Robert Estrin - piano expert

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

The third video of the 4-part series on Bach's French Suites

In this video, Robert talks about the third movement of the 5th French Suite by Johann Sebastian Bach, the touching Sarabande.

Released on May 6, 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 Robert Estrin in a continuing series on how to approach Bach Fifth French Suite in G-major. Such a wonderful work and part of a whole collection of French suites that Bach composed. We covered the first two movements. The first movement was a moderate speed. The second movement is fast. Now we come to this lyrical sarabande and it's interesting that, even though, this is beautiful and mellow and flowing and melodic, it's still the same principles of delineating melodies from one another with phrasing still is appropriate. I'm gonna play the first section of the sarabande so you can hear this gorgeous movement at least the first part of it.

Beautiful lyrical writing, wonderful theme. That's just the first section. There's quite a bit more at this moment, but I wanted you to get a flavor. Now the two aspects of phrasing and ornamentation are appropriate here but you'll notice I'm not doing the same clipped staccato that I was doing the faster movements. Why? Well, staccato doesn't actually mean short as a lot of people think. Staccato simply means detached. In a fast movement to detach notes, you must play them rather short. There isn't time to play them detached and still have much length to them. In a slow movement like this, you can play them to attach without making them sound clipped and unnatural. Listen to what it would sound if I played the same kind of staccato that I did in the faster movement in this sarabande.

You could make a case for that and there are some musicians who would play it that way and it could work. I kinda like to make it a little bit more melodic. Now what I would not do, however, is to completely obfuscate the whole counterpoint by playing everything very mushy kinda of like what you'd expect with 19th-century music.

Now Bach is so malleable in the performer's hands that indeed the last performance they played and the one before that with the clipped staccatos, they all sound pretty good. It's just a testament how great the music is. But I think that being able to delineate the counterpoint without hitting you over the head with it is approach that I think works really beautifully for this movement, which is why I think the balance, listen again. Playing the eighth notes detached but not short.

So that is one suggestion of how you can approach this. You might prefer one of the other ways and that's okay. That's what interpretation is all about. Also, ornamentation can be done in many different ways. For example, the very first trill, that one is nothing etched in stone that says you couldn't play more notes. It's whatever you like. Make sure you measure your trills so that it is reliable, but you can experiment. And indeed some performers will play it differently on the repeat. Why not? You play everything twice in this movement because the first section repeats so does the second section. So you could embellish differently on the two repeats if you wish. There's so much you can do with this. You could also play it on a harpsichord. Indeed, a harpsichord was the instrument of this age. You can learn quite a bit by playing it on different keyboards to get a feel for what Bach might have heard and played the one he actually played this music.

Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at Look forward to more continuing series on the Fifth French Suite of Bach.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Brian Goddard on October 13, 2020 @1:35 am PST
Hello Robert,
I have elected to play the first four movements of Bach's 5th French Suite in an amateurs performance competition to be judged by video. I would like any help I can be given. Thanks in anticipation.
Robert - host, on October 13, 2020 @2:50 pm PST
You are welcome to set up lessons if you like. I teach using video chat!
Brian Goddard on October 13, 2020 @6:33 pm PST
Hello Robert,

Thanks. Sounds a very good idea. Can you give me an idea of the charges please?
Robert - host, on October 14, 2020 @3:29 pm PST
Sure, just email me and you can have a free video chat interview so we can become acquainted and you can have all of your questions answered. Thank you
tomas Rosales on August 2, 2020 @6:05 am PST
Hello team,
For the French suite #5 (Sarabande's part).
For the beginner's pianist, could it come with the "finger to use notation"? Maybe naïve question but I rather ask.. Thanks a lot
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 2, 2020 @8:54 am PST
Hello Tomas and thank you for your inquiry.

Please, to better understand your question, could you please tell me if that's related to our digital sheet music edition or is this a question for Robert?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you again!

All the best,
mike on June 19, 2017 @3:07 am PST
are the French suites melody with accompaniment or two part invention? there could be a case for that they are either.
maggie * VSM MEMBER * on August 21, 2015 @1:05 pm PST
I enjoyed this presentation. I would like more information on how to use phasing/ornamentation in my piano music. This is new to me.
Sincerely, Maggie
Robert - host, on August 22, 2015 @5:38 pm PST
There are books written on this subject. Some edited editions give suggestions for how to implement ornamentation. Listening to several recordings of pieces you are playing is a good way to get ideas of how to negotiate different ornamentation markings.
Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on May 6, 2015 @8:29 pm PST
In an orchestra or band, getting to the same understanding of staccato and other articulations is important for coherent playing. Here's the advice of one of my favourite conductors: 1) A note marked with a tenuto (horizontal line) should be sounded for its exact value. 2) A note with no articulation should be sounded for 3/4 of its value, so that there is space between it and the next note. 3) A note with a staccato (dot) should be sounded for 1/2 of its value. This approach scales to the value of the note (eighth, quarter, half, etc). And finally, in virtually all cases, a note should be allowed to "sing" at least for an instant. The duration of a note should never be close to zero.
Robert - host, on May 7, 2015 @10:21 am PST
That may provide a good general rule of thumb - thanks! As one becomes more sophisticated, musical tastes ultimately determine how to approach each individual piece of music.
paul plak * VSM MEMBER * on May 6, 2015 @2:21 pm PST
my piano teacher used to call this long version of detached staccato "louré", and indeed recommended playing like this in Bach pieces. It really fits the music and recovers some of the spirit of the harpsichord. Moreover, it's also suitable on a organ, because it won't let the individual notes fuse together to some magma of sound. Yet you're right, Bach's music survives a lot of harsh treatment.
Huseyin on May 6, 2015 @6:05 am PST
How do you decide which fingers to use?
Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on May 6, 2015 @8:36 pm PST
In good editions of a piece, fingerings will be provided that are appropriate for most people, but you are free to work out your own. Keyboard fingering is a fascinating subject, and whole textbooks are published on the topic. The most important thing to know, though, is that once you have decided on a fingering, write it into the score, and ALWAYS USE THE SAME FINGERING. ALWAYS.
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