Programme note for 2018 Pilgrimages
JS Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for violin
Johann Sebastian Bach’s habit of binding together an opus with a modest or slightly cryptic title is characteristic of him. ‘The Little Organ Book’, ‘The Musical Offering’, ‘The Art of Fugue’ are all slightly ludicrous names for such overwhelmingly consummate works. ‘Sei Solo’, the title he inscribes on the title page of the 1720 manuscript of these works for violin is probably no different so we should assume he set great store by his use of words. Had he wished to say Six Solos, he would of course have written ‘Sei Soli’, so we must presume he is punning on the Italian ‘Sei’ and its dual meaning as both the word for the number 6, and as the second person of the verb to be. (Try putting ‘Sei Solo’ into any translate application and out will come most likely ‘be alone’ or ‘you are alone’.) Was he deliberately trying to look a bit careless in his use of Italian? Again a mark of underplaying himself, as if to say, ‘if you don’t understand that this is a joke you won’t understand what I’m giving you…’. This is the key to what the music is about. Six ‘Alones’ forming together a larger super-work as a meditation on that least sociable state of the human condition.
In 1720 Sebastian was a successful man of thirty-five, employed by Prince Leopold of the tiny Principality of Anhalt-Cöthen, as his Kappellmeister. One has the impression of a man being on the verge of the crown of his career. Married to the enigmatic Maria Barbara, he and his family are thriving with four children aged between five and twelve and Sebastian is happy and on more than friendly terms with his employer. Indeed, looking back during the twenty-seven years of his subsequent troubled time in Leipzig he confesses that at Cöthen he had enjoyed the best conditions for writing and the happiest of times. The Prince, being a Calvinist – a doctrine that had no place for anything more than very basic music during worship – required secular and especially instrumental music. And it was when he was living and working in this out of the way principality that Sebastian wrote great amounts of the famed keyboard, instrumental and orchestral music.
But 1720 is also significant for a tragedy in the life of Sebastian and his family. We know that he accompanied the Prince on a journey to Carlsbad that summer and whilst the Prince delayed his homecoming, Maria Barbara sickens and dies. Sebastian arrives back at his house so soon after the event that no word has reached him and he literally crosses his threshold to discover his wife is dead and already buried. Even at a time when sudden death was such a frequent visitor to family life, (Sebastian and Maria had already buried two children) we must presume this to be a catastrophic blow. But it seems that whatever projects Sebastian had started using single unaccompanied stringed instruments, this event brought them into sharp focus. (Sebastian also calls the violin solos ‘Book 1’ – so we might presume that the ‘cello Suites were conceived as Book 2, another ‘Sei Solo’, though in their case no manuscript survives to tell us.) We can never really know what happened in the household of this suddenly bereaved family. But if we take the music of these Sonatas and Partitas as our guide, then a deep crisis must have taken place in the heart and soul of their composer.
The scheme is this: the first four works are in minor keys, the last two in the major; the six works are divided into two alternating forms – the Sonatas deriving from the ancient form of
Sonata da Chiesa and the Partitas doing homage to the form of the French Suite. The Sonatas each conform to an identical pattern – a slow and quasi-improvised opening movement followed by an extended fugue. A relaxed and contemplative movement follows – in a related key – and the whole Sonata is rounded off with a fast movement back in the key of the opening two movements. As strictly formulaic as the Sonatas are, so the Partitas are not. Each of these takes delight in using the form of the French Suite in a free and unusual way. The B minor has a ‘Double’ for each movement – a sort of ghost of the music just heard but conforming exactly to the harmonic structure of that movement – and the D minor appends a vast Chaconne to the four previous movements, whilst the E major achieves a rare lightness with the use of a brilliant Prelude followed by a collection of French dances.
The great paradox of Bach’s music is as manifest in these works as in all his output. Music that meets the ear as governed by a system that even we feel we can grasp as long as we listen, and yet one that seems permanently to be facing away into an infinite and unfathomable space beyond any system. Those of a spiritual bent rejoice in the latter, those uncomfortable with such labels stick with the former. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Religion surrounded and governed so much of Sebastian’s life. He was endlessly tested and irritated by the paraphernalia, squabbles and pettiness that surrounded it, and in fairness he was probably a most difficult man to employ. Yet his music transcends all of these things. If the B minor Mass – a setting in Latin and thereby perhaps a call to a more universal attitude – is his most public avowal of faith, so these works for solo violin might represent a parallel private struggle with the world of the spirit.
For me there is no doubt that what we hear when we listen to this journey of six works is a soul in crisis – Who am I? How do I go on from here? Why has this happened to me? Is there a God? Will life ever mean anything again? – a sort of intimate diary of aloneness, questionings of the soul and wonderings at life and death. In the end he gives us an answer, when after that strangest and most untethered movement of the whole set, the opening Adagio of the C major Sonata, the fugue subject announced is based on the Lutheran hymn tune “Komm heiliger Geist”, or, “Come, Holy Spirit”.
This cannot be insignificant. Indeed it is tempting to view the whole opus as a kind of conversation with the world of the spirit. This extraordinary crossing into a new world in the C major Sonata, the Double movements in the B minor Partita, and the central section of the Chaconne, are all striking for their transformation of existing states and material. Striking too that the final Partita is in the lightest and brightest of keys - E major - and that its journey is one of evaporation with movements of increasing brevity and lightness.
It is worth noting that Bach’s works for this single instrument do have some have precedents. One must presume that he knew for instance of the Six Suites for solo violin of 1696 by the Dresden composer Johann Paul von Westhoff and of Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia from his ‘Rosary’ Sonatas of 1676 – probably the model and starting point for Bach's own D minor Chaconne. One can believe too that his own works were themselves an inspiration for Georg Philipp Telemann’s delightful and inventive Twelve Fantasias published in 1735. But after these fantasias, the genre seems to go cold. Fashion in music changed, the Enlightenment and the new Classical style turned away from so much of what underpinned Sebastian’s world view.
We know nothing whatever of recitals of Bach’s solo violin music in his own time. Unless these works were played by Sebastian himself at the time of writing or by other violinists at Cöthen it is possible that he never actually heard them played. His son Carl described his father in old age playing some of them at the keyboard, but this is pretty much the only mention of them until the performances by celebrated virtuosi of the nineteenth century. Even then it was only individual movements that were played in public – most prominently the Chaconne – and indeed this movement became the object of deep fascination for many composers. Brahms held it in the highest regard and made a transcription of it for piano left hand. Busoni made a more virtuosic transcription for piano that grew and altered with countless performances. As far as significant new music for the unaccompanied violin goes, (and if we treat the Paganini Caprices as a rather special case from the world of the Etude or study piece), the next important contribution is not until Eugène Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas of 1923, themselves paying homage in a number of ways to Bach’s opus. Béla Bartók’s tremendous Solo Sonata of 1944 also acknowledges Bach as the father of the idiom. It is difficult to think of a category of composition so dominated by a single 300-year-old opus.
Thomas Bowes, January 2018
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