Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque conversations 4

Thursday April 11, 2013

Bach Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004

orchestration: solo violin

Bach Sonata No. 3 in C major for Solo Violin, BWV 1005

orchestration: solo violin

JS Bach wrote music for varying forces and differing groups, but he was also very artful at crafting unaccompanied instrumental music like his sonatas and partitas. Bach had a great affinity for string instruments, and his unaccompanied cello suites are among his most popular works. Tonight’s concert features works for unaccompanied violin. Bach completed three sonatas and three partitas, likely around 1720, when he was the Kapellmeister at Köthen. We do not know, however, exactly when he began work on these pieces. If it was at Weimar, where Bach performed duties both as the court organist and the Konzertmeister for the Duke of Weimar, it is likely he was influenced by the violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff, who often played at court. Westhoff had published a collection of partitas for solo violin at the end of the 17th century, and these works, as well as the solo violin works of Heinrich von Biber, might have influenced Bach in his own endeavors.

Bach’s pieces for unaccompanied instruments, particularly the violin, display his intimate understanding of how the instrument is played. His knowledge was such that he clearly knew the characteristic idioms that work well for the player’s fingering hand. Exactly how well Bach played the violin is not known, but he began studying the instrument as a child, even before he played the harpsichord. He also worked as a violinist, so he was certainly proficient, perhaps even excellent. In the manuscripts of these pieces, he indicated possible fingerings of passages, suggesting that he played through them himself to see how well they worked. Bach used the four-movement church sonata form for the pieces he called sonatas; the partitas are actually dance suites. Some scholars have suggested that Bach wove themes from Lutheran chorales into the fabric of these sonatas and partitas, though the great composer himself made no overt references to the use of these melodies.

The Partita No. 2 in D minor commences with an Allemande, a quadruple-meter dance with a lively character. The second movement, a Corrente, is a triple-meter dance beginning with an upbeat. Although it begins in a serious mood, there is a playfulness to this Corrente that cannot be denied. The Sarabande provides contrast with a slow triple-meter movement. It is expressive and dramatic, and the soloist can be free with the rhythms, drawing out lines of melody as he or she sees fit. The following Giga again speeds up the tempo, allowing the soloist to display his/her skill. The final movement, the Ciaccona, is such an undertaking, that it is sometimes performed as a stand-alone work. It is as long as the other movements combined. In this movement, Bach has constructed a series of variations on a chord progression. In total, the four-measure phrase repeats more than 60 times, each repetition more complex than the last. Bach varies everything from texture to rhythm to mode in these explorations, urging the soloist to great feats of virtuosity.

Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major is the largest in scope of the three unaccompanied violin sonatas. Its four movements display a variety of textures and utilize the instrument’s full range. The opening Adagio of Sonata No. 3 seems pensive, almost solemn, with a dotted rhythm that serves as a pervasive motif throughout most of the movement. The Fuga second movement is a complex piece of counterpoint. Bach was able to create counterpoint on these mostly monophonic instruments through the use of multiple stops, a technique in which the player bows more than one string at a time. Bach’s ingenious construction allows the player to express melody and draw out harmonic progressions simultaneously. It is a wonder to hear the way Bach created the polyphony, and it is a great challenge for the soloist. The following Largo displays rich emotion. Here, the violin plays an aria-like melody. The Allegro assai that ends the piece has a sense of drive and forward motion that is helped along by the nearly ceaseless quick passagework. Bach produces melody and accompaniment in this relentless movement without multiple stops, instead relying on the fast arpeggios to cre¬ate the harmony. Eventually, the soloist leaves the churning energy of the movement behind and slows for a final cadence, imparting a sense of great satisfaction for performer and audience alike.

–Christine Gengaro, PhD