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In a way, we begin at the beginning with Bach’s Opus 1, a set of Partitas published in 1731 as:
Praeludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden, Giguen, Menuetten, und andern Galantieren;
Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertiget
Johann Sebastian Bach
An ostentatious but informative title; the standard translation goes as follows: Keyboard Practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Minuets, and other Gallantries; prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Partitas followed the basic form of the Baroque dance suite. An elaborate opening movement is followed by four stylized dances: the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, with one or more extra dances interpolated before the Gigue. While the opening movements can vary widely in scope and style, the allemande movements tend to be moderately paced in 4/4 time. The courante also tends toward a moderate pace in triple meter, although in his Sixth Partita Bach titles this movement corrente, opting for the somewhat faster pulse of the Italian rather than the French version of the dance. The sarabande was originally a wild and lascivious dance inherited from Mexico, through Spain, but by Bach’s day it had been completely re-imagined as a slow stately dance in triple meter. It was here that Bach confided his deepest reflections. The gigue retains the energetic character of its Irish and English heritage.
Of the six Partitas, the Sixth, in E minor, is the most monumental and surely one of the greatest of Bach’s compositions, conveying tragedy and burden, but resolutely reminding us of its dance roots in the Tempo di Gavotta before the Gigue. This is a large musical canvas, comparable in length and emotional ambition, say, to the sonatas of Mozart or Beethoven.
Grant Hiroshima is the Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.