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Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
#1576807 12/14/10 10:44 PM
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Hi All,

I just got an early Christmas present of the Bach Toccatas in Henle edition. I've not bought myself any sheetmusic in years - it's an easy way for me to give a list of gift ideas to family members. So, I'm excited to read through them soon, but I realized that I don't know what the general comparative difficulty of Bach's major keyboard works are.

In particular, I'm curious about the Toccatas, Partitas, English Suites & French Suites (I know the Goldbergs & Art of Fugue are considered a step above the former pieces in difficulty). I'm generally aware that the French Suites are considered simpler than the English Suites, which are considered simpler than the Partitas (at least in structure if not in difficulty). But I don't know if every suite within those groupings is roughly equivalently hard, or if there's substantial variety of difficulty, say from French Suite No. 2 to French Suite No. 5. I also don't know where the Toccatas stack up in the mix and whether there's substantial variety in difficulty between individual Toccatas.

People are always asking questions about Chopin Ballades or Chopin Etudes, or Liszt Etudes, or even sometimes P&Fs from the WTC, but I've never heard any comparisons of the Bach pieces I'm asking about.

Perhaps any large-scale Bach piece is going to have enough intricacy of structure, density of contrapunctal writing, and variety of texture that it's simply "substantially difficult" and they can't really be compared.

Any opinions?

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1576818 12/14/10 11:07 PM
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The toccatas are generally more difficult than the suites, if for no other reason than they contain fugues and aren't broken up into as many pieces.

That being said, there is considerable variance in the toccatas. The e minor is relatively accessible, the fugue being about as difficult as an average WTC I fugue. The c minor toccata is something of a monster; I found it to be more difficult than the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.


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Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1576851 12/14/10 11:58 PM
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According to Henle Editions:

Quote
After careful deliberation I have settled on nine levels of difficulty, which I have divided into three groups: 1–3 (easy), 4–6 (medium), 7–9 (difficult). A number of parameters have been considered when assessing the level of difficulty. I have not just looked at the number of fast or slow notes to be played, or the chord sequences; of central importance are also the complexity of the piece’s composition, its rhythmic complexities, the difficulty of reading the text for the first time, and last but not least, how easy or difficult it is to understand its musical structure. I have defined “piece” as being the musical unit of a sonata, or a single piece in a cycle, which is why Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” Part I comprises a total of 48 levels of difficulty (each prelude and fugue is considered separately), Schumann’s Sonata in f sharp minor op.11 only has a single number. My assessment is measured by the ability to prepare a piece for performance.


Partita 1 B flat major BWV 825 (Level of difficulty: 5/6)
Partita 2 c minor BWV 826 (Level of difficulty: 6/7)
Partita 3 a minor BWV 827 (Level of difficulty: 6)
Partita 4 D major BWV 828 (Level of difficulty: 7)
Partita 5 G major BWV 829 (Level of difficulty: 6)
Partita 6 e minor BWV 830 (Level of difficulty: 7)

English Suite (1) A major BWV 806 (Level of difficulty: 6/7)
English Suite (2) a minor BWV 807 (Level of difficulty: 6/7)
English Suite (3) g minor BWV 808 (Level of difficulty: 6/7)
English Suite (4) F major BWV 809 (Level of difficulty: 6)
English Suite (5) e minor BWV 810 (Level of difficulty: 6/7)
English Suite (6) d minor BWV 811 (Level of difficulty: 7)

French Suite d minor BWV 812 (Level of difficulty: 5)
French Suite c minor BWV 813 (Level of difficulty: 4/5)
French Suite b minor BWV 814 (Level of difficulty: 5)
French Suite E flat major BWV 815 (Level of difficulty: 5)
French Suite G major BWV 816 (Level of difficulty: 5/6)
French Suite E major BWV 817 (Level of difficulty: 4/5)

Toccata f sharp minor BWV 910 (Level of difficulty: 7)
Toccata c minor BWV 911 (Level of difficulty: 7)
Toccata D major BWV 912 (Level of difficulty: 7)
Toccata d minor BWV 913 (Level of difficulty: 6)
Toccata e minor BWV 914 (Level of difficulty: 5/6)
Toccata g minor BWV 915 (Level of difficulty: 7)
Toccata G major BWV 916 (Level of difficulty: 5/6)

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1576971 12/15/10 04:59 AM
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I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.



"And if we look at the works of J.S. Bach — a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity... -Debussy

"It's ok if you disagree with me. I can't force you to be right."

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Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1577067 12/15/10 10:29 AM
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my book of Bach toccatas is one of my favorites. I rarely devote the time to studying the pieces in depth but lift portions for organ postludes. I particularly like the 'easy' E minor.. it's just beautiful.


accompanist/organist.. a non-MTNA teacher to a few

love and peace, Õun (apple in Estonian)
Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
stores #1577090 12/15/10 11:10 AM
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Originally Posted by stores
I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.


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Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1577126 12/15/10 12:11 PM
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I would add the French Overture to the list in the same range as the partitas.

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
stores #1577166 12/15/10 01:46 PM
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Originally Posted by stores
I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.


While the idea of level is a bit pointless, making decisions as to difficulty is an important part of what teachers do. Poor repertoire choices can sabotage a student's progress, while the right choices can help encourage it.



"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

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Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
stores #1577222 12/15/10 03:25 PM
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Originally Posted by stores
I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.
I think you're mostly right - though I would sort of clarify your wording by saying "Why don't you just try it and find out".

The true answers to your question are
- Some people don't sight read well enough to try things out.
- Some people don't have easy access to the book.
- Some people think it will be impressive if they play "high-level" music.


(I'm a piano teacher.)
Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1577225 12/15/10 03:29 PM
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I've found that some of Bach's toccatas to be not as difficult as his English suite and some of the Partitas.

But I don't know much on his toccata works outside of the organ.


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Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1577229 12/15/10 03:33 PM
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There's also the issue of tempo choice. The speed at which you play a piece can greatly affect how difficult the piece is, obviously. I think this makes the difficulty of Bach pieces even harder to classify.

For instance, many people consider the Bb Partita to be easier than the C minor Partita. But I hear the Bb's Allemande and Corrente at a tempo that would make them comparable, if not more difficult than, the C minor's movements, including its Capriccio.

-J


Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1577392 12/15/10 06:55 PM
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The challenge with the 'easy' e minor is the fact that throughout the entire 5 pages (in the Henle edition), there are running 16ths through the entire fugue. There is no safety net, you mess up, you pay the price!

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
Kreisler #1577407 12/15/10 07:17 PM
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Originally Posted by Kreisler
Originally Posted by stores
I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.


While the idea of level is a bit pointless, making decisions as to difficulty is an important part of what teachers do. Poor repertoire choices can sabotage a student's progress, while the right choices can help encourage it.



Since I teach, I realise this. If one teaches they shouldn't have to ask about difficulty levels.



"And if we look at the works of J.S. Bach — a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity... -Debussy

"It's ok if you disagree with me. I can't force you to be right."

♪ ≠ $

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
david_a #1577409 12/15/10 07:22 PM
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Originally Posted by david_a
Originally Posted by stores
I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.
I think you're mostly right - though I would sort of clarify your wording by saying "Why don't you just try it and find out".

The true answers to your question are
- Some people don't sight read well enough to try things out.
- Some people don't have easy access to the book.
- Some people think it will be impressive if they play "high-level" music.


If you can read you should be able to determine whether your ability is up to the challenge without the need of sitting down to try it.
The access I understand.
If impressing others is one's motivation and you're not sure about a work's difficulty, then chances are pretty good you're not going to impress. Needless to say, impressing others shouldn't be a primary motivator anyway.



"And if we look at the works of J.S. Bach — a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity... -Debussy

"It's ok if you disagree with me. I can't force you to be right."

♪ ≠ $

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
stores #1577434 12/15/10 07:48 PM
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Originally Posted by stores
If one teaches they shouldn't have to ask about difficulty levels.
I think that's simply not true. Not every teacher is experienced. Not every teacher is experienced in all types of repertoire. If they don't know something and they want to find out, then why should "ask someone" be the wrong answer?


(I'm a piano teacher.)
Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
stores #1577435 12/15/10 07:51 PM
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Originally Posted by stores
Originally Posted by david_a
Originally Posted by stores
I've never been able to understood the fascination with difficulty levels. What difference does it make? Just play the damned thing.
I think you're mostly right - though I would sort of clarify your wording by saying "Why don't you just try it and find out".

The true answers to your question are
- Some people don't sight read well enough to try things out.
- Some people don't have easy access to the book.
- Some people think it will be impressive if they play "high-level" music.


If you can read you should be able to determine whether your ability is up to the challenge without the need of sitting down to try it.
The access I understand.
If impressing others is one's motivation and you're not sure about a work's difficulty, then chances are pretty good you're not going to impress. Needless to say, impressing others shouldn't be a primary motivator anyway.
I agree with every point you make here. Do note, however, that some people who can't read music at all want to find out this kind of stuff. I don't know what good it could possibly do them to find out, but that doesn't matter much IMO.


(I'm a piano teacher.)
Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1580220 12/19/10 07:44 PM
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'trrrradition' says the order of difficulty is somewhat like this: French, English, Partita's, the Toccata's being all over the place, so tradition su..s. Many of the innumerable movements are easy/intermediate/diffcult in no matter what suite, the whole thing should be about:
1) Is Bach difficult? answer: Yes
2) Is Bach worth the effort? answer: Yes
3) Is it possible to chose between the above mentioned suites? answer: of course, follow your instinct!


Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure, but not anymore!
Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
david_a #1580258 12/19/10 08:44 PM
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Originally Posted by david_a
Do note, however, that some people who can't read music at all want to find out this kind of stuff. I don't know what good it could possibly do them to find out, but that doesn't matter much IMO.


You may have just answered your own question there!

Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
beet31425 #1580275 12/19/10 09:15 PM
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Originally Posted by beet31425
There's also the issue of tempo choice. The speed at which you play a piece can greatly affect how difficult the piece is, obviously. I think this makes the difficulty of Bach pieces even harder to classify.

For instance, many people consider the Bb Partita to be easier than the C minor Partita. But I hear the Bb's Allemande and Corrente at a tempo that would make them comparable, if not more difficult than, the C minor's movements, including its Capriccio.

-J



Well said. In particular, if you got it wrong somewhere (say the Bb's Allenande at fast tempo), it can be hard to come back. It is either total control or train wreck.

Last edited by ABC Vermonter; 12/19/10 09:19 PM.
Re: Difficulty of Bach's major solo works
MarkH #1582856 12/23/10 02:07 PM
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Which of these would be the best challenge for someone who has a solid technique for the most part, but doesn't play much Bach and stumbles in his delicate fingerwork? I'd like something in a major key, but I already know the D major Partita and the others seem to be significantly easier, so minor key would be OK..

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