Bach Pilgrimage Blog Episode 3

8th May Partita Double

The Partita in B minor BWV 1002 is probably the least played of Sei Solo. I’ve played it already several times on this journey and have noticed it creates an unusual impression on listeners. It comes second in the cycle and occupies a space between the large and declamatory Sonatas in G minor and A minor. Both those works are played often in recital on their own and have a clear dramatic shape as dictated by the form: a massive Fantasia and Fugue followed by a movement of calmer reflection with the added relief of a change of key, and rounded out by movements of a certain untamed rustic/folksy quality. The B minor on the other hand has eight movements – yes eight! – all in the same key and all of which stray very little from the tonic and its near relations; indeed all the movements chart a similar path of modulation. And this key of B minor allows the third in the scale – the D natural – to be the only open string to resonate, though Bach’s use of opening and closing chords chooses to forgo even this openness; a certain opaqueness to the sound world results. There is an austerity to the expression but also a kind of purity. Some say that the key of B minor is associated with death, though I can find no really clear indication of this. And is it merely an oddity that Bach uses ‘Doubles’ to echo each main movement? What’s he trying to say? These four main movements – Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabande and Tempo di Borea certainly don’t need their Doubles in any structural sense beyond lending matching the weight and length of the Sonatas surrounding this Partita. So why are they there and what do they give?

The Partita opens with a bold and arresting Allemanda with some telling harmonization and much use of dotted rhythms. It has a speech like quality. The following Double is entirely without double stops and consists almost completely of two notes under a slur – a recurring gentle ripple; this is followed by a Corrente movement that is itself almost devoid of harmony beyond what is implied by the moving quavers; and following that, its Double is again without double stops, made up instead of whirling scales and arpeggios. This is music of the utmost economy of means and by the time I have finished playing these four movements I often sense the audience is nearly in a state of trance. B minor and its related harmony is now resounding around the walls and air like a throbbing icon, and though the succeeding Sarabande and Tempo di Borea movements restore a more ‘outer’ expression their respective Doubles present the palest responses, like the ethereal bodies of weightless dancers. Indeed it was while playing these wraith-like movements that an idea came to me of what Bach is perhaps expressing here. These Doubles are all exact harmonic clones of their ‘real’ movements and in fact they can be played with mixed success as duets if one can find a willing partner. But as part of Sei Solo of course they can never be partnered; only one violin and one violinist can play and must resort to playing the Doubles only after the event. Can this be Bach invoking his dead wife to join him in dance? Can this be the reason – I’ve long puzzled over this – that he calls the last main movement ‘Tempo di Borea’ and not just ‘Borea’? Is he self-consciously trying not to evoke his own noted characteristics of an authentic Borea, which should be, he tells us, the most comfortable and enjoyable of music. Instead he can only imply what it ought to be and then listen as his lost wife calls to him from the beyond.

I sense from performances of this Partita and its effect on audiences that this distant and mysterious creature gives us something quite special and rather radical. The reason that its qualities are least suited to the concert hall are in a way the very ones that give it the special balm it seems to possess. And I don’t mean the comfort of a distraction or of coziness; the emotional and spiritual character carried is exactly what one needs after the G minor Sonata. If one takes the flamboyance and richness of the G minor fugue and the fury of the concluding movement as vessels of the first shock of bereavement, then with the B minor one has absorbed this reality. One is looking at loss full in the eye, its reality, its bleakness and the certainty of earthly separation from a loved one.