Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Play Bach's French Suites - Allemande of the 5th Suite

The first video of a 4-part series on Bach's French Suites

In this video, Robert approaches the beautiful French Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, and introduces you to this masterwork by analyzing the Allemande of the 5th Suite.

Released on March 4, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome to I'm your host, Robert Estrin, with a special series about the Bach French Suites. We're going to cover the 5th French Suite movement by movement for you with brief tutorials to give you tips on how to play this wonderful music.

What are the Bach French Suites? It's so interesting to note that Johann Sebastian Bach did very little traveling in his life. He lived mostly in Leipzig, Germany. How was it that he wrote Italian concerto and French suites and English suites? Well, anytime musicians would come through Germany where he lived, he'd make a point of traveling to hear them. Master that he was, he could mimic the styles, and in many cases, write some of the greatest music in those styles.

The French suites are an example of that. And the 5th French Suite we're going to explore today is such a wonderful piece. The French suites are based upon dance music. The first movement, the allemande, this is a dance movement. And they're all movements based upon dances of the time. Of course, these are concert pieces. Whether people danced to them at that time is questionable, but they definitely have a flavor of dance that you will enjoy.

I'm going to play the first section of the allemande, and I want you to notice as I play it, first of all, I'm not going to use any sustained pedal, no pedaling at all. I'm going to do it all with the fingers. Why? There's a good case to be made for this since Bach played mostly on clavichord and harpsichord. Even the very earliest pianos that he got to try in his lifetime were not predominant in his composition at all, and they didn't have sustained pedals on them anyway. You can do it all from the fingers.

I want you to hear the beautiful clarity of the counterpoint. That is the interweaving of lines. This is essential to get the character of the music, that along with the beautiful ornamentation. Some of it is done freely. Some of it is marked in the score with little squiggly lines that you have to decipher, and there are books written on how to decipher these markings. I'm going to do some embellishments that you will hear, and see how you like it. Once again, the allemande movement from the Bach 5th French Suite in G major.

All right, that's the first section. You'll notice that in all the French suites in all the movements it's in A-A-B-B form, meaning that you have a section, that's the section I just played, and it repeats. Then, you have a second section, and that also repeats. And all the movements in the suite have this same basic structure. The second section is usually a bit longer than the first section. Sometimes, they're about the same size. Anyway, you get the character of this.

I talked about being able to highlight the counterpoint, the clarity of the lines. How do you do this? Well, one way is with the phrasing. You'll notice that there isn't any phrasing or dynamics written in. There are no expression marks of any kind. This doesn't mean that you play no dynamics and you play no phrasing. It means that it's up to you how to delineate the notes in regards to how they're connected or detached.

That's one way you can bring out the different lines, the separate lines of music. Unlike Mozart or Chopin where you have a clear melody in one hand and an accompaniment in the other, this is kind of all these melodies interweaving.

Let me show you. For example, when you have eighth notes, you can play the eighth notes staccato. For example, in the 6th measure in the left hand . . .

Notice by playing the B staccato and the A staccato . . .

You hear the separate lines. If I were not to do that, it would sound like this . . .

And now you can't really tell which is which because one line blends in to the other. So when you put the hands together . . .

You can utilize this technique of playing staccato notes to delineate the separate lines.

The other thing I talked about is the free use of ornamentation, like at the very beginning.

Listen how dull it sounds without that trill.

Of course, Bach meant for there to be a trill there. Ornamentation is part of what Baroque architecture, art, and music are about. Even the frilly outfits and the dress of the time, everything was ornamented. Your music must also be ornamented. If you listen to different recordings, you'll hear many different examples of ornamentation. You can use them freely in your music.

That's the takeaway from this. Create clear lines by the use of phrasing, judicious staccatos on eighth notes, particularly off the beat, and the free use of ornamentation to make your music beautiful.

Thanks so much for joining me in this first series of the Bach 5th French Suite. We're going to cover other movements in the future series.

Thanks for joining me here on, Robert Estrin.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on December 19, 2018 @3:59 am PST
Ironically, Allemande is French for "German dance".
mike on June 19, 2017 @2:44 am PST
do you are could you make a video about what phrasing is?
Robert - host, on June 29, 2017 @1:39 pm PST
I can't believe I haven't made a video on this subject! I put it on the queue.
maria jos�é on March 14, 2015 @5:44 pm PST
thanks for your lesson Mr Robert.I like Bach.marian jose
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