Day 20: Suite No. 4 in E flat major, Allemande

Sometimes there are movements in the Bach suites where the notes themselves are highly debated. This can be because of discrepancies between Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript and that of Johann Peter Kellner, and/or those of the two anonymous eighteenth-century copies included in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. Or sometimes it’s just because we’re not sure what the copyists meant by a certain marking.

The E flat major Allemande is one of those movements. In the middle of the second half, in the phrase that begins on the upbeat to the last bar of the first line in the picture below, there’s some controversy as to what Anna Magdalena Bach meant by the A flat she wrote as an accidental in the first bar of the second line.

Why did she write in an extra A flat when there’s already one in the key signature of E flat major–and, moreover, when she even went to the trouble of writing in an extra A flat and B flat into the key signature an octave above where the customary flats appear? (I assume that the “correct” way to write time signatures was probably not standardized at that time, just as orthography and a few other things weren’t.) Is the A flat a mistake? Did she either mean to write a natural sign and wrote a flat in error, or did it slip in for no reason at all?

Beisswenger’s scholarly edition suggests that we consider playing A naturals in this passage, as in the example below. (She puts the A naturals in parentheses; I was too lazy to figure out how to do this in Finale.)

This goes right against tradition: most recordings, including historically-informed ones, have all A flats but the last one, as shown in the next excerpt.


It makes sense melodically to do this. If we assume we’re in the middle of a tonicization of C minor, the C minor scale (as relative minor of E flat major) has an A flat in it. In a C melodic minor scale, you’d use an A flat on the way down, and an A natural on the way up, which is exactly what happens in this way of playing.

Then again, if we were to make a presumption that we were already in (or heading rapidly towards) a tonicization of G minor, we could then say that the A-C-E flat triad being outlined is, in fact, the chord ii (diminished) of G minor. What to do?

What I did was to compromise. I played the traditional, A flat-heavy version on the first repeat and Beisswenger’s suggested version with the A naturals on the second repeat. I admit a preference for the trad one, but I expect this is because it’s familiar.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: E flat major Allemande, Courante, Sarabande; C minor Gavottes I & II.


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