Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001–1006

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission

© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019

Bach’s manuscript for the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin dates to 1720, when he was Kapellmeister in Cöthen. However, some of the pieces—or elements of them—might date back as far as 1703, when he was first appointed as a court musician in Weimar, where he met Johann Paul von Westhoff, an older composer and violinist. Westhoff was one of the first composers to write polyphonic music for solo violin, finding ways to play multiple lines at the same time, in effect accompanying himself. He wrote a set of Partitas for Solo Violin in 1682, an important precedent and likely model for Bach’s more famous collection.

Though Bach, a Lutheran, spent most of his career specializing in liturgical music, he spent six years in Cöthen, where he turned to mostly secular instrumental composition. His employer, Prince Leopold, was a Calvinist whose beliefs proscribed elaborate music in church. Outside of church, however, it was a different story—Leopold “both loved and knew music,” Bach said, and though his principality was small, Leopold assembled one of the finest court orchestras in Europe. It was in this setting that Bach completed his greatest instrumental pieces: the French keyboard suites, the orchestral suites, the Brandenburg concertos, and the solo works for violin and cello.

Unlike the cello suites, which all follow a similar six-movement plan, the violin works are remarkably varied. First, they are divided into sonatas and partitas (sonatas have abstract movements including a fugue; partitas have dance movements), and the partitas are each further differentiated by some unique aspect. In the Partita No. 1, every dance is immediately followed by a double: a fast, French style of variation that elaborates on the music just heard. The Partita No. 2 is dramatically asymmetrical, ending with the immense D-minor Chaconne. And the Partita No. 3 adds a Prelude (a fixture of the cello suites, but absent in the other violin works) and an extended Gavotte en rondeau.

Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006

The Third Partita might have the most recognizable opening of all the Sonatas and Partitas, a call to attention that naturally lends itself to ringtones and other popular uses. Even Bach rearranged it for orchestra to open Cantata 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” (We thank you, God, we thank you), as the Prelude carries the same elated spirit he often used to portray devotional fervor. For Bach the materials of the sacred and secular are often indistinguishable.

The next movement is a Loure, a slow French dance of which Bach wrote just two (the other in the Fifth French Keyboard Suite). It takes the place of the Sarabande in the other violin partitas—a reflective, inward movement, lonesome even by the standards of solo writing.

The Gavotte en rondeau takes an unusual shape: while most dances are in a binary form (two sections, each repeated, A-A-B-B), this Gavotte is a rondo, a more elaborate plan in which the opening tune recurs several times between other ideas. First Bach gives you the main theme twice, and then goes off into contrasting episodes between four more returns (a full shape of A-A-B-A-C-A-D-A-E-A). It is a bit like an inverted verse-chorus form, with the emphasis on the chorus.

Next come two Minuets, stately and refined in triple time, the second Minuet beginning under a drone and ending with a lovely question and answer. The first minuet is repeated after the second.

The Bourée is another French dance, which was still practiced at court through Bach’s day, though his take on it—like all his dance movements—was “stylized” for listening rather than for actual dancing. It begins suddenly with an upbeat, as if caught off guard, and then bounces and rolls along.

Finally, the Gigue is literally a “jig,” bringing the piece (and the entire set) to a close with a fancified version of the violin’s primal style—a fiddle tune.

Program notes for the complete Sonatas and Partitas are available upon request.

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer