Bach: Violin Sonata no. 1 - 1st movement
Alex Goldberg (violin)
“That’s a beautiful way of doing Bach. It’s more improvisatory, more full of invention, of searching, and all the little notes are just decoration. That’s the style.”
— Benjamin Zander
Ben Zander: Alex, I’m going to stop you. And this is because this is not a performance class, you understand? It’s not a performance class and not a master class. I would let you go, but I want to interrupt, because I love your playing. A little applause, please, for his playing. I love your playing, but I am lost. I don’t know where you are. I can’t follow what’s going on in the music. Bach has a story to tell, so let’s find out what the story is. If we had a lot of time I’d let you play, but let’s get right to work here. What’s happening at the beginning, right? So many pieces begin telling you… And then, he’s just telling you G minor. And pieces often begin that way. They say, “Hello, I’m an E flat major. Hello. Now let’s get going.” And they go, “Bom bom bom bom,” and you say, “C minor.”
Ben Zander: So that’s what’s happening, they go, “Do-do-do-do-do.” Composers say, “This is my key.” So this is… And so, could you do that? Just do the chords. Just do the G minor chords, and tell the audience what’s happening. You didn’t look at the audience once, you were always looking at your fingers. So tell them what’s happening. G minor. Now play the next chord, and the next chord. Right, beautiful. And now come down and meet this young lady, because she plays… You play the piano?
Speaker 2: No.
Ben Zander: No, you play the piano.
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Ben Zander: Right, so come down. Do you play?
Speaker 2: I play the violin.
Ben Zander: Violin? Even better. She wants to know what’s going on, so play the first chord, play the second chord, play the third chord, and then go back to the first court and see if you can make her really understand. You’ve got to be a great teacher now, you understand, because children at that age aren’t used to paying attention. These are very special kids because they’re in the front row, right? So they’ve chosen to be here. All right, here we go. G minor. And back to G minor. Yeah, pretty good. You would do it even better if you did one down bow, up bow, down bow, up. Just do it. Do it one more time. One more time, so that everybody… Because there are a couple of children up there who are not paying attention. Here we go.
Ben Zander: Try. Look at her, look at her, look at her. And then, G. And now when you have the… Aha. And G minor. Everybody, nod your head if you understand, you’ve got the key. Now put all those notes in between. Start from the beginning. Try. Yeah, we make too much of them. Just get to that second quarter as quickly as possible. Because it’s like a building, they’re like pillars in a building. They’re holding the roof up. If they’re too far apart, the roof will fall in. All right, try. Yes. There’s the second one, and here’s the third one. G, and there we go. We’re in G minor. Is that clear to everybody? Great. Beautiful. Come back up here.
Ben Zander: All right. Now what happens next is we get a line like this, right? That line. Now the dum… And that E flat goes to D, you got that? So, G, D. Sorry. Right, so just do that from there. Can I suggest, because it’s in four… And this sort of an odd idea, I realize. You’ll have to put on a different way of looking, but that is actually one beat. And then that pushes you through to the E flat, right? Should we try… Yes. Beautiful, bravo. Now, this is a very important moment because till now everything’s in G minor. Everything’s in one key, and you are still in G minor here, or… G minor. Now, here, this is a change, tremendous change. And then he says, “No, it’s a little too early, because we’re getting close to the dominant. That’s too early, so let’s go over here,” right? So he kind of escapes into another territory.
Ben Zander: You’re doing beautifully. Do from here. Now. Yeah, if you were concentrating on those girls in the front, you’d help them a little bit more by saying, “F.” That bass note has to be helped. You are stuck a little bit in the… You’re very serious. You’re 57 years old, and you’ve had a long life, and you’re showing the world what you’ve learned like a guru on the mountain top. No, this is a young man wandering around Italy with a violin improvising. And you know how I know? Look at this. This is the original score. Look at this. Look at this. Look, isn’t that amazing? Look, you see? Improvising, right? Look at it. That’s the original, right? Isn’t that amazing?
Ben Zander: So don’t take yourself so seriously, right? Just play the chords, play the story. Here, here, here. Let’s do it again here, from… So bring out the bass. Now F. Now go to D. Yeah, this is too much. The two girls will be lost. They’re waiting. They want… Back to D. Now go on. D. Aha. Now, Alex, at last we’ve arrived at that place. That’s the dominant, right? So that’s as far away from the tonic as you can go, and all of it is one sweeping gesture until you get there. Do you get that? So, improvise it. Imagine you were improvising, and reduce the number of impulses so you get long lines.
Ben Zander: Should we try one more time, and think of that D as your destination all the time from here. As soon as you play the F start thinking about the E, and as soon as you play the E start thinking about the D, and then go on. Because he doesn’t want to reach the D there, because it’s too early for the dominant. So he says, “Oh, no. I’m going on. D, A, and now’s… Now I’m ready to reach the D.” Okay, should we try it from there? Think of A. Go on. Now the A, and again the A. Yes, we got there. Fantastic. Now let’s go on. What happens next? Yeah, well, of course, of course.
Ben Zander: Now let me tell you, Alex, what happens at the beginning of this section. This is the second part. He does the same as he did in the first part. Now, is he back in G minor here, back at the beginning? Of course he isn’t, because it’s much too early. So now he says, “Let’s get out G minor.” That chord is the one that takes us in a different direction. So move through this, and then when you get to this chord now he finds himself in sorrow, like in a Bach cantata. Weinen, Klagen… isn’t that right? Like in those Bach cantatas. Now he says, “We got to get on with this. Oh, how would it be if we went to E flat major? No, no, that won’t do. How about if we went to A flat major? No, that won’t do. How about this? How about this? Ah, that’s a good place to rest.”
Ben Zander: Do you see how the journey is? So all of this is just improvising. He’s looking for a place. So we should do from here, where we arrived at the D, right? And make it sound as much like at the beginning as possible. You’re going to have to change a little bit your approach, because you are… Come back a little bit here. You’re in that very… You love Menuhin, don’t you? You love Menuhin’s playing?
Alex: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ben Zander: Yeah. You’re a kind of Menuhin grandchild, right. Because-
Alex: Thank you.
Ben Zander: That’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? And Menuhin would play these pieces, and he would create an incredible atmosphere, and you’d feel you were in a cathedral, and you were just in another world. And that’s a beautiful way of doing Bach. I think this is more improvisatory, more full of invention, of searching, and all the little notes are just decoration. That’s the style. The Baroque style is not a melodic style, it’s a decorative style, because the churches… Or, you have the church and then you have unbelievable decorations, but the decorations don’t interfere with the religion inside, right?
Ben Zander: They just enhance it. So if you can think of these decorations as being light and… Ah, and then that chord suddenly becomes an amazing event. Should we try that from there? Now. Now sad, and… Yes. Where are you going to? Now change your direction. Keep it going to… Yes, and now we’ve arrived at the next decoration. So everybody in the audience can say, “Oh, that’s where we were going. We were in G minor, then we go to D, and now we’ve arrived in C.” And now he cheats us, because he says, “You think we’re home, because we’re going to play the thing just like the beginning. G. It’s like a recapitulation of the beginning, isn’t it? But what happens next is what’s exciting. So, go from C minor.
Ben Zander: How fast can you play that? Because what I’m really interested in is D, to there. Decoration. Yes. Good. Now he repeats. B flat. A flat is the next thing. A flat is going to G. Jawohl. Well done. Now that chord is really crucial, because that chord tells us we’re going home to G minor. Isn’t that right?
Ben Zander: So all of this is in C minor, and we think, “Well, what are we doing in C? Has Bach forgotten that he’s got to go back to G minor?” And, G. Aha. Jawohl. We’re going back to G minor. So that’s a big moment. Beautiful playing, well done. What you’re doing is, the decorations are starting to sound like decorations instead of melodies, right? Isn’t that beautiful?
Alex: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Ben Zander: Decoration is decoration. Melody is melody. Harmony is harmony. Don’t confuse them. Okay, so let’s do… And if you could do it as a favor, one more time, even exaggerated. And then when you play that A flat, already start thinking about making it go to G. Do from there. Now. Jawohl. You see, I don’t know about those two girls, I don’t know about them, but I think that the people up there suddenly saw the architecture of the piece because of the way you were playing it. That’s right? You suddenly see, “Oh, that’s what’s happening.” Isn’t that beautiful? Do one more time. Maybe you can get the girls to listen.
Ben Zander: Let me suggest something. If I could get you to think about the audience more than about your own playing, it would help you enormously. Because if your aim in life was to get these two girls to hear the bass line… Come here. And your aim in life is to get them to hear the C going into B flat, the G going into the A flat, the A flat going into the B… And, do you see, if that was your… And this chord, you’re going to make their hair stand on end when you play that chord. Should we try it from here? Yeah. But you have to really move through it, right? Here, don’t, it doesn’t help. If you want to talk to somebody, you actually have to look at them. Then they pay attention, right? So just look.
Ben Zander: Good. Oh, I love that smile. I was about to say to you, could you pretend you’re having a good time? Because you look awfully earnest, and your age, you’re a senior in high school. That’s a very earnest time. People have to be very serious. They have to be worried about college and about their career and about how they look and whether they’re impressing people. All of that, actually, Bach wasn’t interested. Do you know Bach had 23 children?
Ben Zander: Did you know that?
Alex: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ben Zander: He wasn’t worried about his college applications. No. 23 children. Who has 23 children? Somebody who’s really alive. We put our kids through misery all the way through their youth to get to be good, to get a better deal, in order to get a better job so they can die. Why? Why don’t we have fun along the way? So, would you have more fun? And, just take these two. They’ve come all the way here to be with you this morning, to learn about the Bach, so you tell them. Here. Now, it’s not the end. Here it comes. Yes. Look at it. Look, look. She got it. Good. Now, right, C minor’s coming. Not yet.
Ben Zander: Fantastic. Good. Now, I need to tell you something. Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo. I’ll tell you something. I’ll tell you something amazing. He arrives here on the G minor, right? And now, so, here. Now, when he’s arrived there, he could end there on that low G, but he still has to do this. He still has to do that last thing in order to play that high B flat. Do you see this high B flat?
Ben Zander: He hasn’t had that high B flat since the beginning of the piece. Look. Since there, right? He has to bring that out. So would you just try? You were great.
Alex: Thank you.
Ben Zander: It was fantastic. Actually, you weren’t great, Bach was great. And you know, Bach wasn’t great, because you know what Bach wrote when he finished a piece? For the glory of God, right? He didn’t care about himself. He didn’t care about you, certainly. He cared about the glory of God, all right? So that’s what we have to bring forth. So, do from here. I loved the way you did that. Would you do from there? Now B flat, to A. Now to G. Now B. Yeah, sorry. Go up, the E, to B flat. Yay.
Speaker 3: Yay.
Ben Zander: She went, “Yeah.” The G. Jawohl, we did it. Bravo. Beautiful. Great. Beautiful, beautiful. Look. Thank you. She’s clapping. Isn’t that beautiful?
Alex: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ben Zander: And you weren’t in the front row, but I was here when this girl… When you got to the B flat, she went, “Yes.” Like that. That’s our job. Our job is to bring alive these people in the audience. Otherwise they’re basically reading their iPhones in life. Bravo. You’re beautiful. Wonderful, wonderful.
Alex: Thank you so much.
Ben Zander: You’re great, you’re great. Beautiful, beautiful. Fantastic.