Performative Meaning in the Interpretation of the Schleifer-Ornament in Bach‘s “Zerfließe Mein Herze”

Level of Education of Students Involved


Faculty Sponsor

Katharina Udhe


Arts and Sciences



Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-29-2023


There are many opinions on how performers should improvise ornaments in J.S. Bach. Discrepancies in terminology and minimal access to performance documentation from Bach’s time complicate how performers and musicologists interpret his music. When performing the slide, or Ger. Schleifer, possibilities open up, ranging from Werktreue (text-driven) to more artistically autonomous, freer interpretations. How to pace the (three) notes of this ornament? In recordings, they are often located between “on” and “not exactly on” the beat, with differing effects.

In my research, (1) I look into this ornament’s notation (in Bach’s works generally); (2) I investigate 18th-century treatises (Quantz, Mozart), and how these writings are read today (Dorottya Fabian, 2018); and (3) I reenact several recordings by imitating vocalists, following Anna Scott (2014).

By moving incrementally away from the score and in the direction of sound; and from (1) notation to (3) reenactment/embodiment, I discover that the way musicologists have viewed Bach’s music and this ornament “as text” neglects important interpretive potential that gets unlocked by considering the topography of “music as sound”, which links the performer with J. S. Bach’s music on a sensory, kinesthetic level. Reenacting recordings also opens up an experiential understanding that interpretation is a shared process — shared by many bodies, including those of the singers I’m reenacting and myself. The insights I’m left with move “performance” from a text-focused endeavor (the score) — a decidedly 20th-century mindset — to an altogether different reading in which the multiplicity of recorded voices show a way forward with “Zerfließe”, which acknowledges the performer and past performers as creators of meaning for this work, rather than erasing them.

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