and was more of a “special effect”. It is best to leave it out altogether, ensuring clarity and lightness of sound. For students who like to use pedal to help with legato, reassure them that a non-legato result is actually better in this style of music, as long as it is carefully executed to agree with the sense of the music.
There is a potential trouble spot for coordination, fingering choices and accuracy at bar 23. An awkwardly-fingered octave leap in the LH is accompanied by jumping slurs in the RH. The previous bar’s LH chord shape dictates the 4 on B flat, an unfamiliar starting finger for an octave jump, and the landing finger on the lower B flat needs to prepare for the following G below. A suggested fingering at example 5A1/3 is designed to avoid the need to reposition both hands at the same time. This bar will need a lot of practice whichever fingering is chosen, especially for those students who like to sight read their pieces and leave their fingering to chance. That approach will not produce a safe result here.
Bars 27-28 are also awkward and should be practised slowly to ensure accuracy. A small hand may be more comfortable putting 1 on the first RH B flat since there is no need to make a legato connection to the A.
A really effective performance of this piece will combine technical security with elegance. J C F Bach was well known as a virtuoso on the harpsichord and this piece has a virtuoso flair in its ornamental flourishes and agile leaps. Any difficulties the student has overcome in preparing the piece must be forgotten and the overall impression be of ease, lightness and perhaps a touch of humour.