Skip to content
Siete qui: Home Festival Festival 2013 Sonatas and Partitas
Sonatas and Partitas PDF Print E-mail

Bach conceived his Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin around 1720, according to the date on the manuscript. They are a monumental work as they imbue this stringed instrument with the potential for polyphony. We expect the violin, normally monodic, to produce occasional polyphony or at most a few chords, with swift shifts between registers, but not to combine several voices at once. Dense lines of music with their interwoven imitative patterns, and the very concept of dialogue on a solo violin seems almost miraculous.
Pushing the technical limits of the instrument as far as they will go generates an “illusion” of polyphony, with double and triple notes, and independent or superimposed melody lines. What emerges is a “latent polyphony” where the listener has to play an active part: we convince ourselves that several lines can converge, even though the doubt remains that really it is all just a clever trick!
Why did Bach write these pages for one violin alone, rather than a dialogue between two instruments? One reply comes from Nikolaus Forkel, an authority among Bach scholars, who says that the Six Solos for violin simply could not take the addition of another voice; Bach knew how to combine all the notes needed for independent modulation in a single part, so a second would have been not only superfluous but actually impossible.
These are complete pages that can stand on their own, with strong internal harmonic and thematic cohesion. They follow the structure of the baroque church sonata, with four movements – slow, fast, slow, fast – with a counterpoint profile. There is an adagio (or grave), a solemn fugue, a leisurely cantabile, and a stormy allegro. The Partitas thread together dances in the order of the suite: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, sometimes with other, older or more refined dances instead. The peak is surely the Chaconne from the Partita no. 2 where we hear at least three voices, a swelling dialogue, imitation, and pathos. The audacious architecture rests on a simple thematic cell of eight notes that Bach tosses around in continuous, implacable, total variations. Here he sows the seed of all the declinations of rhythm, timbre, key, phrasing and more, but after so much “variety” the final check is the return to the origins: the opening lament marks the fall of the curtain.

Monica Luccisano