The Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001–1006) are a set of six works composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. They are also called the Sonatas and Partias for solo violin, in accordance with Bach's original terms: "Partia" was common in German-speaking regions during Bach's time, whereas the Italian "Partita" was introduced to this set in the 1879 Bach Gesellschaft edition, having become standard by that time. The set consists of three sonate da chiesa, in four movements, and three partitas (or partias), in dance-form movements.
The set was completed by 1720, but was only published in 1802 by Nikolaus Simrock in Bonn. Even after publication, it was largely ignored until the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim started performing these works. Today, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas are an essential part of the violin repertoire, and they are frequently performed and recorded.
The Sei Solo – a violino senza Basso accompagnato, as Bach titled them, firmly established the technical capability of the violin as a solo instrument. The pieces often served as archetypes for solo violin pieces by later generations of composers, including Eugène Ysaÿe and Béla Bartók.
History of composition
Bach started composing these works around 1703, while at Weimar, and the set was completed by 1720, when Bach was a Kapellmeister in Köthen. He was almost certainly inspired by Johann Paul von Westhoff's partitas for solo violin, since he worked alongside Westhoff at Weimar, and the older composer's pieces share some stylistic similarities with Bach's. Solo violin repertoire was actively growing at the time: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's celebrated solo passacaglia appeared c.1676, Westhoff's collections of solo violin music were published in 1682 and 1696, Johann Joseph Vilsmayr's Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera in 1715, and finally, Johann Georg Pisendel's solo violin sonata was composed around 1716. The tradition of writing for solo violin did not die after Bach, either; Georg Philipp Telemann published 12 Fantasias for solo violin in 1735.
The tradition of polyphonic violin writing was already well-developed in Germany, particularly by Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and the composers of the so-called Dresden school – Johann Jakob Walther and Westhoff. Bach's Weimar and Köthen periods were particularly suitable times for composition of secular music, for he worked as a court musician. Bach's cello and orchestral suites date from the Köthen period, as well as the famous Brandenburg concertos and many other well-known collections of instrumental music. In the list of Bach's chamber works, the violin solos form part of a small group, as there is the supposed 'libro secundo' of the 6 suites à Violoncello solo, with a single partita for flauto traverso solo, in a-minor, placed directly after the cello suites in the Schmieder catalogue: bwv 1013. So there exist in all 13 varied sonatas and partitas in the 'senza Basso' group. In both major manuscripts the important specification is written clearly: for violin/violoncello solo, 'senza Basso accompagnato'. Bach himself underwrote the practice of Basso Continuo as the Fundament of Music, which was the common denominator in all artistic music in his time. A solo sonata for violin would naturally have the continuo players and parts implied, here Bach himself tells us that Basso Continuo does not apply. The norm was set by Corelli's important solo sonatas of 1700 (op. 5) which may have been accompanied in a variety of ways, but here the Basso Continuo is the natural accompaniment to the 'solo' violin. Written is the bass line, with numbers and incidentals to point to desired harmonies that are to be worked out by the harpsichordist or lute player, to which a low register bowed or blown instrument can be added to double the left hand bass line. This was a given, the 'senza Basso' pieces are the exception in that they challenge the player to realise various layers wherein some notes and patterns are the accompaniment of other parts, so that a polyphonic discourse is written into the music. Arpeggios over several strings, multiple stopping and opposing tonal ranges and particularly very deft bowing are exploited to the full to make all the voices speak from one bow and four strings, or five, or from a single flute.
It is not known whether these violin solos were performed during his lifetime or, if they were, who the performer was. Johann Georg Pisendel and Jean-Baptiste Volumier, both talented violinists in the Dresden court, have been suggested as possible performers, as was Joseph Spiess, leader of the orchestra in Köthen. Friedrich Wilhelm Rust, who would later become part of the Bach family circle in Leipzig, also became a likely candidate. Bach himself was an able violinist from his youth, and his familiarity with the violin and its literature shows in the composition of the set and the very detailed autograph manuscript, as does incidental fingering in the text. According to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "in his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and powerfully".
Manuscripts and major editions
Upon Bach's death in 1750, the original manuscript passed into the possession, possibly through his second wife Anna Magdalena, of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. It was inherited by the last male descendant of J. C. F. Bach, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, who passed it on to his sister Louisa of Bückeburg.
Two other early manuscripts also exist. One, originally identified as an authentic Bach autograph from his Leipzig period, is now identified as being a copy dating from 1727–32 by Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena Bach, and is the companion to her copy of the six suites Bach wrote for solo cello. The other, a copy dated July 3, 1726 (the date is on the final page), made by one of Bach's admirers Johann Peter Kellner, is well preserved, despite the fact that the B minor Partita was missing from the set and that there are numerous errors and omissions. All three manuscripts are in the Berlin State Museum and have been in the possession of the Bach-Gesellschaft since 1879, through the efforts of Alfred Dörffel.
The first edition was printed in 1802 by Nikolaus Simrock of Bonn. It is clear from errors in it that it was not made with reference to Bach's own manuscript, and it has many mistakes that were frequently repeated in later editions of the 19th century.
One of the most famous performers of the Sonatas and Partitas was the violinist and composer Georges Enescu, who considered this work as "The Himalayas of violinists" and recorded all the sonatas and partitas in the late 1940s. One of his students Serge Blanc collected the notes of his master Enescu regarding sonority, phrasing, tempo, fingering and expression, in a now freely distributed document.
The sonatas each consist of four movements, in the typical slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the sonata da chiesa. The first two movements are coupled in a form of prelude and fugue. The third (slow) movement is lyrical, while the final movement shares the similar musical structure as a typical binary suite movement. Unlike the sonatas, the partitas are of more unorthodox design. Although still making use of the usual baroque style of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, with some omissions and the addition of galanteries, new elements were introduced into each partita to provide variety.
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
- Fuga (Allegro)
Though the key signature of the manuscript suggests D minor, such was a notational convention in the Baroque period, and therefore does not necessarily imply that the piece is in the Dorian mode. The second movement, the fugue, would later be reworked for the organ (in the Prelude and Fugue, BWV 539) and the lute (Fugue, BWV 1000), with the latter being two bars longer than the violin version.
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
- Allemanda – Double
- Corrente – Double (Presto)
- Sarabande – Double
- Tempo di Borea – Double
This partita substitutes a Bourrée (marked Tempo di Borea) for the gigue, and each movement is followed by a variation called double in French, which elaborates on the bass-line of the previous piece.
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
This sonata was later transcribed for harpsichord by the composer, catalogued as BWV 964.
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
In the original manuscript, Bach marked 'Segue la Corrente' at the end of Allemanda. The Chaconne, the last and most famous movement of the suite, was regarded as "the greatest structure for solo violin that exists" by Yehudi Menuhin.
Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
- Allegro assai
The opening movement of the work introduced a peaceful, slow stacking up of notes, a technique once thought to be impossible on bowed instruments. The fugue is the most complex and extensive of the three, with the subject derived from the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott. Bach employs many contrapuntal techniques, including a stretto, an inversion, as well as diverse examples of double counterpoint.
Bach transcribed the first movement of this sonata for harpsichord, cataloged as BWV 968.
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006
- Gavotte en rondeau
- Menuet I
- Menuet II
A transcription for lute was also made by the composer, catalogued as BWV 1006a.