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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006 (Kaler)
Profound in spirit and monumental in scope Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are arguably the most difficult original solo works ever written for the violin. Thier formidable technical challenges, especially the persistent use of multiple stops are not just virtuoso features but are the natural result of the complexity of Bach's musical ideas and his understanding of the instrument. The crowning glory of the set is the immense Chaconne from the Partita in D minor, a set of variations on a theme which makes unprecedented demands on the performer's expressive and technical abilities.
By David Denton
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006
The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke’s service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university Collegium Musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702.
At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach’s life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music, he was able to compose music for the university Collegium Musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
In his three Sonatas and three Partitas for unaccompanied violin, written during the period he spent at Cöthen, Bach built on an existing German tradition of violin-playing. The earliest examples of works in more than one movement for solo violin come from Dresden with a Suite by Johann Paul von Westhoff written in 1683 and followed in 1696 by four-movement partitas. Von Westhoff later served as chamber secretary and chamber musician, as well as teacher of French and Italian, at the court of Weimar, where he died in 1705. There are other early examples of music for unaccompanied violin by Biber, with a remarkable Passacaglia included in his fifteen Rosary Sonatas, and by Johann Jakob Walter, a musician who also served for a time in Dresden. Bach may have been directly influenced, however, by the playing of Johann Georg Pisendel, a pupil of Torelli and later of Vivaldi, who served at the court of Saxony in Dresden and met Bach in Weimar in 1709 and again in Dresden in 1717, when he played his recent Sonata for solo violin.
Bach’s three Sonatas for solo violin are in the form of the so-called church sonata. The Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, opens with a slow introductory movement, followed by a fugue, both later adapted by the composer for the organ. The third movement, a Siciliana, provides a respite before the rapid final movement.
The Partita in B Minor, BWV 1002, in the parallel form of the chamber sonata derived from the dance suite, opens with the traditional German dance, the Allemanda, followed by a variation on it and a Corrente, also varied. A slow Sarabanda, with its own variation, leads to a final Bourrée and variation.
The Sonata in A minor, again in church sonata form, opens with a slow introductory movement, duly embellished, followed by the customary fugal movement, a particular feature of German violin-playing of the time. The third movement Andante, in C major, leads to a rapid concluding Allegro.
The Partita in D minor, which ends with the monumental Chaconne, a use of the traditional Baroque dance-variation form that has attracted subsequent transcribers and arrangers, opens with the usual German dance, the Allemanda, followed by the customary Corrente, Sarabanda and Gigue, four movements that came to provide a traditional frame-work for the dance suite, here complete in itself, before the extended virtuosity of the great Chaconne.
The Sonata in C major follows the usual form, with an Adagio introductory movement, an elaborate fugue that includes an inversion of the subject in its polyphonic progress, an accompanied aria-type slow movement and a rapid final movement without double-stopping.
The last of the Partitas, in the key of E major, opens with the well known Preludio that provided Bach with material for re-use in cantatas and the violinist Ysaÿe with an idée fixe for one of his unaccompanied violin sonatas. French titles and dance-forms follow, with a Loure, a Gavotte with a repeated rondo refrain, Minuets in alternation, a Bourrée and a final Gigue.
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