Westhoff – Suites for violin alone, an exploration

Posted on April 25th, 2021 by

Detail ‘The Banquet of Esther’ Sébastien Bourdon (1616 – 1671)


An exploration Johann Paul von Westhoff (b Dresden, 1656; d Weimar, bur. April 17, 1705) – Works for violin alone. This summer, I will record all the surviving works for solo violin, by the fasinating violinist and linguist, Johann von Westhoff. I have been working on these extraordinary works for many years, and they are a vital part of my rotating concert-series ‘Preludes & Vollenteries’.

Westhoff D minor Courante

Very little of this composer’s output survives. In addition to the works for violin alone, all that we have is seven sonatas for  violin with continuo. The remaining works, for vioin alone, consist of six suites/partitas, published (or in preparation for publication) in Dresden in 1696, and a larger-scale suite, which appeared 13 years only, in Paris, as Suite pour le violon seul sans basse, in the ‘Mercure galant’. It is known that a collection of solo works had appeared earlier, Erstes Dutzend Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden und Giguen Violino Solo sonder Passo Continuo (Dresden, 1682): there’s some speculation that the 1696 collection was a reworked of that ‘First Dozen’. I have to say that I doubt this, for reasons that I will come to as this little article evolves. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. https://youtu.be/T2SsiWMi4xA All of this will be in the context, of the idea, which I find so exciting, that my practice desk, where I do my work with the instrument(s) and scores (in the middle of the night), has, for me, the excitent, then adventure of the bridge of a ship, or the poet’s desk, the interior of the Apollo II capsule, or the scientist’s workbench. All of these are, to a degree, sequestered, and all offer views, or sometimes just glimpses of eternity. This has been on my mind much in the past few days, as, unexpectedly, I found myself, almost involutarily, re-working the seven works for violin alone in great detail over an extremely concentrated 30-hour period. This involved one extended late-night practice session, finishing at nearly 6am, and a daytime follow-up, a few hours later. Surprising insights emerged during that exploration, which I will begin to lay out here, and which may, or may not, turn out to be relevant to the project. To begin at the beginning: notation I found myself writing the following on Facebook:

At the desk this morning. I will say it now – if you don’t use the notation, you aren’t engaging with him…. (20 4 21)

I hesitated for a moment before posting it, as it seemed a little harsh, and certainly arrogant. But, a few hours later, not so much. Famously, the six partitas are presented on an experimental stave, with 8 lines, not five, as can be seen here.

Westhoff on the desk with the 1570 Brescian violin, overnight 17-18th April 2021

The stave is very violinistic – the central space is ‘A’, which is the centre of gravity, or at least, tuning, for the instrument. If you look at the second system of the example here (from the d  minor partita/suite), you can see that the there are, intermittently, 9 lines. There’s nothing mysterious about this, as the top line is simply to provide the ‘C’ above the E-string. Anyone how works from baroque sources will know that the practice of individual (note specific) ledger lines for notes above the space is relatively uncommon – if a composer is going to spend time in a higher register without transferring to soprano clef, then they add another line, or lines on top of the stave. Bach was far from being alone in utilising multiple clefs within one movement (the Chaconne  has three). Westhoff’s stave is organised with orientation spacing, not unlike a keyboard – the two wider spaces in the middle are on ‘D’ and ‘C”. This makes it very easy to locate yourself. Sharps and flats, when they are used in the key-signature, are spread across the compass of the stave, as was common practice in the 17th century. The left hand side of the stave is decorated with an ornate reverance to some of the clefs who are folded into this system – the lowest is a ‘C-clef’ wrapped around ‘middle-C’. The most fascinating result of this notation is a registral one: because the notation ensures that all of the notes are always in the architectural staffage of a stave, we don’t see high or low notes on the page, and further more, if we don’t see them, the mind’s-ear hears the pitches, the harmonies, to a degree (and I am aware that this is a personal point of view), liberated of the ‘per ardua ad astra’ of the low-to-high effortfulness of the move across the instrument -up and down. Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656 –1705) – C Major Partita Anonymous Brescia?  ca. 1570 9 St Botolph without Bishopsgate (James Gould/ George Dance 1729) Friday 22nd March 2019

  But I am getting ahead of myself. To begin with, it might seem, at least at first glances as if the suites/partitas, are generic in the extreme. All six of the 1696 collection consist of Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue. The (Mercure de France) 1683 example is the same but furnished with a ‘doubled’ prelude (it’s played twice, the second in arpeggiated diminutions), and ‘double’ – altre Gigue – of the finale. For the performer, this throws down a gauntlet – we have, in this earlier publication, an example of what the performer ‘did’, making it clear that the four movement structure should be, always, challenged, enhanced, disrupted, by the improvising performer. Later partitas/partias, by, for instance Vilsmayr and J S Bach, make this clearer: Bach’s B minor Partita is ‘doubled’ from four to eight movements, his D minor Allemande-Corrente-Sarabande-Giga, is knocked akimbo by the addition of the set of couplets (the Ciaconna) and the E major upended by the enormous prelude, from which, I would argue, the composer spends the following five/six movements (depending on how you count the two menuets) recovering!

So, here’s a note to self – it’s clear what I might do in performance, from the point of view of an improviser. But what to do in a recording? I will explore some of the answers that are emerging as this little article grows.

Before I take note of the key structure of the set, I will observe some subtle variations within the  1696 set. Without exception, the first two movements of each piece are 1. Common Time (4/4) 2. 3/2. Variation in the pace of taktus is to be found in the 6 sarabandes, which are in 3/1 for suites 1, 2, 3, & 6, and 3/2 for nos. 4 & 5. It’s in the final gigues that things get interesting initially just in the time signatures (but there’s more), which are, taken in order, 9/4, 3/4, 12/4, 6/2, 3/4, 6/4. There’s clearly, something going on, but what? And there’s more: as might be expected, the two movements in 3/4 are notated with a barline every 6 beats. There’s nothing remarkable about this – it’s standard practice (when Bach writes in 3/8, 25 years later, he does the same thing). But look at the very first gigue (in 9/4):  

Westhoff A minor Gigue (offset 9/4)

Can I point out that Westhoff was careful to ensure that the last bar of this Gigue was one crochet long … but that rhythmic puns are comparatively rare in solo ( I avoid the word ‘unaccompanied’) works. The listener hears a bouncing 9/4, until the end of the first bar of the second system – see above- when the third beat of the bar is suddenly emphasised, and the beat swings into the ‘right’ place for seven crochets before the offset 9/4 starts up again for the sub-dominant statement of the theme! 2nd May: It’s been a while

3 am, 2/5/21 Working on cadenzas and the missing ending for the last movement of suite 6

I have not been able to write as much about this project as I had hoped in recent days, and this entry can only begin to make  up for the hesitation. I want to say a little about ornamentation, cadenzas, and composition. One of the most fascination aspects of practising 17th century music is the role that improvisation and ornamentation play in the process. I admit, confess, that my feeling about this is very personal and carries no authority whatsoever: but here goes. Performing this music is always going to involve elements of ornamentation; be they decoration, improvisation, divisions, variations, preluding, as mentioned above. But I would like to point out something quite simple: I have found, that, the greater technical detail that I go into  (my normal process, working out every possible possibility for technical control and refinement, and documentation thereof), the more this music persuades me (the other composer that I has offered similar insight is Thomas Baltazar) that the more I practise ‘around  the notes’, the greater understanding emergeds of  the material ‘blatt und glatt’, ie, in it’s ‘cleanest’ form. This feels (with my artist hat on), very much like the process of ‘overdrawing’, where rather than exploring a figure, a face, by sketch studies, or clarifying the image by erasure, we simply continue laying into the image, so that the raw material – graphite and paper – start to have lives of their own, and lead the hand and the eye to an elemental understanding of the work in hand.

Notebook page-awestruck at Michelangelo. National Gallery London 5 7 14

As I do this, violin and pencils in hand, I also think about Michelangelo’s famous unfinished statues, unreleased, as it were, from the imprisoning marble from which his hammer and chisel was liberating them. Improvisational, circumscription-type practice, feels (if you will excuse the hubris) related to this (if inverted). In addition to this exploration of accretions of possible decoration, I am also bound to produce other new materials, embellishments. The first, obvious one, is  cadenzas. There are numerous points in the  cycle which demand cadenzas, ‘pointes d’orgues’, or holds. The contrapuntal complexity of the material demands I respond ‘in kind’ and do not merely indulge in improvised monodic noodling, or generic sequences. In short, I need to compose, so there’s no danger to the adamant clarity of this these works. And, most importantly, composition is vital to complete the set, as the second half of the last movement (Gigue) of the final partita was never engraved. I made the decision to compose this using Westhoff’s stave: something interesting happened. You will see that, above, I noted that I had little patience for colleagues who do not play from Westhoff’s notation. When I composed iusing his 8 line stave, I made a small discovery: the ‘space’ in the notational ‘landscape’ encouraged me to explore more contrapuntal layers than I was expecting. Put simply, the un-cramped systems suggest extra felicities, complexities, which do not appear with the early compositional passes, but pop up, as I spend time with the emerging material. The clarity of the score gives room for this to flower. This, is, for me, very exciting. 3-4th May some thoughts on cycles

Buchmann’s Geflüge Worte, one of many ways of reflecting on cycles with Westhoff 4 5 21

Tonight I have been thinking about gatherings, collections, and cycles. The reason for this is that, for the first time, I worked through the whole set of Westhoff solo works in one sitting. This was not a performances, and gave me no sense of speed or time, as I spent time to consider  infelicities (on my part), and fix problems as they arose. At the same time, it was not true practice, as was choosing to take the long view, to keep my eyes on the horizon, and, without doubt, I allowed some less-than-perfections to slide. I can return to them later. One might argue, reading this that the endeavour was unsatisfactory in both regards: but it has a value  – singers know this, when they ‘mark’ through their parts in an opera, or even a racing driver, walking the course before a race. The change of focus, and speed, in either direction or particular, has real value. To some degree, it’s just practical: in an interview with the Strad, the violinist Joshua Bell, recently opined that:

‘There’s a music-making knob that turns off during difficult passages’ – Joshua Bell. The Strad 29 April 2021

Now, Bell is a fantastic musician, with a peerless technique. What one is trying to do, is to avoid the situation he’s describing, which an pilot friend once described to me (in his world) as ’emergency procedures flying’. Approaching the question of practice at different scales and at difference velocities helps this, a little like using different scale and types of maps: a road map will show you the routes and connections, a contour map the challenges, 1:100000 gives a sense of the ‘big picture’, 1:25000 a feeling of ‘feet on the path’. Tonight’s practice was a little more like using a Victorian ‘Bradshaw’ – telling us what to look at out of the train window, and whether the passing towns and villages have a post office and what days were market days! But most on my mind is the matter of cycles. A few of my friend-musicians share my fascination with confronting and incorporating cycles of pieces: for me, the most influential of these is the great pianist, Daniel-Ben Pienaar, famed for his recordings of cycles of Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Mozart, Gibbons and more. We talk a lot about what draws us to this way of working, and the one thing which we bvoth seem to find, is that it offers us the opportunity to inhabit a composer’s work, or even their psyche, their imaginations. This means that the approach ( I won’t use the word interpretation) to a particular piece or set of pieces is not created from without, but (it seems) from within. I find that, for me, it is also connected with my love of lexicography, hagiography, in all its forms. Since my early teens, my book shelves have groaned with dictionaries, encyclopedias, gazeteers, lexicons, true hagio-graphies (dictionaries of saints), and dictionaries of quotations, from Phillips 1658 New world of English words, by way of Arthur Mee’s encyclopedias, the 24 volume Danish dictionary, and tonight Buchmann’s epochal 1877 Geflügelte Worte. Der Citatenschatz des Deutschen Volkes.  There’s definitely something to be learnt about how German composers organised their cyclic concerti, suites and sonatas, from Ries back to Westhoff, from Buchmanns’ pioneering gatherings of citations with the German realisations (where necessary) – ‘Citations from German authors, French Citations, English Citations, Italinan Citations, Greek, Citations, Latin Citations, Biblical Citations, Historical Citations’. Each chapter shares a common structure and, if you like, syntax, and certainly purpose, but each introduces new material, classified by nationality and type. This is not unlike a set of pieces of music, and leafing through inbetween each of Westhoff’s partitas, is comforting and even helpful. Both structured collections bring order to the inchoate, to the ‘winged words’ (Geflügelte Worte).  So I will leave you with one thought: when a composer like Westhoff writes a Sarabande, it’s not unlike an attempt at a definition in a dictionary, at the same time like a citation, an examplar. It is at one the dance itself (though never completely), and a definition. There’s something Gödel – ian about this ‘ we can measure things, even our own brain, from within and without, ‘almost, but not quite’. Notes from 2019!

NB – newer postings here will be added at the bottom, sequentially.

18 11 19

This week, I am going to post about notation and creativity. This has been inspired by the day that I spent working on the work of the Dresden-based violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656 – buried 17 April 1705) yesterday. So that’s where we will begin.

A Major Allemande by Johann Paul von Westhoff (‘B section’)

I would like to begin by introducing what you are looking at here. This is the second half of the A Major Suite/Sonata (we don’t know what the composer intended to call these) from the set of six.

Keys are indicated at the bottom of the each page: ‘A[natural]’, which means A Major. If it was A minor, then he would indicate ‘A[flat]’.

It’s an unconventional stave (which takes a short while to get comfortable with) but is very expressive and easy, one you know how it works. On the left of each system, the key signature. Although we are in A Major, there are only F and C Sharps indicated, which is common for music prior to 1700, and Bach sticks to this convention for certain keys. As you can see, the layout of the stave means that two sharps means that there need to be four sharp signs – and indeed, one sometimes sees internal repetition of F and G sharp within the conventional stave for a G Clef. Next to the key signature, are two clefs (Treble and alto). So the lower stave is centred on a sounding ‘middle C’ (viola clef), and the upper shows us two notes – the G above middle C, where the lower little loop sits, and, definitely by design, the C above middle C, where he big loop has been placed in the big gap between stave lines.

The stave has eight lines (most of the time), and easy location is offered by the large gaps, which are placed on the F and C above middle C. I say that the stave has eight lines most of the time, because Westhoff has determined to avoid ‘ledger lines’ for high notes, so when he wants to write a note higher than B nearly two octaves above middle C, which is the note above the top line, he inscribes an extra line in the stave. I admit, that this is momentarily disorientating, the first time you see it.

I will talk more about this notation and this music tomorrow, but wanted to include this passage, which is the second half of the Allemand from the second piece in the set of six sonatas/suites. My reason, was that it is a rare instance where the composer has based an entire half (all the movements are in this bi-partite form (which I cannot call binary and will not call ternary) on one sequential pattern.

the pattern

Seeing this pattern find its way from the top to the bottom of the instrument on the page reveals the obvious benefit of this notation. No matter where the material is placed, it looks the same, whereas the modern stave has a tendency, to exaggerate the significance, even the relative status, even, dare I say it, the perceived genders of high and low. I cannot decide whether Westhoff chose to use this stave system for these pieces for this reason – that he wanted to avoid a polarisation of material, to render it all, if you like, equal, or that that happened because he was writing ON this stave. But it’s there, for whatever reason. One of the fascinating results of this lovely way of writing, is (sorry) an ‘equal music’.

More later, but here’s a C Major Allemande from the same set.

C Major Allemande by Westhoff. Live at St Lawrence Jewry. 2019.

18 11 19 Evening

This evening, an unexpected revelation. In the course of working on the 6 Westhoff suites, the last movement of the last suite has been niggling at me. For some reason, the second (and presumably last) page of the movement is lost (it would have been page 31 of the source).

It’s worth noting at this point that this not a manuscript, but an extraordinarily beautiful, and precisely engraved score. There are very few mistakes (and these are easily seen and rectified).

But the missing last page is not so easy to rectify, as it requires composing. I have been juggling with this missing section for the past week or so, and over the past 24 hours it took form. I have a feeling that it will be revised. Here’s the first copy of this initial completion. Not terribly neat, I know, but it does the job.

But as soon as I had written this, and worked through it on the violin, it dawned on me that I was missing something. In order to have some idea of what the music felt like, to maybe walk a little in the composer’s shoes, it was clearly necessary that I should write the new section using his notation. (To be honest, I am a little embarrassed, that I did not see/think of this, before)

And so I did. It was harder to construct the 8 line staves than I thought, so it’s not as neat as it might be, but here it is. The top two staves are what Westhoff left us and the bottom two, mine.

Trying to think like Westhoff. Top two staves, his, and the bottom too, as can been clearly seen, mine!

It really turned out to be a revelatory experience. The first thing to note, as I hinted in my earlier posting today, was that working with this stave results in a great simplicity of notation. Put simply, every time I wrote notes which would be clear of the bottom and top of a traditional G clef, which would require ledger lines, I was able to simply inscribe them on an extant stave line. The result is much less cluttered than my original, with a clearer sense of the imitative shapes in the music. At the risk of coming across as self-congratulatory, my music works much better like this.

But the clearest discovery which I made, was that like Bach, but not Telemann or Biber, Westhoff always gives every note within a chord its own stem. Here’s a place where Biber has not done this.

A chord from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

The result of notating like Westhoff’s way, is that every line has independence, place in what Tippet would call the ‘horizontal harmony’ of the piece.

I have always been astonished as how Bach was able to fit all his separate note heads in, in four-point counterpoint, so elegantly, on just one conventional stave.

J S Bach’s notation in four parts (Fugue from the C Major Solo Sonata)

But it’s also clear that Westhoff’s stave offers the composer the chance to do this with no feeling of congestion. It would be interesting, to see the example of Bach shown here, written out on the eight note stave. Perhaps I will try it!


19 11 19 On the train with coffee

I am on the train to work on the final edit of two discs – one new music, one old. But working very  early this morning on Westhoff, a tiny detail surfaced in the writing in his first suite, which raises some questions about my approach to baroque contrapuntal music on the violin.

First of all, I have to reiterate my, somewhat tired insistence that the violin is the ideal instrument for certain kinds of solo counterpoint. When Bach wrote the three great fugues, in his sonatas for violin alone, he was not, as used to be taught, making some instrumental leap into the future, but playing with ideas from the century running up till 1720, when he wrote these piecez. The reason that this is important, is that most of the questions and opportunities around playing polyphony on a solo string instrument with a curved bridge are centred on verticality and voice leading.

The simplest of these questions, which I am going to step around (avoid) this morning, is that of how we attack chords. Put simply, 20th century violinists got themselves into a little bit of a tizzy over the fact that you could not play 3 and 4 note chords with one (un-spread) stroke. It’s interesting that this concern built as pianists started to become focussed on playing chords vertically aligned. These two/one trend/s pertain directly to the question of voice-leading, which is how the ear is ‘led’ through contrapuntal material, how voices are stressed, high-lit (and obscured).

Accompanying this question (which I will explore further, violin in hand), is the, perhaps more vexed question of what we do with a note once it has been struck initially. With certain struck or plucked instruments (harpsichords, harps, pianos, lutes, guitars), this is mostly a question of how long, and how a note is allowed to ring, after it has been struck, and most pertinently, how this ringing relates to the notation. Put more simply, does the heard duration of a pitch always have a relationship with the notation on the page, or is the relationship, more complex, or even imaginary, conceptual.

This had begun to be a question in the 19th century, as is indicated by the fact that a number of virtuosi  composers left works where the curved bridge (which prevents the simultaneous soft playing of more than two strings) is either flattened for certain pieces (Ole Bull),  or sidestepped by the player loosening the bow hair so that it can bee passed over the top of the violin with the stick held behind the instrument, enabling all the strings to be player at once, resulting in a sound that recalls the hurdy-gurdy (or perhaps the Lira da Braccia). In the late 20th century, the great cellist Frances-Marie Utti pioneered a technique, which only works on a high-bridged instrument, using two bows (above and below the strings), which means that all the strings can be played (or not played) with great control.

In the mid-20th century the question of ‘what to do about Bach’s chordal writing’ led to a plethora of solutions from archetiers and players. These were all predicated on the notion that the only way to play contrapuntal material was with simultaneous attack and complet sustaining of all notes. The great Hungarian/Danish violinist Emil Telmanyi made extraordinary (both wonderful and bizarre in equal measure) recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas using the so-called Vega bow, which enabled the player to control the bow tension mid performance. One unfortunate disadvantage of this instrument was that prolonged use resulted in carpal tunnel problems, which was probably a factor in driving Telmanyi (who was Nielsen’s son-in-law) increasingly to conducting.

One of the detailed questions that emerge from this question of ‘do we sustain or release’ long notes, when there’s moving separate-bow material running during them. By now, its generally agreed and the bulk of the baroque canon points thus, that a long note should not be ‘re-struck’, but left to ring in reality and imagination. This certainly seems to make sense … and yet … well look at this.


Look at the repeated notes! From Allemande 1

What we can clearly see here is something very rarely notated in early music, and something which just might suggest that all solutions to the problem outlined above might have merit. If you look at this passage, you will find a two-part texture with one line which changes pitch with the semiquavers, and another which does not. Intriguingly, rather than notating the non-changing pitch with just quavers or crochets (see Bach) Westhoff re-iterates, even scrubs at the held pitch, resulting in precisely the kind of repeating texture, which many of us have worked so hard to avoid, playing multipartite material.

Now it’s worth saying that this maybe the exception that proves the rule, as he does not notate it thus elsewhere in the cycle. BUT… this is the first movement, so the opposite might be true – he just might be offering a paradigm to be followed throughout.

Whatever the case, this is a thought-provoking notation, and has entertained me on this train ride. We are now in the Chiltern Hills and I must pack up, put my coat on, and get to work.

20 11 19 Ornamentation & Practice

Today, I am going to post twice, on the subject of how I practice material like this. The second post will focus on the question of limited materials/gamut. But to begin with, I would like to play with the idea of ornamentation and practice. I will not spend time with the question of when the modern idea of practice appeared, but rather, would like to focus on something which I have come to find very useful, which I think that it is fair to say that I learnt from early baroque music. Here’s the opening of the Courante from the D minor Suite. From the mess, you will be able to tell that it is my copy :

Westhoff-D minor Courante. In this notated copy, red is for covered 5ths, green is for free ringing open strings, blue for shifts

This copy, as well as the normal clutter of my notation, includes various free floating ornaments. In all of the Westhoff, unlike Biber, Vilsmayr, Matteis, there is no material which I would define as a written-out ornaments. My reason for including these is partially because I am exploring possible things to do when I perform, but mainly, something else. Listen to this (I have posted the music just below):

Giovanni Bassano-Ricercata Seconda. Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Viola

This is the second of the ‘Ricercars’ which Giovanni Bassano published in Venice in 1585. The Bassano family were (and are) world renowned instrument builders, players and builders. Some of them, who came to work for Henry VIII, are buried a short walk from where I am writing this, in All Hallows by the Tower church. Here’s the music.

Ricercata 2, from Bassano’s 1585 ‘Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie’

I have said many times, that these pieces by Bassano, are not so much music, but rather explorations of what might be done, by a musician. If you listen to me playing, and have a look at the score, you will see that the music does one very simple thing – it explores the possible options, the trajectories if you like, which result from the opening gesture. It can feel like a the simplest written out improvisation, or maybe a sequence of logical steps and outcomes. Thus:

I have a chair-I sit on the chair-I sit on the chair and lift my left leg-I sit on the chair and lift my right leg … [and so on]

So the usefulness of this (and you will find it in contemporaneous works such as Diego Ortiz Trattado de Glosas 1553), is that it allows me, the player, to gently work my way around possibilities, as, if you like, practice to play in improvisatory context.

So, jumping ahead a century, to the world of Westhoff. I have come to find that what I think of as a Bassano-technique, is extremely useful to practice this music, and also enables me to perform it with the flexibility to change direction, notes, elaborate, extemporise, at will. It’s really very simple: all we need to do, as part of studying the material, is to explore the possible , routes around the material, make, if you like ‘research’, ‘recherches’, which is what ‘ricercate’ are, of what we might do. Even if I don’t add a single till, roulade or grace, in the course of performance, it means that I have weighed the possibilities of the music, looked at it in different ways, what, if you like, I might do, when I am sitting on the chair that I have found.

I find this useful.