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Bach's Technique of Transcription and Improvised Ornamentation

Author(s): Putnam Aldrich

Source: The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1949), pp. 26-35
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/739578
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HOWEVER flagrant and numerous the misdeeds committed

against Bach by transcribers, the purist cannot, in conscience,
invoke the master's name to denounce the art of transcription as
such, for Bach himself was passionately devoted to it. It is true that
the pressing need for new compositions to use in the fulfillment of
his duties may occasionally have obliged Bach to rework material
already at hand. So often, however, does the quality of the new work
equal or even transcend that of the old that one is forced to conclude
that the greater part of Bach's output in this field must owe its existence to enthusiasm rather than to exigency. Moreover, the practice
of transcription, widespread in the 18th century, looks back on many
centuries of cultivation at the hands of the most eminent composers.
Bach's transcriptions fall into two categories: 1) his own earlier
works that he transcribed for a new medium; and 2) transcriptions
of works by other composers. The first category includes most of the
harpsichord concertos (arranged from violin concertos, overtures,
and choruses from cantatas), certain choruses and sinfonias to cantatas (arranged from movements of the Brandenburg concertos),
the triple concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord (transcribed
from a prelude and fugue for harpsichord solo), and numerous other
compositions. These pieces are all eminently worthy of study, from
both the point of view of musical value and that of technique of
The transcriptions in the second category, however, are even more
interesting, and it is with these arrangements by Bach of other composers' works that we are here primarily concerned. In almost every
case Bach has done far more than adapt the notes of the original

Bach'sTechnique of Transcription scImprovised Ornamentation 27

score to a style appropriate to another instrument. Most of these
pieces represent actual transformations and amplifications of the
musical ideas contained in the originals. It is in this connection that
Schering has spoken of Bach's "ability to put life and character into
the monotonous parts of such works by drawing upon his own
imagination, adding and supplementing with his own ideas".
The available material for the study of Bach's method of transcription includes the following:
1. Sixteen concertos for various instruments transcribed for
harpsichord solo.
2. Three concertos transcribed for organ solo.
3. A concerto for four violins by Vivaldi transcribed for four
4. Two trio-sonatas from Johann Adam Reincken's Hortus
Musicus transcribed for harpsichord solo.
The MS containing the concertos transcribed for harpsichord
was found among the posthumous works of Johann Ernst Bach, son
of Johann Bernhard Bach of Eisenach. It bears the title: XII Concerti di Vivaldi elaborati di J. S. Bach. Spitta and the editors of the

Bach-Gesellschaft edition, finding no reason to doubt the veracity

of the title, attributed the entire set of concertos to Vivaldi, and
Spitta identified the originals of the first, fifth, and seventh concertos
as Nos. 7, 12, and 3 of Vivaldi's Most Celebrated Concertos, Op. 3,

published by Walsh in London. Waldersee identified the second

harpsichord transcription as No. 2 of Vivaldi's Op. 7, and the ninth
and fourth as Vivaldi's Stravaganze, Op. 4, Nos. 1 and 6.1 Schering

has since proved that the originals of the harpsichord transcriptions

Nos. 3, 11, 13, 14, and 16 were not by Vivaldi but by Benedetto

Marcello (No. 3), Georg Philipp Telemann (No. 14), and the Duke
Johann Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar (Nos. 1 1, 13, and 16).2 Nos. 6, 8, 1o,

and 15 have not yet been identified, to my knowledge.

The harpsichord sonatas in A minor and C major long passed
as Bach's original compositions because in the MS they are designated as "di Signor J. S. Bach". In the first edition of his book Spitta
considered them particularly characteristic of Bach." He later identi12,

1 Paul Graf Waldersee, in Vierteljahrsschrift fiir Musikwissenschaft, I (1885), p. 356.

2 Arnold Schering, Zur Bachforschung, in
Sammelbdinde der internationale Musikgesellschaft,

IV (19o3), 234; V (1904), 565-

3 Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, Leipzig, 1873, I, 411.

The Musical Quarterly

fled them with the first and third sonatas of A. Reincken's Hortus
Musicus, which has since been published by the Maatschappij tot
bevordering der Toonkunst.4
Studies in which Bach's transcriptions are compared with what
originals were available have been made by Spitta, Waldersee, and
Schering.5 These writers have commented on the following points:
1) Bach's improvements on the contrapuntal writing of the originals;
2) Bach's addition of extra voices, to enrich the texture where it was
thin; 3) Bach's extension of short movements by continuing the
contrapuntal development of the same materials; and 4) Bach's almost complete transformation of the slow movements. In regard to
this last point, Spitta writes as follows:

The Largo (Larghettoin the original) is almost a new composition;Vivaldi

had written a sostenuto air for violin, proceeding only in eighths and dotted
quarter notes with an accompanimentof simple chords in eighth notes. Bach,
realizing the ineffectivecharacterof such a melody on the clavier,workedit up
into an arabesquemovement and invented an independent middle part from
whose nobly melodiousflow no one could believe that it had not formed a part
of the original.

Similarly, speaking of the A minor Sonata, he writes: "The material supplied by Reincken has actually become Bach's property by
his treatment of it, though he has ... done no more than paraphrase
it freely and richly in a highly admirable and masterly way." 6
No one, as far as I know, has yet investigated the essential factor
involved in Bach's transformation of these slow movements, namely,
the fact that the technique he used in writing them is that of improvised ornamentation as it was commonly taught in his time to every
student of vocal or instrumental performance. If this observation
is correct, as I hope to demonstrate by the analysis of specific examples, the study of these pieces can be of great value not only as
an aid to understanding Bach's own style, but also as an approach
to the correct interpretation of similar pieces by other Baroque
In the first place, it will be noted that Bach's style in these movements does not differ essentially from his customary style in original
4 Spitta, Musikgeschichtliche Aufsdtze, Berlin, 1894, 111.

5 In the articles cited above.

6 Johann Sebastian Bach (transl. by Clara Bell and A. Fuller-Maitland),London,
1884, I, 430o.

Bach's Technique of Transcription kcImprovised Ornamentation


compositions of similar character; Spitta, as we have already remarked, considered them particularly characteristic of Bach. But
we know that these melodies of Bach's are elaborations of simpler
melodies by other composers. We observe, further, that in elaborating them he used the technique that other musicians employed
during performance but not in composition, and that the results of
this elaboration are characteristic of Bach's own style. This justifies
the assumption that, in composing original slow movements of this
type, Bach, like other composers of the time, conceived his musical
ideas in the form of simpler basic melodies, but that he, contrary to
customary procedure, worked out the ornamentation on paper instead of leaving it to the inspiration and taste of the individual
Corroboration of this assumption may be found in the attitude
that some contemporary musicians showed towards Bach's music.
Scheibe's well-known criticism in Der critischer Musikus for May
14, 1737, is a case in point:
This great man would be the admiration of all nations if he had more
amenity and if his workswere not made unnatural by their turgid and confused
character, and their beauty obscured by too much art... All the graces, all the
embellishments, everything that is ordinarily taken for granted in the method

of performance,he writes out in exact notes, which not only depriveshis pieces
of the beauty of harmony, but makes the melody totally indistinct.'

Historians and critics have been wont to dismiss Scheibe as an

inordinately self-esteemed, minor musician, who "mistook Bach's
miraculous technique for artificiality, and was insensible of the
poetical feeling that controlled it".8 What they do not seem to have
noted is that Scheibe's criticism is directed against the graphic
aspect of Bach's music rather than its sound. Bach's harmony and
melody are indistinct because he has encumbered the score with
non-harmonic and ornamental notes that destroy the graphic beauty
of the page. This unorthodox appearance of Bach's music, as well
as the reason for it, is discussed in the answer to Scheibe's attack by
Bach's friend, Johann Abraham Birnbaum. Birnbaum defends
Bach's manner of writing, saying that thanks to it no performer
would now be able to destroy the effect of a piece by applying his
7Johann Adolph Scheibe, Der critischer Musikus, Leipzig, 1745, pp. 62-63; reprinted
by C. S. Terry in Johann Sebastian Bach, eine Biographie, Leipzig, 1929, p. 2858 C. S. Terry, Bach, a Biography, London, 1928, p. 238.


The Musical Quarterly

own method of ornamentation: those who went wrong would be
put right, and the honor of the master would be upheld.9
Internal evidence that the technique of ornamentation that
Bach used in his transcriptions is identical with the technique he
used in original composition may be found in such pieces as the
14th and 29th of the Goldberg Variations, the Andante of the
Italian Concerto, and many slow movements in his sonatas and solo
concertos. When these pieces are reduced to their basic melodic
forms it will be seen that the ornaments used in elaborating them
correspond to the types described in the textbooks on improvised
ornamentation. This process of "de-coloring" Bach's melodies is
valuable in that it enables the performer to identify certain ornamental formulas which are known to have possessed recognized
expressive functions and which might otherwise pass unnoticed,
enveloped as they often are in continuous successions of rapid notes.
In her book, Music of the Past, Wanda Landowska has published
the Andante of the Italian Concerto as it appears when reduced to
its basic melodic form, with all the various types of ornaments indicated by signs or letters. The general character of this basic melody
bears a striking resemblance to that of many slow movements by
Italian composers of the period, such as, for example, the originals of
the concertos transcribed by Bach.
The above discussion leads to the rather startling conclusion that
Bach's music did not actually sound so different from that of many
of his contemporaries; it merely looked different. Nor was his style
as individual as is commonly supposed. I do not mean to belittle
Bach's creative powers. There is no doubt that what Bach worked
out carefully on paper is far superior in imagination and expression
to what the average musician of his time could have improvised on
the spot. Nevertheless, it is unjust to judge composers like Corelli,
Vivaldi, or even Handel by comparing the mere skeletons of their
works-which they never intended to be played as written-to Bach's
carefully worked-out elaborations. We may be sure that when Vivaldi, Marcello, or Telemann-all accomplished performers and
well versed in the technique of improvisation-played their own
concertos, they did not sound as dull and monotonous as they often
appear on the printed page; they sounded, doubtless, more nearly
9 Quoted by K. H. Bitter, Johann Sebastian Bach, 2nd ed., Berlin, 1881, IV, p. 20o6.
This passage is given in English translation by H. T. David and A. Mendel in The
Bach Reader, New York, 1945, p. 245 f-

Bach'sTechnique of Transcription &Improvised Ornamentation 31

the way Bach made them sound in his transcriptions. The bare simplicity of Handel's melodies and the uniformity of his figures,
resulting from his use of pre-existing types, have been criticized as
defects. One forgets that he relied on the inventiveness of a performer skilled in improvisation to animate these melodies and instill
variety into the uniform types through the use of numerous different
solutions. The orthodox composer of the 18th century should not be
blamed for conforming to a long-established graphic tradition, when
it is Bach who was the rebel. Nor should his works suffer through
the mis-interpretation of playing them as written.
The injustice done to these musicians can be remedied in only
one way, namely, by giving the modern audience some idea of how
they intended their pieces to sound. If it is too much to expect
modern performers to learn to improvise in the style of a past period,
it is not too much to expect of the musicologist or editor to work
out elaborations of these skeletal melodies that will in some degree
correspond to the composers' intentions. A large number of textbooks of the period give detailed instructions concerning .the technical methods employed in this process. There are also a few examples of slow movements which the composers themselves have
worked out, such as the edition of Corelli's Opus 5 published by
Pierre Mortier in Amsterdam in


and a movement of one of

Tartini's sonatas elaborated in 17 different ways by Tartini himself.

However, it would be hard to find a better guide to this procedure
than Bach's use of it in his transcriptions.
Before attempting to analyze Bach's method it will be necessary
to outline the general principles of "diminution"-which was the
technical term for improvised ornamentation. One must realize that
Bach comes at the end of two centuries of musical activity during
which the mastery of diminution was considered the chief artistic
asset of every performer, whether instrumentalist or singer. Everything pertaining to this technique, from the treatment of the simplest appoggiatura to the most complicated coloratura passage, was
taught methodically to the student at an early stage of his musical
training. Literally scores bofinstruction books dealing with this subject alone were printed in Italy during the 16th century, from
Sylvestro Ganassi's Fontegara, which appeared in 1535, to Bovicelli's
Regole di musica of 1594. In the early 17th century the art spread
to Germany, where its technique is explained by such teachers as
Praetorius, Herbst, and Wolfgang Kaspar Printz, who base their

The Musical Quarterly

instructions primarily on Italian models. At the time of Bach's
greatest activity the use of improvised diminution was by no means
on the wane. Its principles are treated by Bach's contemporaries,
Fuhrmann, Stierlein, Mattheson, and Walther. Even after the middle
of the 18th century chapters devoted to the elaboration of slow
movements are included in the treatises of Quantz and Leopold
Mozart. It is obvious that in the course of its passagethrough so many
different periods and schools the art of diminution must have incorporated many different styles of expression. The most I can do, at
present, is to indicate the main characteristics of this technique that
were prevalent in Germany and Italy at the beginning of the 18th
century. Furthermore, the terminology employed must necessarily
be an arbitrary one, for the names given to individual ornamental
formulas differed not only from period to period but even among
contemporary writers.

The basic principles involved in the ornamentation of a simple

melody are these:
i) The salient structural points of the original melody (such as
its cadences, its highest note, its longest note, the extreme notes of
wide intervals, etc.) are emphasized through the addition of certain
partially stereotyped ornaments which bring these points still further
into relief by a) introducing dissonant notes (appoggiaturas) or
b) heightening the rhythmic and melodic activity at these points
without departing far from the note of the original melody (trills,
turns, mordents, Anschliige).
2) The intervals between the notes of the given melody are
filled in more or less completely with free melodic ornaments, scalewise or arpeggio figures beginning and ending on the given notes.
This type of ornament was known as a passaggio. It had no fixed
form; nevertheless its use was taught systematically, as follows: the
instructor took up each possible interval that could occur in a basic
melody (i.e. unison, ascending 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.). The student was
required to memorize a large number of passaggi, in various rhythms,
that could be used appropriately to fill out each interval. The number of possibilities is, of course, infinite, and the student, after having
become proficient at introducing a good number of representative
patterns, was encouraged to invent his own. Certain frequently
recurring forms of passaggio were given specific names, such as circolo, mezzo-circolo, tirata.

Bach'sTechnique of Transcription &Improvised Ornamentation 33

3) Occasionally the notes of the given melody do not all appear
in their original rhythmic positions, the whole outline of the melody
between two of the salient points being dissolved into smaller notevalues which follow only the harmonic structure of the original.
4) The proper effect of the ornamentation is cumulative. If the
original melody is a sequence, each member of the sequence is ornamented differently, the ornamentation becoming progressively more
elaborate with each recurrence of the pattern. If a passage in the
original is repeated exactly, the repetition in the embellished version contains more ornaments than the first occurrence.
As examples illustrative of Bach's procedure I have chosen the
opening phrase of the A minor harpsichord sonata, transcribed from
the first sonata in Reincken's Hortus Musicus, and the first phrase
of the slow movement from his third concerto, transcribed from an
oboe concerto by Benedetto Marcello, the original of which I found
at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. The Hortus Musicus is published
complete in a modern edition and the movement in question may
be found in the Appendix to the later editions of Spitta's J. S. Bach.
I have transposed the Marcello example up one tone to correspond
with Bach's arrangement in D minor.
Noteworthy, in the sonata, is Bach's emphasis of the salient points
of Reincken's melody by means of stereotyped ornaments: the morEx. 1p
Bach P

tAI- a

--Ii r





u ]




dent and lower appoggiatura on the A and C, respectively, of the

first measure; the upper appoggiatura on the first beat of the second
measure and on the D-sharp of m. 5. In between, Bach has introduced passaggi of various types. These passaggi are obviously much
more than a mere filling-in of the intervals between the notes of the
original melody. Their range is far greater, and their direction is


The Musical Quarterly

calculated to throw the characteristic intervals of the basic melody
into still greater relief. The note of the basic melody is often
approached by the skip of an octave (e.g. the A in the first measure,
the D and A in m. 4). The rhythmic position of the basic melodynote is occasionally shifted a beat or two, to give time for a more
extensive passaggio (e.g. the D and A in m. 4). These procedures are
characteristic of Italian diminution.
The Marcello example illustrates the cumulative effect of ornamentation as applied to sequential melodies. First of all Bach places
a mordent on each of the culminating notes of Marcello's rising
Ex. 2


A( )n AA 4



A F tIurn








figures (B-flat in m. 2, A in m. 4, G in m. 6, F in m. 8). The first twomeasure figure is allowed to stand as it is, with the exception of an
appoggiatura on the penultimate note. At the first sequential recurrence of this figure a mordent (written out in notes) is placed on the
weak beats (m. 3).10 At the second recurrence Bach uses the synco-

pated mordent again, but alternates it with an Anschlag. In m. 7,

the climax of Marcello's sequence, Bach dissolves the melody into
continuous thirty-second notes, using turns and inverted turns.
These examples show some of the methods that Bach used to
elaborate simple melodies. In principle they may be applied to the
interpretation of solo music for stringed or woodwind instruments
or voice by Handel, Telemann, Corelli, Vivaldi, Veracini, and many
other composers of the time. It may be objected that Bach's harpsiThis, incidentally, is one of Bach's favorite ornamental devices. The syncopated
mordent-always written in notes rather than signs-takes on great importance in
many of his works (e.g. the C minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier,
where it is incorporated in the subject); he even bases entire compositions upon ramifications of this ornament (e.g. the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3).

Bach'sTechnique of Transcription 8cImprovised Ornamentation 35

chord style would not be an appropriate model for the performance
of Italian violin music. The fact is, however, that Bach here deliberately wrote in the Italian style. Furthermore, these movements
contain little that is specifically designed for harpsichord. This is
evidenced by the fact that most of Bach's passaggi and diminutions
may be found in textbooks intended for performers on the violin,
flute, oboe, etc., or for singers.
The problem for the modern interpreter is not to find readymade formulas for diminution; a wealth of such material, arranged
in systematic order, abounds in the instruction-books of the period.
The difficulty is rather one of selecting and combining appropriate
formulas for specific musical contexts, fitting them in to the rhythm
and mood of a particular movement-in short, acquiring a sense of
the living art of improvised ornamentation that goes beyond the
stereotyped and necessarily mechanical methodology of the textbooks. It is here that the analysis of Bach's practice can be of invaluable assistance.