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The Long and Short Of It:
Interpreting Counterpoint Agogically

Based On A Grave From Concerto a Quattro…con Violini Obligati

By Giuseppe Matteo Alberti (1685 – 1751)2

Dr. Charles Heiden, June 4, 2011

In an orchestra, the string player learns that to sustain a note (particularly some pitch in an incisive, punctuating chord) longer than other players in the section will draw adverse attention from the conductor. “Short!” the irate maestro growls. It follows, however, that if holding some pitch a bit longer attracts a conductor’s adverse attention, the objectionable technique may be turned to advantage in a contrapuntal idiom if it is desired to lead a listener’s attention to some particular voice. Bach – the organist and the violinist – understood this. Consider the opening of his g-minor sonata for self-accompanied violin, BWV 1001 (fig. 1).            

Fig. 1: Bach’s Audible Voice-Leading

At circle A, Bach’s notation shows that it is the soprano voice which leads onwards into the 32nds. Similarly, at B, the notation specifies that the 32nd-notes emerge from the 4-3 suspension in a middle voice. At C it is again the middle voice that continues. A performer must therefore by careful to “short” the previous F-sharp quarter-note so that the pitch C is clearly heard by itself before the line erupts into its fioratura. At D, the same careful player (mindful that the fioratura has resolved to the B-flat in the alto voice) will “short” the soprano G so that the last pitch that a listener hears is the alto B-flat. In this way the performer “leads” the listener to believe correctly that it is the alto voice that continues with the 64th-notes.

Fig. 2 below shows a Grave, middle movement of an orchestra concerto by the Bologna violinist-composer Giuseppe Matteo Alberti (born the same year as Bach,1685, but lived one year longer, until 1751). Like Bach, the modern editing (i.e. suggested interpretation) proceeds in a fashion calculated to aid a listener’s sense of the polyphony.

The second movement, in score, with the basso-continuo realized. The a4 continuo homophony of the outside Allegro movements provides a light-weight frame for this a3 Grave – serious and dramatic – with clashing suspension dissonances. If the framing movements reflect an emerging galant style, the imitative counterpoint of the Grave looks back on the baroque tradition of polyphonic trio sonatas.

Fig.2: Detailed interpretation communicates the polyphony to a listener.

Circle D marks a comma that asks the players to phrase with a response that is precisely equal in all voices – orchestra players and conductors are used to this kind of shortening. At B, however, the accents in Violin 2 imply separation as well as dynamic emphases – both quarters need shortening. But in Violin 1, the tie symbol specifies “hold-to-the-rest!” Performed in this way – the sustained sound of Violin 1, overhanging the early release of Violin 2 after its accents, leads the listener’s attention back to Violin 1. Then at C, it is Violin 2 that makes an overhang so that a listener’s attention is directed back and forth from one voice to the other in this counterpoint of leap-frogging suspensions. Letter A marks a similar situation at the start of this dialogue.

The unusually detailed marking of dynamic nuances and contrapuntal articulations – all of it editorial – is intended to stimulate thoughtful response, not blind obedience. “What principles should guide the interpretation?” asks the thoughtful approach. Contrapuntal dissonance treatment –this surely is one of the principles. But no less important is tonal harmony (progressions with a strong directional sense). The straightforward modulation descends inexorably away from A-major, with eighth notes that march through the relative F-sharp minor, to D major at measure 5. A dramatic re-definition of this destination – “not D as tonic but D as IV, the sub-dominant!” -- then is brought about with sudden ferocity (marked sfz). All independent contrapuntal motion is arrested on the half note (marked sfz!). An operatic anguish – the ambiguity of a diminished-seventh (secondary, leading-tone of the dominant, diminished-seventh chord) sustains the suspense, but then collapses quickly in an authentic V-I cadence with the conventional 4-3 suspension, marked p, then pp when repeated in the violin’s lowest range.


1.“Agogic” has to do with length as opposed to loudness. Hugo Riemann coined this useful word in German (Agogik) by analogy with “dynamik” in 1884. See the article “Agogic” in the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Don Randell, ed. Harvard University Press, 1986.

2. Performance materials for this three-movement Concerto A Quattro…con Violini Obligati, never printed, are available as an electronic file from Heiden Music Publications (see ). This D-Major, 3-movement orchestra concerto (no soloists) is a 4, but violas are tacet in the middle movement. No. 28 in Michael Talbot’s catalog, the concerto survives only in a complete set of manuscript parts from the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden, now posted on line at IMSLP The Petrucci Music Library. Using these free, public domain parts as a source, the Heiden set corrects egregious errors in the basso, repairs minor mistakes elsewhere, and furnishes a keyboard realization of the continuo. Additional pages furnish analysis.

For samples of other movements, click here

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