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BACH Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (c. 14 minutes)
BACH Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002 (c. 25 minutes)
BACH Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 (c. 19 minutes
BACH Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (c. 24 minutes)
BACH Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 (c. 19 minutes)
BACH Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 (c. 17 minutes)

“Fiddler” is seldom how we first or best know Johann Sebastian Bach, but it is worth remembering that he was born and bred in the Stadtpfeifer tradition of practical multi-instrumentalists. His father, Johann Ambrosius, was a notable violinist (and trumpeter) who seems to have left his son a legacy of strong technique and artistic curiosity, and possibly the fine Stainer violin that formed part of Sebastian’s extensive working collection.

In 1708 Bach was appointed court organist to Wilhelm Ernst, the reigning Duke of Weimar, and in 1714 he added concertmaster to his title (along with a substantial raise). “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,” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote of his father to Johann Nikolaus Forkel. “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.”

Some of the cantatas from this period, for example, also have important solo violin parts that Sebastian undoubtedly played himself, while leading the orchestra. Also dating from this period is Bach’s oldest surviving piece of chamber music, a Fugue in G minor for violin and continuo (BWV 1026), which Johann Gottfried Walther – the organist at the Stadtkirche in Weimar and Bach’s cousin – copied down around 1714. Filled with passages in double stops and other virtuosic techniques, it reveals the high level of playing Bach commanded personally on the instrument.

The origin of the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin – “Sei Solo” (Six Solo), as the manuscript is simply headed – probably extends back to Bach’s first tenure in Weimar, however, a bare six months in 1703 as “lackey” to Johann Ernst, younger brother of Wilhelm. One of the Weimar court musicians at that time was Johann Paul von Westhoff, a well-educated and well-traveled violinist who had published a set of short, four-movement partitas for solo violin in Dresden in 1696 (and a suite in 1683 in Paris). These are the first known multi-movement works for unaccompanied violin, and Bach would have met and worked with Westhoff.

The “Sei Solo” were brought to finished state in 1720 in Cöthen, however, during Bach’s years in service as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold (brother-in-law to Johann Ernst’s eldest son, Ernst Augustus, in the small world of minor German nobility). This was the period (1717 - 1723) of Bach’s greatest concentration on instrumental music. Exactly when the works were first performed and by whom is unknown, though clearly Bach himself would be an obvious possibility. (A fingering indication in the “Sei Solo” manuscript is sometimes entered as evidence that Bach himself played the pieces. But if there was any pedagogical intent to the works – as the passage in his son’s letter quoted above suggests – then such an indication might be simply a helpful hint in execution and not a personal annotation.)

The “Sei Solo” are three sonatas and three partitas, entered alternately in the manuscript. Inter-relationships between the six works and how the set fits together – if it does – are issues that have provoked many pages of theories. Each of the six are performed individually (and in excerpt, particularly the Chaconne), of course. Sonata-partita pairs are sometimes presented, as are the three sonatas and the three partitas as separate trilogies. Paul Galbraith, a thoughtful guitarist who has recorded the set, thinks of it as a “suite of suites,” a unified mega-suite. “My own personal impression is that the ‘6 solo’ is an instrumental gospel story in triptych form, telling of the Birth, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ,” he says. Narrative and theological works for unacompanied violin were not unprecedented at Bach’s time, when the “Mystery” Sonatas of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber were fresh. (Biber even includes a monumental Passacaglia in his set, the most significant predecessor of Bach’s Chaconne.) Such speculation, however, is supported by abstract, often numerological, relationships, and not directly by the composer. (The manuscript, intriguingly, is labeled “Libro Primo,” and analysts have found movements in other Bach pieces that they believe are based on hypothetical material for a “Sei Solo” sequel.)

The three sonatas are in the four-movement church (da chiesa) form, slow-fast-slow-fast, and all but the third movement in the home key. “The sonata is a piece for instruments, especially the violin, of a serious and artful nature, in which adagios and allegros alternate,”as Bach’s cousin Walther defined it succinctly in his Musicalisches Lexicon (Musical Lexicon) of 1723. The Sonata No. 1 provides a clear template: the first movement serves as a prelude to a brilliantly developed fugue, the third movement is a contrasting cantabile, and the finale a lively binary dance of the moto perpetuo sort. Sonatas such as these were probably actually performed in church – the subject of the fugue in the Third Sonata is even based on a chorale – as Forkel mentions in the first biography of the composer (1802).

The three partitas or dance suites are much more multifarious in form, and generally lighter in style and texture. The four core dances of the Baroque suite were allemande, courante, sarabanda, and gigue, inherited from the 16th century and usually highly stylized. Other, newer types, often current as actual dances, could be added. In his Partita No. 1, Bach replaced the gigue with a bourée and added a “double” for each dance, a patterned rhythmic variation. To the four standard dances in the Partita No. 2, Bach added the famous Chaconne (ciaccona in Bach’s Italian terminology), longer than the other four movements combined. The Third Partita begins – uncharacteristically – with a dancing prelude and ends with a gigue; but between them Bach puts five modish French dances.

 

The ornate Grave that opens the Sonata No. 2, in A minor, is tightly tied as an introduction to the ensuing Fuga, closing as it does on the dominant, where the Fugue begins. That has a rather stark subject, with a descending chromatic countersubject. “Who would believe that these eight short notes [the subject] would be so fruitful as to bring forth a counterpoint of more than a whole sheet of music paper, without unusual extension, and quite naturally? And yet the skilled and in this species particularly fortunate Bach has set just this before the world; indeed, he has in addition introduced the subject here and there in inversion,” the composer and theorist Johann Mattheson wrote in 1737. The Andante is one of Bach’s signature cantilenas, spun out in the relative major over a pulsing bass of repeated notes. The edgy Allegro tumbles restlessly, picking up intimations of the descending chromatic countersubject in the fugue, and like the fugue is filled with echo effects.

The first half of the Partita No. 2 consists of a clear statement of the four core dances of the Baroque suite: stately Allemanda, “running” Corrente, somber Sarabanda (far removed by this time from its much wilder origins), and dashing Giga. Each of these dances is cast in typical binary form (two halves, each repeated), though rather darker in character than the norm. (The Sarabanda ends, unusually, with a little coda.)

As attractive and winning as those dances are in performance and contemplation alike, they fade into generic anonymity in comparison with the towering Ciaccona that follows. “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann. “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

In some ways, the Chaconne (to use the more common French spelling) is the fulfillment of the previous dances, all of which give intimations of the Chaconne’s repeating bass and harmonic pattern. The Chaconne moves in the rhythm of the Sarabanda (in 3/4, with the weight on the dotted second beat). It is in three-part form, with the exalted middle section in the parallel major. A chaconne is basically a set of free variations over a repeating harmonic pattern (and/or its bass line). This one is protean enough that analysts cannot even agree on how many of these patterns or themes there are, or whether it is 32 variations on an eight-bar pattern(s) or 64 on a four-bar figure(s).

It should not be surprising then, that the Chaconne has also inspired reworking by later musicians in a multitude of transcriptions and arrangements, nor that it has prompted extravagant theories about the inner nature of its mysteries. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has developed a theory that the entire Partita and the Chaconne particularly are full of coded references to death and to pertinent chorales. (And this is the climax of the Passion section of Galbraith’s gospel triptych.) Thoene believes that the Chaconne is in fact a tombeau, a memorial piece for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died in 1720 unexpectedly while Bach was away with Prince Leopold. Thoene’s evidence tends to rely on numerology, but several recent recordings have shown, in very different, intriguing, and even compelling ways, how chorale fragments might be embedded in this music.

The Third Sonata is in C major – the first of the six in a major key – although that is not immediately apparent in the music that emerges in an almost penitential dotted tread. In fact, we’re back in D minor (briefly) by the sixth bar. This poignant Adagio does find its way to C, but it is hardly a conclusive victory. The Fuga thus introduced is also full of struggles, spiritual and technical. This is another monumental movement, with a variant of the chorale “Komm, heiliger Geist” as its subject. Bach develops it with great brilliance, finally arriving at a strong cadence on the dominant, well prepared by a lengthy passage over a pedal point. Astonishingly, he now starts over again, but in reverse order, which he indicates in the manuscript with the marking “al riverso.” The serenely glowing Largo is spun out over another of those descending basses that prove so useful in the “Sei Solo.” The concluding Allegro assai cascades in a joyful torrent.

Joy is also the dominant affect of the Partita No. 3, a very French affair. The Preludio that begins it is one of Bach’s own favorites, music that he reused in two cantatas and arranged for lute. The elegant Loure is this Partita’s main nod to introspection, a long way from the dance’s Norman bagpiper roots. As its name suggests, the Gavotte en Rondeau is a blithe dance with a recurring main tune. The two Minuets are examples of the kind of pairing that eventually became the minuet and trio, then the scherzo and trio, as the first minuet is repeated after the second (which in this case also has the drone accompaniment characteristic of so many trio movements). The fleet Bourrée is another dance that Bach invests with plentiful echo effects. The final Giga is light and carefree, with not a single double stop.

Bach ends with the most earthy music of the set and also the most fashionably danceable. Whether you accept any of the theories ascribing plot lines and extramusical connections and references to the set, it is not hard to feel that a journey has been completed here, that the fiddler has come happily home from lofty spiritual struggles and contrapuntal communion.  

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.