Bach, J.S.: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1003-1006

J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1003-1006

Though Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was best known as a keyboard virtuoso, he was also a highly skilled violinist. He grew up listening to his father play the violin, and it was as a violinist that he obtained his first public appointment, playing in the Weimar Court Orchestra. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, responding to a biographical query in 1774, recalled of his father: “From his youth up to fairly old age he played the violin purely and penetratingly and thus kept the orchestra in best order, much better than he could have done from the harpsichord. He understood completely the possibilities of all stringed instruments.”

Bach supplied violinists with great masterpieces to play, including nine sonatas for violin and harpsichord, a handful of concertos, and featured obbligato roles in his cantatas and passions. But the unquestioned pinnacle of his writing for the violin is the set of six unaccompanied works—three called sonatas, three called partitas—which he completed in 1720, midway through his six-year tenure as Capellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. This was a period rich in masterworks; during that span, Bach also produced his suites for unaccompanied cello, his Brandenburg Concertos, and Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

It was widely assumed in the nineteenth century that Bach's works for bowed string instruments without accompaniment were oddities at best, and some musicians were ready to ascribe their existence to some unaccountable perversity in the master's makeup. Schumann and Mendelssohn went so far as to provide some of these compositions with piano accompaniments. The viability of these works as concert pieces—as distinct from pedagogic material or historical monuments produced in who knew what mood of abstraction—was questioned by critics again and again, and not only by the unwise ones.

But Bach knew the violin repertory well, and in writing such works, was claiming a place in a solid tradition. That repertory included a considerable body of unaccompanied pieces by Heinrich von Biber, Johann Jakob Walther, Johann Paul von Westhoff, and, not least, Johann Georg Pisendel. The Pisendels were a prominent family of musicians and luthiers. Johann Georg, born in 1687, studied with Francesco Antonio Pistocchi and the famous Giuseppe Torelli, worked for some years at Ansbach and Leipzig, and moved in 1712 to Dresden, where he was concertmaster and later the principal conductor until his death in 1755. The brilliance of the famous Dresden orchestra was his achievement. He met Bach at Weimar in 1709. He was without question the leading German violinist of his generation, and it is generally supposed that it was for him that Bach wrote his solo sonatas and partitas as well as that marvel of chastely sensuous elegance, the Laudamus te in the B minor Mass. (Other possible candidates for the sonatas and partitas include Jean Baptiste Volumier, a close friend of Bach’s who served as Conzertmeister at the Dresden Court and Joseph Spiess, principal Cammermusicus at Cöthen.)

Pisendel’s fine sonata for unaccompanied violin would have been among the available models when Bach undertook to make his own tremendous contribution to the literature for solo violin. Of the six works he wrote, three are sonatas cast in a four-movement structure that mirrors the pattern of the Baroque sonata da chiesa (or “church sonata”), comprising a rhetorical slow movement, an allegro fugue, a more songful slow movement, and a quick movement of lesser density. The three partitas instead reflect the layout of the sonata da camara (the “chamber sonata”), comprising a generally longer string of variegated movements derived from dance types—six, in this case. A partita is to all intents the same as a suite, that is to say, a sequence of dances, possibly with some extra movements of a non-dance nature.

Whoever first played these pieces must have been a virtuoso of exorbitant abilities, capable of negotiating the formidable technical demands of multiple stops, which Bach employs lavishly to express rich polyphonic textures. To a large extent, these works draw on the soloist's mastery of the art of illusion. The violin is at heart a melody instrument, and although it has four strings and is therefore physically capable of sounding more than one note concurrently, it can only do so within rather strict limits. In Bach's solo violin works the listener perceives a web of counterpoint that is in fact only suggested or implied in the musical score. Bach deftly provides the soloist with music full of challenges and possibilities, but its fullness cannot be realized in an artistic and beautiful way without two further components, both of which are essential: an adept, imaginative violinist and a superlative instrument.

Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003

The A minor Sonata opens much in the same manner as the Sonata in G minor, with a four-note chordal call to arms followed by a fantasia-like outpouring. The movement, marked Grave, is characterized by its large leaps in register, evident in the very first bars. As expected, the second movement is a finely wrought fugue, in which a jaunty subject is contrasted with a descending chromatic countersubject. Bach breaks up the contrapuntal sections with more fluid passages that serve to develop the fugal material. The third movement presents a lyrical aria of utmost simplicity, accompanied by a steady pulse. The airy feel of this movement serves as an intermezzo between the density of the preceding fugue and the sheer brilliance of the concluding movement. The Allegro finale charges ahead in a dazzling almost Italianate display of virtuosity. Bach varies the texture through the use of echo, which calls to mind the Baroque concerto grosso.  

Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

The D minor Partita begins by presenting the classic or most nearly standard group of dances, an allemande (fairly leisurely 4/4 time with almost continuous movement in sixteenth notes), a courante (in three and relatively quick—this is an Italian corrente without the rhythmic implications of a real French courante), a sarabande (grave, in three, with a strong division between the first and second beats), and a gigue (quick, with metrical divisions in multiples of three—this one in 12/8). Then, however, Bach gives us something in addition that turns out indeed to equal in length the rest of the partita put together and far to outdo it in magnificence and weight of utterance. This is the famous Chaconne, a set of variations on an eight-bar chord sequence. Midway Bach runs a group of variations in D major—our first, and wonderful, encounter with that key in the piece—and then returns to the original D minor. The whole piece is an extraordinary conjunction of architectural majesty with fanciful bravura display of the instrument.

Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005

The Adagio opening of the C major Sonata is striking for its sparseness. Bach gradually builds tension through the use of an insistent long-short rhythm, impossibly slow harmonic motion, and the stacking of suspensions. After this prelude, Bach launches into a remarkable fugue based on the opening of the chorale “Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott”. The chorale tune is harmonized with one of Bach’s favorite devices, a descending chromatic countersubject. The fugue challenges the realm of possibility, requiring the player to articulate several lines simultaneously. Whereas the second movement fugue demands utmost clarity from the violinist and a clear sense of contrapuntal architecture, the third movement Largo is an aria of consummate lyricism. The rustic final movement (Allegro assai) is for all intents and purposes a moto perpetuo in triple time, with the violinist unleashing a joyous cascade of sixteenth notes. 

Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006

The E major Partita opens with one of the most famous movements of the entire set, a sizzling Preludio: bravura torrents of practically unceasing sixteenth notes. Baroque preludes were improvisatory in spirit, if not always in actuality. This Preludio does convey a sense of bursting forth directly from the imagination, although (this being Bach) it is in fact a tightly and logically regulated piece. It is a tribute to Bach’s profound appreciation of the violin that so ample a movement could be effectively crafted for an unaccompanied melody instrument; in fact, the composer would end up expanding it into an orchestral piece with obbligato organ in his Cantatas Nos. 29 and 120a. Five dance movements follow, beginning with the Loure, a slow and majestic French court dance sometimes referred to as the “Spanish gigue.” (Johann Mattheson, a music theorist of Bach’s time, opined that “loures, slow and dotted, exhibit a proud and arrogant nature, on account of which they are beloved by the Spanish.”) Another famous movement follows: a “Gavotte en Rondeau” in which the foursquare, rustic gavotte theme alternates with contrasting episodes. A pair of contrasting Menuets come next; period performance practice called for the first to be repeated after the second, shed of its repeats at that point. The Bourrée smiles broadly, and the concluding Gigue provides an irresistible romp to the end.

—Notes by James M. Keller, Michael Steinberg, and Steven Ziegler

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Steven Ziegler is Managing Editor at the San Francisco Symphony.

(December 2017)