jan 4

Of rests in Bach

I recently noticed that Bach’s epic opus for violin alone only has a few rests in it.

How few is a few? Well, seven rests to be exact.

To give some perspective, the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony sports five rests in the first twenty-one measures.

Considering there are forty-one pages in this massive violin work it could be said, generally, J.S. Bach didn’t rely on rests one bit.

So, what of it?

The music of J.S. Bach taps into something universal; something from nature. One quote I love: ‘J.S. Bach is DNA in sound.’ But for me, there is something quite un-alluring about music devoid of silence; and something quite unnatural, too.

Consider the following:

‘When beating at a moderate rate of seventy pulses per minute, the heart is actually working only nine hours out of the twenty-four. In the aggregate its rest periods total a full fifteen hours per day.’

-Dr. Walter B. Cannon (Harvard Medical School).

Moreover, Claude Debussy wrote — some two-hundred years after J.S. Bach — that ‘music is the space between the notes.’ For me, this means two things:

  1. the relationship between notes is what forges music;
  2. like the human heart, life lies in the stillness.

So, how can one present Bach’s solo violin work, which is without rest, in a natural manner?

A solution to the conundrum

A spiccato bow-stroke is how one can present Bach’s partitas & sonatas with an emulsification of air and sound. Getting off the notes tastefully, is something of an art, for sure, but choosing this stroke, generally, will lay the foundation for heart-felt Bach.

(Not unlike how one can double-dot falling 32nds — so they become 64ths — so notes don’t become ‘sleepy’, so too we should trim notes so they are left with a slight ‘breath’ in them.)

The goal should be to get off notes in a timely manner — as though one was playing in a bright hall & wishes to hear the notes resonate. There is no question that by doing so we are indeed adding rests all over the music, but this is the fee we pay.

What’s the alternative?

If we are to play exactly what is written on the page, the violin sounds something akin to a hurdy-gurdy; the score’s lack of slurs & rests suggests that this is what we are supposed to do, but honestly, I find it truly un-violinistic sounding.

Though some truly great artists are successful in presenting the work via the more ‘sostenuto’ way, I think a lot of the life is lost in the music. And perhaps that’s because the music just doesn’t breathe when we press from one full note value into the next.

Rests everywhere

Shorten the note values, add the apt rests & sleep with a clear conscience. Give it a try, at least. It’s a general approach that shouldn’t be too controversial considering the baroque bow naturally shapes the sound this way. It takes a bit more effort with a modern set-up, but this airy stroke puts so much more life into the music of Bach.


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