Bach had an easy solution for the problem of combining the violin with the keyboard: he simply dispensed with the keyboard and wrote six sonatas and partitas (three of each) for violin alone. He did the same for the cello with six suites for that instrument without accompaniment.
All 12 works were composed during the time he was conductor of the court orchestra at Anhalt-Cöthen, where his patron, young Prince Leopold, was a skilled musician. Bach himself was a violinist of no small attainment, yet it seems likely that the solo cello and violin pieces were written, around 1720, for Leopold - high tribute indeed to the Prince for his musical taste and, if he could negotiate the demonic pieces, for his performing ability. For these bold works are difficult in ways that most other virtuosic string pieces are not: they demand not only unfaltering facility in matters of digital and rhythmic dexterity and preciseness of pitch, particularly in the multiple stoppings, but also the keenest musical insights and inner-ear sensitivity to implied polyphonic and harmonic textures. In short, they strip a performer naked, as it were, forcing the executant to recreate incredibly diverse Bachian worlds with only a wooden box, four lengths of string, and a bow.
Of the six violin works, the present one stands alone on a lofty summit, and this by virtue of the towering Chaconne that is its final movement. Preceding this finale are four dance movements that comprise the traditional Baroque suite: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. Although they are splendid examples of their genre, they end by being an introduction to the monumental Chaconne, which is a set of more than 60 variations on a simple bass theme.
In a lengthy description of the Chaconne, the great Bach scholar Philipp Spitta ends with these memorable words, "This Chaconne is a triumph of spirit over matter such as even Bach never repeated in a more brilliant manner." Enough said.
-- Orrin Howard served the Philharmonic for more than 20 years as Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute to the program book.