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“Impetuous and authoritative, brilliant and beautiful” (The New York Times), multi-Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn performs a recital of thrilling works in her spectacular return to Davies Symphony Hall.
Bach in the Service of a Prince
As of summer 1717 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) had every reason to think back over his nine-year employment at the ducal court of Weimar with satisfaction. Originally hired in 1708 as a court organist, he had worked his way up the ladder to the post of Concertmaster, second in command of the court’s considerable musical establishment. Such progress was tricky even for a musician of Bach’s prodigious abilities. Jealous maneuvering between the two dukes, Wilhelm (uncle) and Ernst (nephew), had created a toxic zero-sum environment in which allegiance to one duke was seen as rejection of the other. Bach had been fairly adept at avoiding the worst of the court’s divisive factionalism, but he lacked the tact, diplomacy, and sheer cunning necessary to stay out of trouble altogether. By the fall of 1717 he was persona non grata with Duke Wilhelm. He sought employment elsewhere, and found it as Capellmeister to Duke Ernst’s brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of nearby Anhalt-Cöthen.
Before he could depart for Cöthen, however, Bach was required to petition Duke Wilhelm for a release, and that wasn’t forthcoming. Duke Wilhelm, annoyed by the less-than-servile tone of Bach’s petition, and possibly irritated by his Concertmaster’s apparent fealty to Duke Ernst, threw Bach into prison beginning on November 6. Released and dishonorably dismissed on December 2, Bach was finally free to relocate his rapidly burgeoning family to Cöthen, where a much happier existence awaited him.
Bach’s creative output in Cöthen was shaped by two factors. The first, and most important, was Prince Leopold’s passion for all things musical. Leopold was not the typical aristocrat who employed musicians mostly to keep up with the neighbors or to proclaim his worthiness to the world; rather, he was a sincere music lover and adept amateur performer on several instruments. Unlike some of Bach’s prior (and future) employers, Leopold was musician enough to recognize what he had in his new Capellmeister, and he behaved accordingly. Leopold treated Bach with all due respect and support, and Bach reciprocated with a flood of superb compositions, mostly written for the fine musicians of the court orchestra.
The second factor was the Calvinism of Leopold’s court. Unlike Lutheran services with their bevy of cantatas and chorales, Calvinist doctrine restricted church music to simple unadorned hymns. Secular music was therefore Bach’s bailiwick in Cöthen, where he produced works that have become bedrock repertory for their respective instruments: for keyboard, the French and English Suites, the inventions and sinfonias, and the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier; for orchestra, the Brandenburg Concertos and the orchestral suites; for cello, the six unaccompanied suites; for violin, the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. Bach’s fecundity from 1718 through 1721, when Leopold’s marriage to an unmusical princess put a brake on the court’s artistic momentum, is nothing short of astonishing. He was to resume that volcanic productivity during his first years in Leipzig, his home from 1723 on, but he never enjoyed the sincere regard in Leipzig that had been his in Cöthen.
Bach for Unaccompanied Violin
Bach completed his six works for violin senza basso (i.e., without accompaniment) by 1720; whether he began them in Weimar or wrote them entirely in Cöthen is unknown. Three are sonatas and three are partitas (or “partias” as they are termed in Bach’s fine, clear manuscript). The sonatas follow the sonata da chiesa (church sonata) model, consisting of four movements in a slow–fast–slow–fast order, while the partitas are suites of dances.
Even if Bach’s sonatas and partitas stand head and shoulders above other Baroque works for solo violin, by no means do they stand alone. Bach would have been familiar with the solo violin works of Weimar colleague Johann Paul von Westhoff, not to mention the sonata for unaccompanied violin by Johann Georg Pisendel, a superb violinist, composer, and conductor of the Dresden court orchestra. It is not known precisely for whom Bach intended the sonatas and partitas, but Cöthen Concertmaster Joseph Spiess is an obvious candidate, as he had the requisite technique to handle their extraordinary demands. Bach, no mean violinist himself, surely could have (and would have) played them as well.
Strange though it may seem in hindsight, these towering masterpieces were regarded as dry academic treatises unsuitable for concert use until the late nineteenth century, when inspired performances by eminent violinist Joseph Joachim introduced their expressive glories to all. (We are also indebted to Joachim for his championing of the Beethoven Violin Concerto—another epochal composition that started out under a cloud.) Since then, the sonatas and partitas have taken their rightful place in the innermost core of the Western musical canon, indispensable rites of passage for violinists everywhere, not to mention irresistible catnip to arrangers and transcribers.
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
According to the influential Baroque Era aesthetic theory “The Doctrine of the Affections,” the various keys in music signify general emotional states or characters, such as gentleness, impudence, or even honor. Bach would appear to have been an enthusiastic adherent to the notion, given the correspondence between key and overall mien so often found in his works.
G minor, according to Baroque theorist Johann Mattheson, “lends itself well and flexibly to moderate plaintiveness,” a context that illuminates the dignified sorrow of the first-place Adagio, with its array of sighing figures and its steady progression of smoothly shifting harmonies, each sonority enhanced by lavish arabesques that connect each chord to its successor. In this Adagio Bach transcends a physical limitation of the violin, namely that it cannot comfortably sound more than two notes simultaneously; via judicious use of arpeggiated (i.e. playing each note of a chord successively rather than all at once) chords over three or even all four strings, Bach evokes and maintains a fully homophonic (or chordal) texture throughout. Thus one might observe that the sonata is written not so much for “unaccompanied violin” as it is for violin accompanying itself.
The Adagio can be thought of as a Prelude, and like its siblings in The Well-Tempered Clavier, this Prelude is followed by a Fugue. Yet it might seem at first blush that a solo violin is ill-suited to reproducing the polyphonic texture of a fugue, what with all those independent, simultaneous melodic lines. But the musical sorcerer Bach now conjures up a full polyphonic texture via his almost preternatural knowledge of the violin’s differing sonorities and registers, and by stretching—but not breaking—the physical boundaries imposed by four strings. The Fugue contrasts its sturdy repeated-note subject with spun-out arpeggios in the connecting episodes between subject entries; the whole ends in a flurry of arpeggios that would seem to announce victory over what some might have claimed to be an impossible task.
A change of mode from minor to major heralds the gentle Siciliano, its rocking-horse geniality masking its adroit suggestion of a trio sonata, complete with two melody instruments and underlying continuo. The concluding Presto, back in the original G minor key, presents the listener (and performer) with a dazzling moto perpetuo affair, all nonstop sixteenth notes flying about, reminiscent of those peppy Italianate gigues that conclude most dance suites.
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
The first of the three partitas, or suites, pairs each of its four dances with variation-like “doubles.” Although Bach mostly respects the traditional layout of the late Baroque dance suite with its Allemande (which Bach gives here in Italian as Allemanda), Courante, and Sarabande, he departs from the norm by ending the partita with a Bourrée (Borea in Italian) in the place of the usual Gigue. The Partita honors the affect of its key, that of the great Mass in B minor, a mood of somber reflection on matters divine.
Allemandes are often characterized by a calm flow of sixteenth notes, but this partita’s example features dotted rhythms that impart a majestic and steady poise, rather like a processional in an imposing cathedral. The moto perpetuo of the following double restores the liquid and unruffled nature of the usual Allemande while providing a refreshing contrast to all that nobility.
Courantes come in two varieties: French, featuring complex cross-rhythms and a certain flamboyance, and Italian, characterized by quick running notes. Here is most indubitably the Italian dance—a corrente, to be precise—consisting largely of arpeggiations of a sturdily well-paced chord progression. The double, on the other hand, substitutes a torrent of ascending and descending scales for those arpeggiations while sticking to the same harmonic patterns.
The Sarabande—courtly, dignified, and even a bit sorrowful—takes us back to the chordal textures of the G minor Sonata’s opening Adagio. Written in short, dance-like phrases that alternate etched chordal statements with relatively lyrical connective passages, it is fairly light-spirited as far as sarabandes go, always seeming to head for major mode within its overall minor modality. The double further lightens the proceedings by removing all rhythmic complexity in favor of a smooth stream of eighth notes.
Finally, the Tempo di Borea offers up a sprightly dance in clearly etched rhythms, the whole crackling with energy and vitality; the double retains all that toe-tapping boisterousness within a steady rhythmic flow.
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Like the First Partita, the Second departs from the usual array of dances—but what a spectacular departure it is! After the standard Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, all in the dramatic key of D minor, all sharing similar opening materials, and none sporting doubles, Bach adds a titanic Chaconne that lasts about as long as the first four movements combined.
A bit of explanation is in order regarding a Chaconne. Technically it is a variation form, but it doesn’t do quite what one might expect, which is to ring changes on a tune of some sort. Instead, it organizes its materials via a short, constantly repeated pattern in the bass, thus establishing a cyclic harmonic progression around which just about everything else is in a state of flux. This technique, likely evolving out of methods for imparting order to improvised dance music, is variably dubbed ostinato, ground bass, chaconne, or passacaglia, and any attempt to settle the distinction between those last two is doomed to shipwreck on the rocks of contradiction and confirmation bias. (No doubt there was a difference between them at some point, probably concerning their dance steps rather than their musical characteristics.) Thus the Everest of the violin repertory, the Chaconne of the D minor Partita falls into this general category.
The opening Allemande is of the flowing variety, its long vines of sixteenth notes acquiring added rhythmic punch on the way to important cadences. The Courante is of the Italian type, bristling with zippy triplets in a mix of scales and chordal outlines. The Sarabande is surely among Bach’s noblest essays in this genre, in which strong first and second beats create the ceremonial hesitation step so characteristic of the zarabanda, condemned as downright louche in its early incarnations but which evolved into the courtliest of courtly dances. The Gigue follows form by being a veritable geyser of boiling-hot sixteenth notes, mostly unceasing save short figures in eighth notes that kick off each of the two parts.
Then comes the Chaconne. There is nothing like it in any of Bach’s other suites, nor in anyone else’s for that matter. David Ledbetter, in his fine study of Bach’s unaccompanied violin works, sums up the commentator’s dilemma when facing an artistic creation of this magnitude: “There is no point in trying to match it in words,” he says. Sage advice, indeed.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.