The French Connection, reconsidered

In a previous post I discussed the idea of making the Chaconne more French in style by changing the manner in which I play the characteristic dotted-quarter/eighth-note pattern. This emerged out of the master class I had with Petra Poláčková along with the consideration of various sources. I also listened to a lot of violin performances and found that some players—particularly those who identify as Baroque specialists—embraced the French manner as well.

In the wake of Petra’s class and the reading and the listening, I began to experiment with playing the piece in this way and got to like it. Even at my relatively slow tempo it makes the piece feel a bit more dance-like. But there are sections where it doesn’t seem to fit, and I don’t care for the idea of changing back and forth; it seems important to keep that basic rhythmic pattern consistent each time it appears. And as I have continued to read about the Chaconne and its interpretation I have come across some fairly persuasive arguments for playing the rhythms as written. So I decided to revisit the question

One of the strongest advocates of the “play what Bach wrote” position is Frederick Neumann, who wrote extensively about performance practices in early music. Over the course of several essays and books he looks carefully at the sources of the overdotting idea like Quantz and C. P. E. Bach, as well as looking at J. S. Bach’s own notational practices. In his book Essays in Performance Practice (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982) he deals with the question in three of the essays.

Since one of the essays is in response to criticism by another scholar it has a somewhat polemical tone:

When we play the overtures, sarabandes, chaconne, etc., of Lully, Rameau, Handel, and Bach, it is a mistake to deprive them of their majestic dignity in favor of the frantic style of jerks and jolts.

Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 98

But elsewhere he argues in a more convincing and dispassionate vein. One thread of his argument is that Bach was perfectly capable of notating music in a very specific way, and Neumann shows a number of examples where the “French effect” is actually notated by Bach.

He also raises the problem of polyphonic music when a dotted note appears in some voices but not in others. Specifically in the Chaconne, he points out that there are often places where the main rhythmic pattern (quarter note, dotted quarter, eighth note) appears in one voice against, in the other voice, a pattern of straight eighth notes, like this spot in measure 141:

In this example, the bottom voice with stems pointing down is the characteristic chaconne pattern, while the top voice is all straight eighth notes.

Neumann suggests that the final eighth note of this measure needs to be given its full value in both voices; so, no double-dotting of the dotted quarter note in the lower voice. This sort of thing happens quite a bit in this part of the Chaconne and I find his reasoning compelling.

He writes elsewhere that what may indeed be needed in the style is a certain lightening of the final eighth note of the Chaconne pattern to keep the whole thing from becoming ponderous. That’s something that seems well within the purview of the performer…in this case, me.

Finally, there is this passage from elsewhere in the book:

The baroque performer enjoyed vast latitude in interpretation of the score; one of the many ways in which he used this freedom was an elastic treatment of rhythmic notation. Guided by the “Affect” of a passage, he applied agogic accents, used rubato techniques of all kinds, varied the tempo, sharpened a rhythm here, softened it there. No rules governed this performance style; its only law was musical instinct and arbitrary judgment.

Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 55

As a governing principle for playing Bach’s music it works for me! In other words, there is probably not a definitive answer to the question of over-dotting, and a performer who choses to do it is not wrong. But I have abandoned my French ways and will rely instead on “softening” or “sharpening” a rhythm here and there to get the effect that seems right to me.

2 thoughts on “The French Connection, reconsidered

  1. For what it’s worth my understanding is that the French concept of “Inegalité” involving unequal subdivisions of the beat — as “rhythmic counterpoint” and de-mechanizing of the regular rhythmic patterns necessary for dance music — was not about equal-inequality (if the paradoxical wording makes sense) but actually about a continuously shifting subdivision of the beat; there are some music boxes from the time (I can try to track down the place where I read about this if you’d like) that demonstrate this idea of subdividing a quarter note pulse with subsequent ratios of 5:3, 4:3, 7:5 etc (each quarter note divided into a *different* unequal pair of eighths). Whether or not Bach was trying to emulate this very idiosyncratically French way of unequal inequality or not, it seems to me that it’s legitimate for you to avail yourself of that concept — that the downbeats need to be regular because (?) there’s the evocation of dance-ability, but the sub-beats are entirely up for grabs depending on the expressive goals of that individual beat.

    Your mileage may vary. This continues to be great, thanks!

    Andrew

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I’m not thinking of “notes inégales” — which is its own complicated soup of a topic–but the idea of over-dotting. But I am fascinated by the idea of these music boxes that divide the beat in different ways!

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