The Toccata from Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830, is a popular choice for piano diplomas. I decided to make a study edition for the fugue and a series of walkthroughs for the whole movement to assist players in their learning of this magnificent music.
Even if you’re not playing this piece, many of the concepts I discuss in these new resources can be applied to other works from this period. The videos also provide a detailed walk-through of a piece that is a perfect example of Bach’s genius in contrapuntal writing, with the subject appearing in different keys and with different textures, creating beautiful variations in its colour.
Learning a Fugue
Much keyboard music is written with the human hand in mind, whereas a fugue is conceived in horizontal lines with each as important as the others. This makes learning and playing a fugue something of a challenge and calls for a great deal of coordination. The process of learning a fugue cannot be hurried and requires a disciplined, step-by-step approach.
One of the methods for learning a fugue which I suggest in my edition is called the “Stepladder”. Instead of learning hands separately, you first learn the individual voices separately and then together in different combinations. For example, in a three voice fugue you’d learn the soprano (S), alto (A) and bass (B) lines separately. Then you’d combine two voices e.g. S & A, A & B and S& B before putting all the voices together.
To facilitate this process, edition has a version of the fugue written in an open score which makes it easier to read the individual voices:
I strongly advise organising a fingering that works for your hand. After some experimentation, write it down and commit to it every time you practise. Eventually the fingering will become automatic, allowing you to concentrate on other aspects of music making and performance. My edition provides some fingering options, but these are only suggestions – feel free to come up with your own (but remember to write them in!).
One of the challenges with playing a fugue is that there are more voices than we have hands. Therefore we need to divide some of the voices (usually the middle voice(s)) between the hands. In addition to my fingering suggestion, I’ve also used different colours to provide some suggestions for hand distribution:
Style & articulation
Bach has left us some slurs in this movement, which of course need to be respected. Elsewhere, as is the case with music from this period, the choice of articulation and other performance details is very much up to the individual performer and there is no one right way of doing it. For example, the head of the subject can either be played legato, or the up-beat quaver (8th note) separated from the quaver pair (which will want to be played slurred):
There are some further ideas for articulation, interpretation and realising the ornamentation both in my edition and the accompanying video walk-through. The complete, downloadable version of this edition is available for separate purchase from our store here or as part of a combined bundle of study editions. It is also included with an annual subscription to the Online Academy. Please click here to find out more about subscription options or click here for an index of the videos if you are already a subscriber.
Other Resources for Playing Baroque Music
- How to Learn a Fugue (blog post & video)
- JS Bach – Prelude & Fugue in C Minor, Book 1 No. 2 (study edition)
- Step into ‘The 48’ – A Guide to JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier
- Baroque Day (online workshop recordings)
- Interpreting Baroque music at the piano (blog series)
- Video lessons (from ABRSM syllabus):