Sonatas and partitas for solo violin (Bach)
The Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001–1006) are a set of six works composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. They consist of three sonatas da chiesa, in four movements, and three partitas, in dance-form movements.
The set was completed by 1720, but was only published in 1802 by Nicolaus Simrock in Bonn. Even after publication, it was largely ignored until the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim started performing these works. Today, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas are an essential part of the violin repertoire, and they are frequently performed and recorded.
The Sei Solo – a violino senza Basso accompagnato, as Bach titled them, firmly established the technical capability of the violin as a solo instrument. The pieces often served as an archetype for solo violin pieces for the following generations of composers including Eugène Ysaÿe and Béla Bartók.
History of composition
Bach started composing these works around 1703, while at Weimar, and the set was completed by 1720, when Bach was a Kapellmeister in Köthen. He was almost certainly inspired by Johann Paul von Westhoff's partitas for solo violin, since he worked alongside Westhoff at Weimar, and the older composer's pieces share some stylistic similarities with Bach's. Solo violin repertoire was actively growing at the time: Heinrich Ignaz Biber's celebrated solo passacaglia appeared c.1676, Westhoff's collections of solo violin music were published in 1682 and 1696, Johann Joseph Vilsmayr's Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera in 1715, and finally, Johann Georg Pisendel's solo violin sonata was composed around 1716. The tradition of writing for solo violin did not die after Bach, either; Georg Philipp Telemann published 12 Fantasias for solo violin in 1735.
The tradition of polyphonic violin writing was already well-developed in Germany, particularly by Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and the composers of the so-called Dresden school – Johann Jakob Walther and Westhoff. Bach's Weimar and Köthen periods were particularly suitable times for composition of secular music, for he worked as a court musician. Bach's cello and orchestral suites date from the Köthen period, as well as the famous Brandenburg concertos and many other well-known collections of instrumental music.
It is not known whether Bach's works were performed during his lifetime or, if they were, who the performer was. Johann Georg Pisendel and Jean-Baptiste Volumier, both talented violinists in the Dresden court, have been suggested as possible performers, as was Joseph Speiss, leader of the orchestra in Köthen. Friedrich Wilhelm Rust, who would later become part of the Bach family circle in Leipzig, also became a likely candidate. Bach himself also possibly gave the first performance. According to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "in his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and powerfully".
Manuscripts and major editions
Upon Bach's death in 1750, the original manuscript passed into the possession, possibly through his second wife Anna Magdalena, of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. It was inherited by the last male descendant of J.C.F. Bach, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, who passed it on to his sister Louisa of Bückeburg.
Two other early manuscripts also exist. One, originally identified as an authentic Bach autograph from his Leipzig period, is now identified as being a 1726 copy by Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena Bach, and is the companion to the earliest surviving handwritten copy of the six suites Bach wrote for solo cello. The other, a copy made by one of Bach's students Johann Peter Kellner, is well preserved, despite the fact that the B minor Partita was missing from the set and that there are numerous errors and omissions. All three manuscripts are in the Berlin State Museum and have been in the possession of the Bach-Gesellschaft since 1879, through the efforts of Alfred Dörffel.
The first edition was printed in 1802 by Nicolaus Simrock of Bonn. It is clear from errors in it that it was not made with reference to Bach's own manuscript, and it has many mistakes that were frequently repeated in later editions of the 19th century.
The sonatas each consist of four movements, in the typical slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the sonata da chiesa. The first two movements are coupled in a form of prelude and fugue. The third (slow) movement is lyrical, while the final movement shares the similar musical structure as a typical binary suite movement. Unlike the sonatas, the partitas are of more unorthodox design. Although still making use of the usual baroque style of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, with some omissions and the addition of galanteries, new elements were introduced into each partita to provide variety.
performed by Ben Goldstein
Transcription by the composer, performed on guitar by Gordon Rowland (courtesy of Musopen)
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- Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
- Fuga (Allegro)
Though the key signature of the manuscript suggests D minor, such was a notational convention in the Baroque period, and therefore does not necessarily imply that the piece is in the Dorian mode. The second movement, the fugue, would later be reworked for the organ (in the Prelude and Fugue, BWV 539) and the lute (Fugue, BWV 1000), with the latter being two bars longer than the violin version.
Opening of the Presto:
- Allemanda – Double
- Corrente – Double (Presto)
- Sarabande – Double
- Tempo di Borea – Double
- Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
In the original manuscript, Bach marked 'Segue la Corrente' at the end of Allemanda.
- Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
- Allegro assai
The opening movement of the work introduced a peaceful, slow stacking up of notes, a technique once thought to be impossible on bowed instruments. The fugue is the most complex and extensive of the three, with the subject derived from the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott. Bach employs many contrapuntal techniques, including a stretto, an inversion, as well as diverse examples of double counterpoint.
- Gavotte en rondeau
- Menuet I
- Menuet II
A transcription for lute was also made by the composer, catalogued as BWV 1006a.
- Wolff 2002, 133.
- Rust's grandson, Wilhelm Rust, eventually became one of the editors of the Bach-Gesellschaft
- Bachmann, Alberto (1925) An Encyclopedia of the violin, Da Capo, ISBN 0-306-80004-7.
- Lester, Joel (1999) Bach's works for solo violin: style, structure, performance. Oxford University Press US, ISBN 978-0-19-512097-4.
- Menuhin, Yehudi and William Primrose (1976) Violin and viola. MacDonald and Jane's, ISBN 0-356-04716-4.
- Wolff, Christoph (2002) Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-924884-2.
- Manuscript (fair copy) in Bach's hand of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin at the Bach Digital project
- Free sheet music of all six works from Cantorion.org
- MIDI Sequences of Bach's Violin Sonatas/Partitas
- Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin Vito Paternoster – MP3 Creative Commons Recording, played on cello
- Musical score and MIDI file at the Mutopia Project
- violinists talk about their approach to Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
- From liner notes of a Benedict Cruft recording
- Discussion of recording history
- Recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas in the 1950s at Enesco's Profile at The Remington Site
- Discussion of publishing history and Second Sonata
- Sonatas and partitas for solo violin: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Music for Glass Orchestra by Grace Andreacchi, a novel that contains an extensive analysis of the Sonatas and partitas for Solo Violin.
- The New York Times. April 28 2000. By Anthony Tommasini. "A Violin Virtuoso and Total Bach"
- Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin: An application through analysis by Larry Solomon
- Violinist and author Arnold Steinhardt discusses his lifelong quest to master the chaconne; interesting interview, good links
- In the BBC Discovering Music: Listening Library