Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

Program notes written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s manuscript of the Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas dates from 1720, during his time as Kapellmeister in Köthen, though their inception probably goes back to 1703, during his time in Weimar. There he met the composer Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656–1705), whose 1696 Solo Violin Partitas are important precedents, and probably inspirations, for Bach’s more famous set.

Westhoff was a leading violinist and composer in the generation before Bach, and was among the first to write polyphonic music for solo violin, devising ways for a lone violinist to play multiple independent lines at the same time. This required both an inspired compositional mind and a virtuoso’s understanding of the instrument. Bach, like Westhoff, was a violinist as well as a composer, and so was perfectly equipped to further develop what must have seemed an impossibly modern style.

The title “partita” historically referred to a variation form, usually based on Lutheran chorale melodies. Bach and Westhoff were among the first to apply the title to dance suites. In Köthen, Bach had time to focus on such secular forms: his employer, Prince Leopold, was a Calvinist and had no need for elaborate liturgical music. Bach, a Lutheran, spent most of his career specializing in exactly such music—but for his six years in Köthen, turned to mostly secular music, which he happily wrote for the skilled musicians of Leopold’s court. The arrangement led to some of Bach’s greatest instrumental pieces: the solo works for violin and cello, the French keyboard suites, the orchestral suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos.

Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002

The Partita No. 1 in B Minor has a structure different from that of any other Partita in the set. Just as the enormous Chaconne in the Partita No. 2 sets that piece apart from the rest, the Partita No. 1 also has a unique movement structure: it is the only one where each dance is immediately followed by a double: a fast French style of variation that elaborates on the music just heard.

The Allemanda was originally a French impression of a German dance, which Germans like Bach reclaimed when they wrote dance suites. The Courante was once a noble courtship dance, which typically involved two partners stepping toward each other and then away. The Sarabande came from the New World via Spain: what was once a fast, bawdy dance was transformed into a slow, seductive one as it reached northern Europe. The Bourrée—which Bach uses in the First Partita in place of the more typical Gigue—was a rustic peasant dance. (By Bach’s day, none of these dances were intended to be danced: they were only for listening.) The doubles, meanwhile, are pointillistic, offering a second look at each of the movements.

Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006

The Partita No. 3 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, lone- some 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 fancy version of the violin’s primal style—a fiddle tune.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.