Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006
Sonata No. 2 in a minor, BWV 1003: Grave | Ethan Chen
Sonata No. 2 in a minor, BWV 1003: Fuga | Jimmy Wang
Bach completed a set of six works for solo violin in 1720 that he originally called Sei Solo [sic] a Violino senza basso accompagnato (Six Solos for Violin without Bass Accompaniment).* Published posthumously in 1802, they were rechristened in the Bach Gesellschaft edition of 1879 as the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, changing Bach’s original name Partia into Partita, which in his time meant variation. Working in an emerging tradition established by violinists Biber (d. 1704), Westhoff (d. 1705), Vilsmayr (d. 1722), Pisendel (d. 1755), and others, Bach explored the technical limits of the violin in his Sei Solo, using multiple stops (polyphony), virtuosic writing, and scordatura (non-standard) tuning. They were performed publicly during his lifetime as keyboard pieces (BWV 964 and BWV 968), not violin solos, and were likely only played on the violin privately. The 19th century virtuoso, Joseph Joachim (d. 1907), is credited with popularizing the works as violin solos a century after their composition. They have remained essential repertoire ever since—masterpieces of form and artistry that stand at the pinnacle of musical achievement.
The Sonatas are examples of the sonata da chiesa form as established by Corelli, with four movements that alternate in a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern. Each Sonata opens with a prelude and fugue, showing more variety in the final two movements while adhering to the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern. The Sonata No. 2 in a minor, BWV 1003, has four movements marked Grave, Fuga, Andante, and Allegro. The polyphonic writing creates the impression of multiple voices and rich harmony that is a masterful achievement by Bach— and a technical challenge to the performer.
* Bach’s use of solo in the title vs soli has been taken as a veiled reference to the sudden death of his first wife in July 1720. The translation of Sei Solo is you are alone.
Six Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012
Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012: Prelude | Wangshu Xiang, Cello
Bach wrote the Six Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012, also around 1720 during his time in Köthen. He may have conceived of them as a cycle rather than as independent pieces because they show a consistent order of movements and overall symmetry of design. Collectively the cello suites are considered among Bach’s greatest musical achievements and, similar to the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, stretch the technical limits of the instrument with polyphony and virtuosic writing that suggests three- and four-voice counterpoint and harmony. As with the violin solos, the Suites were largely ignored after Bach’s death, but are now considered essential repertoire. In the 20th century cellist Pablo Casals presented them publicly after many years of using them as practice pieces, and audiences embraced them enthusiastically. The Suites have been transcribed for many other instruments, and have been recorded numerous times.
The Suite No. 6 in D Major follows the typical Baroque structure of alternating slow and fast dance movements, and includes a Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, two Gavottes and a Gigue. Renowned cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich called the Suite No. 6 “a symphony for solo cello” because of the richness of its implied harmony and contrapuntal texture, and described its key of D major as evoking joy and triumph. The Suite No. 6 differs stylistically from the other suites by being freer in form and written with more virtuosic passages throughout. The harmonic range is wider and especially higher than that in the other suites, suggesting it may have been scored originally for a 5-stringed violincello piccolo. The higher range presents performance challenges for players using the modern 4-stringed instrument.
Cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147: Chorale (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) | The Ensemble
Cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life), BWV 147 is a church cantata dating originally from 1716 and was reworked in 1723. The Chorale is the best-known music from the cantata, owing to piano transcriptions by Dame Myra Hess (1926, 1934), and is often performed as a standalone showpiece. The original hymn melody was written in 1641 by violinist Johann Schop and borrowed by Bach for his Chorale, which closes the Cantata. The common English rendering of the text as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is by British poet laureate Robert Bridges (d. 1930). The words freely convey the idea of Bach’s original text, Jesus, bleibet meine Freude, which is more accurately translated as “Jesus shall remain my joy.”
Orchestral Suite No.3 in D Major, BWV 1068: Air | The Ensemble
The Orchestral Suite No.3, BWV 1068, is one of four orchestral works written some time before 1730. Unlike the Brandenburg Concertos, which were collected and revised as a set in 1721, the Orchestral Suites were not conceived as a group, appearing in unrelated manuscripts. The earliest source for the third suite is a set of parts from around 1730 written in three different hands: J.S. Bach (first violin and continuo), J.S. Bach’s student, Johann Ludwig Krebs (second violin and viola), and J.S. Bach’s fifth child and second son, C.P.E. Bach (winds and percussion). C.P.E. Bach went on to have a successful musical career in his own right.
The Suite No.3 has the usual structure that alternates fast and slow dance movements and includes an Ouverture in the French style with dotted rhythms, an Air, two Gavottes, a Bourrée, and a Gigue. In the late 19th century the Air was arranged as a concert piece for solo violin and keyboard accompaniment by German violinist August Wilhelmj (1845-1908). Wilhelmj transposed the work from the key of D major to C major, thereby enabling the Air to be played entirely on the lowest string of the violin, the G string. For this reason, the arrangement came to be known as the Air on the G String and has had an enduring performance history under that name. Today it is one of J.S. Bach’s most recognizable short works.