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Siete qui: Home Festival Festival 2011 «Soli Deo Gloria»?
«Soli Deo Gloria»? PDF Print E-mail
Johann Sebastian Bach is an icon of music in the Western world. He incarnates the mystery of transcendence in music, as if his whole life had been spent as a mediator, through sound, between the tangible world and the life beyond. Often Bach’s works are considered an intellectual, spiritual product, not dependent on contingency or – paradoxically – even on the need for performance. In the 19th century The Art of the Fugue was considered simply a study in counterpoint, for “internal consumption only” – Soli Deo Gloria – only for the glory of God. The abbreviation SDG that Bach noted in the margins of his cantatas has fuelled the myth of music for the angels, uncorrupted by the passage of time and history.
The same air of holy untouchability surrounds the six Suites for cello solo and the six Sonatas and Partite for violin solo. No-one has ever had doubts about whether they can actually be played, but nevertheless in the early 18th century they were considered “monolithic”, with no future.
Bach’s elegant handwritten score of the violin Sonatas and Partite is dated 1720, when Bach was at the Köthen court, though the work was probably actually written a few years earlier. The most surprising thing is the lack of direct models, although 17th century violin music offered multiple ideas for technique and counterpoint. We do not even know who the music was intended for, though clearly it was an extremely gifted violinist. Most bets are on the famous violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, but Bach himself – an outstanding organist – was also an excellent violinist and he may well have written these pieces for his own use.
The question, however, is secondary. Under the heading of Romantic music the Sonate e Partite were already considered absolute masterpieces. The peak of virtuoso and counterpoint complexity is reached in the monumental Chaconne closing the second Partita. It was admired by Mendelssohn and Schumann, who both drafted versions with piano accompaniment, and it was transcribed for piano by Brahms and Busoni.
Here the violin, by definition a monodic instrument, seems to challenge the laws of physics by producing polyphonic music, though this does happen in all Bach’s sonatas and partitas.
Soli Deo Gloria, therefore? Or was it a laborious study of the possibilities of counterpoint, in the name of reason and mathematics? We can just imagine Bach, lost in contemplation of the eternal, listening to the Adagio in Sonata No. 1, with its measured, unhurried pace. And yet Bach’s music turns out – to the attentive listener – to be extremely terrestrial and rational. It is an extraordinary mathematical construction that obliges the listener’s mind to complete a counterpoint that is often hinted at but not actually presented.
This great architecture of sound is a monument to human intelligence, not just a hymn of praise to God.