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Titans Talk about the Bach Solo Violin Works

Scaling the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin requires a firm grasp of violin technique and a propensity for soul-searching. John Holloway, Rachel Podger, Julia Fischer, and others discuss their approach

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Fifty years ago, virtuosos like Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Yehudi Menuhin—and many other violinists as well—played the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001–1006), composed in 1720, with little or no knowledge of the way the music would have been performed in Bach’s time. In the 1950s, Baroque violins and bows were not readily available, and there was little curiosity about them. The music was regarded by audiences as not only deadly serious stuff, but deadly boring.

And why not?

Even the greatest violinists played the works as if they were exercises. And in truth, that is what they had become, as much for the superstars as for the students.

Midway through the ’60s, however, a revolution began in the way some musicians thought about Baroque-era music, and each discovery fueled more hands-on work with the instruments that Bach and his contemporaries used. The new viewpoint was that written scores had not been meant to serve as rigid guides to performance—sounds, speeds, and phrasings—but as a departure point for music making, at the heart of which lay the performer’s own sense of personal expression. In the process, Bach and his pre-Classical colleagues were transformed from quaint historical figures into seminal composers whose music fully comes alive only when it is performed with the kind of spontaneous, quasi-improvisational freedom that has its best modern equivalent in jazz.

The six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin took on new life.

Bach composed the works at Cöthen, where he worked as kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Prussia, during a period that also produced the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and the Brandenburg Concertos. The three sonatas have four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast tempi format (the second movement is a fugue); the partitas are a set of three suites composed of dance-based movements of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, though the first substitutes a bourrée for the gigue; the second includes a chaconne as a fifth movement; and the third adheres to that format only in the final gigue.

Ferdinand David published the first edition in 1843, nine decades after the composer’s death (the original manuscript was famously saved after nearly being used as butcher paper). Joseph Joachim first recorded a partial version in 1903; Yehudi Menuhin recorded the first complete set 30 years later.

Recently, music critic and author Kirk McElhearn called the works “miracles of music, where a single violin embarks on some of the most remarkable musical discourses ever written.”

Further Resources

Learn more about playing Baroque music.

When British musician Rachel Podger (pictured above), a leading star in today’s Baroque violin firmament, first heard professional Baroque string players perform the works on a recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, she heard what “seemed to be an overall clarity of sound which made each part audible.

“It made the overall sonority sound rather translucent,” she says, “and, in a way, it sounded rather bare to my trained modern ear. I liked the gutsy sound of the bow on the string. It made the fast notes sparkle and sound like they were on fire, while the slower ones and longer phrases had real intensity due to the way the bow went slowly into the gut-string when drawn across it."

A number of recent recordings—including the most recent by John Holloway (ECM New Series 1909/10), who served as concertmaster for both the Taverner Players and the London Classical Players—illustrate how dramatically the Baroque revolution has affected both Baroque- and modern-style performance of the six Sonatas and Partitas. As Holloway says: “No one ever conquers them.”

Holloway’s concern is that Bach’s music “is becoming more and more a foreign language to all of us. Therefore,” he says, “we need to understand that language, learn its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and see what kinds of things can be expressed with it. What you can put behind a performance of the Sonatas and Partitas is an understanding of how Bach reduces complex counterpoints to skeletons, and how brilliantly he translates those into challenges for the violinist; how this fit into what interested Bach, and what his priorities were both in life and as a working musician.

“So, while for the Baroque violinist—and for any violinist since—the Sonatas and Partitas are an encyclopedia of 18th-century violin techniques, for Bach, who was teaching himself what the limits of the violin were, it was part of his ongoing exploration of what the possibilities were for the instruments that interested him. And, of course, in teaching himself—for he probably played most of the music he wrote— he’s also teaching us.”

The Dutch violinist Lucy van Dael—who with Frans Brüggen founded the Orchestra of the 18th Century and for 18 years served as its concertmaster—joined the Baroque revolution when she realized “that what I wanted to do with Bach couldn’t be done with a modern bow and violin.”

In Amsterdam, where Gustav Leonhardt was working, and in Brussels in the 1970s, where the Belgian Kuijken family was doing the same thing, the time was ripe, Dael says, to embrace period performance and apply those practices to the six Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo. “It was a revolution against the way Bach was being taught and played, where the individuality of the musician was not valued anymore. If you were playing the Sonatas and Partitas, you had to play as perfectly as Milstein or Heifetz. It was like the assembly line in Chaplin’s movie Modern Times.”

Sigiswald Kuijken, whose 1981 recording of the complete cycle was one of the first on a Baroque violin, describes another dimension to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. “Not only is it very hard music,” he says, “it is a challenge to play these pieces because the technique Bach is looking for is not the technique you learn at the conservatory. You have to approach it from ‘underneath,’ from a context of the earlier music for violin that Bach would have been familiar with. Bach then took the violin—which is, after all, a relatively limited, high-pitched instrument with no bass capability—to the limit essentially by writing a compendium of what you can do on four strings.

“And keep in mind,” Kuijken stresses, “that Bach’s language [on these works] is not any different from that of his other works. In other words, it wasn’t violin music as much as it was Bach written on the violin.”

Kuijken believes that the emotional bond musicians have with Bach results from “the incredible depth and mystery in his music that brings us close to the very nucleus of existence. When I was in Leipzig in 2000,” he says, “the commemoration for the 250th anniversary of his death was like the celebration of a saint; it was so because there is something in Bach’s music that goes beyond daily life.”

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