"On one stave for one small instrument, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings." 

- Johannes Brahms

Welcome to the third of four blog posts leading you through the programming we had planned for the 2020 Toronto Bach Festival.

Like the other posts you've seen over the past few weeks, you'll read insights and hear a selection of beautiful online recordings and playlists related to a specific concert.

Our third concert in the 2020 festival was one that we were particularly excited about: a presentation of all of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

In 2020 we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the presentation manuscript of these iconic works for solo violin.

Here is an image of the title page, with the date “1720” clearly visible at the lower right.

We were excited to have engaged music writer and commentator Rick Phillips to write program notes for the Sonatas and Partitas, and also the Mass in B minor (which you will read about in my next post). As we can appreciate from Rick's notes, and especially the final quotation, generations of musicians have been fascinated, sometimes to the point of obsession, with these remarkable works. Indeed, the great 19thcentury Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe wrote a work for solo violin entitled “Obsession,” which begins with a quote of the opening bars of the Partita No. 6.

Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin

By Rick Phillips

During his lifetime, J. S. Bach was renowned as a brilliant performer on the keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and organ. But he was also a good violinist. His second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788) claimed that his father, “from his youth to his old age played the violin clearly and in tune, with a penetrating tone. He completely understood the possibilities of string instruments.” 

The violin was likely Bach’s first instrument as a child. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695) had been an excellent violinist and probably taught his youngest son the basics of violin technique. But after both his parents died when he was ten years old, Bach went to live with his oldest brother Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), an organist in the nearby town of Ohrdruf. It was here with his brother that Bach began to acquire his skill and talent on the keyboard instruments.

Later, working in Weimar, Bach would’ve come across much of the contemporary repertoire for violin and strings, especially that being composed in Italy by the likes of Corelli, Torelli, Albinoni and Vivaldi. Then in 1717, he became Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen. The prince himself was a good amateur string player and singer and his court was Calvinist, not Lutheran, which required little church music from Bach, other than simple hymns. Bach’s musical focus in Anhalt-Cöthen was instrumental and orchestra music. Although he may have begun writing the Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin in Weimar, they were completed in Anhalt-Cöthen in 1720.    

There had been earlier models of music for solo violin that may have inspired him, but as usual, Bach took what he inherited to an incredible high degree of achievement. The solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin are beautifully and idiomatically written for the instrument – yet another pinnacle of Bach’s art.

There are three solo Sonatas, all laid out in four movements each, of slow-fast-slow-fast. The second movement is always a fugue. The form of the three solo Partitas is freer, consisting of dances like Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes and Gigues, with some additions of Bourrées, Minuets or Gavottes for variety. A partita was a suite or a collection of dances, and Bach tended to use the terms partita and suite interchangeably. In all six works, Bach employs a huge range of violin techniques and styles. Generally speaking, the sonatas tend to be more concentrated and cerebral, while the partitas contain music of more diversity and expression. In the manuscript, the sonatas and partitas are arranged alternately, starting with the Sonata in G minor.  Like much of his music, after Bach’s death in 1750, the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin fell into obscurity. To music lovers of the late 18th century and 19th century, this music was deemed to be pedagogical – good for teaching purposes only. Since no other instrument than the violin was included – no accompaniment - it was viewed as stark and austere, limited in both scope and range. With all the right intentions, both Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) created piano parts for the sonatas and partitas, hoping that they were “improving” them for their later time and tastes. But then, in the late 19th century, the great Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) began to perform them solo in recital. They gradually began to be properly appreciated, entering the standard violin repertoire by the early decades of the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, they are part and parcel of every concert violinist’s arsenal. As the German violinist Julia Fischer (b. 1983) has claimed, “If you don’t like Bach’s solo violin music, it’s very hard to be a violinist.” 

An aid to fully appreciating these solo violin works by Bach is to not be concerned with what is not there. Only be concerned with what is there. Bach gives us everything we need - from melody, rhythm, and an implied kind of harmony created through his melodic design, to sonority, texture, dynamics, form and structure. Baroque violinist Sigiswald Kuijken (b. 1944) says, “Bach’s language here is not any different from that of his other works. It wasn’t violin music, as much as it was Bach written on the violin.” But maybe the composer and Bach-lover Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) caught this music’s essence with his envious statement, 

“On one stave for one small instrument, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived these pieces, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind!” 


Here is a collection of performances chosen from among many fine recordings available.

Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001

Adagio – Fuga – Siciliano – Presto Lucy Van Dael

Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 Grave – Fuga – Andante – Allegro Rachel Podger

Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 Adagio – Fuga – Largo – Allegro assai Amandine Beyer

Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002

Allemanda – Double – Courante – Double – Sarabande – Double – Tempo di Borea – Double  Amandine Beyer

Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Gigue – Chaconne Amandine Beyer

Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 Preludio – Loure – Gavotte en Roudeau – Menuett I – Menuet II – Bourée – Gigue Shunske Sato



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