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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) the composer and keyboard player has become such a towering figure in the 250-plus years since his death that we sometimes forget just how wide-ranging his musical gifts were. One of his early jobs was actually as a violinist at the small ducal court of Weimar in the heart of German-speaking central Europe. It was to this brief tenure - six months in 1703 - that we can trace the beginnings of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, a set of pieces born as much from practice as from imagination.
When he arrived in Weimar in January 1703, the 17-year-old Bach already had a wealth of musical experience to his credit. His inquisitive mind made him receptive to all sorts of influences - Johann Nikolaus Forkel, his first biographer, tells us that Bach's nature "impelled him to try to do, to see, and to hear everything which, according to the ideas he then entertained, could contribute to his improvement." In Weimar, Bach met the violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff, another member of the court's musical establishment and the author of six partitas for solo violin, published in Dresden in 1696. Westhoff was one of the leading violinists of his day, spoken of by his contemporaries in the same breath as the great Bohemian virtuoso Heinrich Biber. The young Bach, in his only professional gig as a violinist, must have been impressed.
Bach soon left Weimar; records document that he was paid for only two three-month periods, which puts his departure in June of 1703, and he had a new post as organist at the New Church in Arnstadt, about 20 miles southwest of Weimar, by August. The salary in Arnstadt was double his Weimar pay, without the onerous extramusical duties - including valet service - that had attended his Weimar position. He apparently continued to pursue his violin playing, because by July 1708, he was back in Weimar as chamber musician and organist. A fugue in G minor for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1025, is all that survives from this second Weimar period to shed light on his development as a violinist, and it indicates the emergence of a performing technique wholly in keeping with what we find in the sonatas and partitas.
Bach may have actually started working on the sonatas and partitas while he was still in Weimar - he left that post in 1717 to become Kapellmeister (the 18th-century German equivalent of music director) in Cöthen, a princely seat about 60 miles northeast of Weimar, a promotion prestigious enough that Bach was willing to endure four weeks' imprisonment to get out of his Weimar job. The autograph fair copy of the sonatas and partitas is dated 1720, midway through Bach's Cöthen tenure. The sonatas and partitas were almost certainly performed at the prince's palace there during one (or perhaps spread across several) of the court's regular musical evenings - scant documentary evidence means that much of Bach's biography is necessarily conjecture. Bach himself may have been the violinist, and several other names have been proposed, including the "premier cammer musicus" (i.e. concertmaster) in Cöthen, Joseph Spiess.
That Bach would have been up to the technical demands of the pieces is confirmed by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88), who, reminiscing to Forkel in the 1770s, recalled his father's playing. "In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without bass. One of the greatest violinists once told me that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass."
The sonatas and partitas reflect Bach's skill as both performer and composer. Only someone involved with the violin as a performer could know its possibilities and limitations so well. The works demonstrate a level of technical and musical mastery previous composers had not approached, and, indeed, they are still one of the high peaks of the violin literature. Bach's chosen genres allow for a
musical variety of staggering scope, encompassing everything from densely worked counterpoint to elegant courtly dances composed in a style marked by rhythmic and melodic invention underpinned by complex harmonic shifts. The partitas offer up a sequence of dance-inspired movements, including dances rarely found in Bach, such as the Loure of the Partita No. 3, BWV 1006. The sonatas are in four movements, divided according to the definition found in Johann Gottfried Walther's Musicalisches Lexicon (Musical Lexicon, 1723): "The sonata is a piece for instruments, especially the violin, of a serious and artful nature, in which adagios and allegros alternate."
In the case of Bach's solo violin sonatas (and in keeping with the typical Baroque sonata), the layout is slow-fast-slow-fast. Bach conceives the first two movements as preludes and fugues, with an improvisatory quality in the opening movements followed by the contrapuntal virtuosity demanded in the fugues. Fugal writing, a contrapuntal technique in which one "voice" is imitated by others at set intervals according to strict harmonic rules, may seem to conflict with music conceived for a single instrument, but Bach makes it possible with a combination of techniques. First, the subjects of the fugues in both the second and third solo violin sonatas are fairly compact, making their return easily recognizable and thus allowing the listener to perceive the structure of the piece and follow the different "voices." Second, after the initial fugal exposition, Bach alternates between sections where we distinctly hear the subject and sections that function as contrasting episodes. Finally, in many of these episodes, the writing for the violin is less dense, giving it the character of a solo passage in a concerto, an ingenious way to add even more contrast and musical interest to two already rich movements.
The concerto feel continues in the slow movements of both sonatas, with the writing clearly differentiated between a melodic part and its accompaniment. Both sonatas end with two-part Allegro movements which demand that the performer clearly articulate a rapidly unfolding sequence of notes. (The finale of BWV 1005 is actually marked Allegro assai - very fast - and its echo effects can make a thrilling impact when played with the requisite abandon.)
Bach maintains the formal rigor of the sonatas in the partitas - the dances Bach selects for each partita pose a series of musical challenges of their own. In the Corrente (a fast dance in triple meter) of BWV 1004, Bach plays with the rhythm, alternating between triplets and dotted figures to create a swinging effect. The Sarabanda (a slow, majestic dance, also in triple meter, of Spanish or Mexican origin) of the same partita relies heavily on double-stopping (a technique in which the soloist plays two strings at the same time) and also includes a brief coda, something unusual in Bach's output. The coda acts as a bridge to the ensuing Giga (or jig, a fast dance typically in compound rhythm - in this case, 12/8 - of English and Irish origin), which normally would comprise the final movement in a partita or suite. But here, Bach continues with one of his greatest achievements in any genre, the gripping final Ciaccona, a fifteen-minute set of 64 variations on a four-bar theme. The vast scale of the movement can also be characterized as two outer sections in the minor mode framing a central section in the major. The shift between major and minor in the movement is quite striking, providing a serene, exalted contrast to the surrounding disquiet. The movement ends as it began, with the violin stating the four-bar theme. In between, in the words of the legendary Bach biographer Philip Spitta, "The overpowering wealth of forms pouring from a few and scarcely noticeable sources displays not only the most perfect knowledge of the technique of the violin, but also the most absolute mastery over an imagination the like of which no other composer was ever endowed with."
BWV 1006 begins with an exuberant Preludio, one of Bach's most famous instrumental compositions and one which he recast for organ and orchestra in the Cantata, BWV 29. The sequence of dances that follows omits the Sarabanda, replacing it with the Loure, a slow, elegant version of a gigue. In the Menuet II, the player holds a drone (B natural) for three bars, giving the courtly dance a folksy feel, another imaginative touch from this most inventive and original of composers found, paradoxically, in the unrelenting constraint of writing for a solo instrument. The works are, to quote from the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt's review of the first printed edition of the sonatas and partitas (1805), "perhaps the greatest example in any art form of a master's ability to move with freedom and assurance, even in chains."
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.