Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, cousins to the Six Cello Suites written around the same period, are certainly to be placed at the pinnacle of the entire violin repertoire; however, they were not meant to be insurmountable. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), ever the keen pedagogue, always composed music that was intended to be played as well as contemplated. His sons, and generations of budding musicians ever since, learned this the hard way, only to be later gratified in abundance. They all have crossed swords with the Orgelbüchlein, the Clavierbüchlein, the Well-Tempered Clavier or the aforementioned collections for solo stringed instrument, and they were bettered by them. It has been suggested these sonatas, partitas and suites must have been unplayable in the age of their composition.
After J.S. Bach’s death, though, the violin solos did attract the attention of the better violinists of the time, who mainly saw in these stylistically outdated works a means to better their technique. Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, remarked in 1802, “For many years, the six violin solos were universally considered by the greatest performers on the violin as the best means to make an ambitious student a perfect master of his instrument.”
Yet it is doubtful they were designed in principle as didactic works; they should rather be regarded as continuing and bringing to its apex the German tradition of writing works for unaccompanied violin, like those of Biber, Westhoff and Pisendel (the latter two whom Bach had met). They are, in fact, the first examples of truly “transcendent” works for solo violin—technically speaking, of course, but especially musically. One wonders why and for what occasion Bach would have composed such exacting and brilliant works. To be honest, no one really knows, except that they cropped up during the period when he was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, between December 1717 and April 1723. Contrary to the Cello Suites, for which no autograph manuscript survives, we can pinpoint the year 1720 as that of the Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato, Bach having then made a fair copy of them under this title.
This precious manuscript, written in Bach’s most beautiful hand, was reportedly saved from ruin in 1814, when it was found in St. Petersburg among papers destined to a butter shop. A number of non-autograph copies had been in circulation in the latter half of the 18th century (as confirmed by Forkel’s statement above), and Pisendel even had one in his possession, but the first edition of any of these works appeared only in 1798, in Jean Baptiste Cartier’s important instructional collection of violin works L’art du violon. This contained the great Fugue in C major from the Third Sonata, reproduced from a copy lent to Cartier by the French violinist Gaviniès.
The first complete edition of the Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violins was published by Simrock of Bonn in 1802. No one knows, either, for whom these Sonatas and Partitas were composed. Bach himself was a fairly competent violinist, but it is unlikely he could have pulled off the more difficult passages of these works. Perhaps they had been destined to his colleague Pisendel in Weimar, or to the concertmaster of the Cöthen orchestra, Joseph Speiss. But what good comes from such conjecture? Rather, let us be taken in by this music of unrivalled merit, whose implicit polyphony is suggested with absolute mastery, and which can make us fancy the perplexities of the human spirit. Indeed, as has already been suggested, these works should not be approached merely as a display of dextrous wizardry—brilliant, yes, but not virtuosic in the strictly “mechanical” sense.
Some of the pieces are certainly very difficult to play, but no one would enjoy hearing them performed as though they were. The performer must instead transcend those obstacles and clarify for the listener the inner complexities and the overall design of each work as well as of the set as a whole. To this end, the bow of an eloquent violinist is far better suited than the pen of any humble scribbler. The commentator can walk the listener through each piece, each section, each bar if need be, but who is really listening to him? He can say who wrote the piece, and where and when (he has already done that); he can say that the Sonatas here follow the form of the Sonata da chiesa (church sonata) in four movements and that the Partitas are dance suites of varying length modeled after the Sonata da camera (chamber sonata); he can say that preludes introduce, that a chaconne is a series of variations on a repeated harmonic pattern, that fugues are fugal and that dances are dance-like. But having said all that, nothing, in effect, has been said. Words feebly attempt to describe what only the heart and soul can understand. They alone fully comprehend what the music is about, when and how it speaks to the senses, to the mind or to God. Or to all at once.
Bach never explained his music, nor did he have to. The music itself speaks, and sings. Listen! Listen, then, to the music; marvel once again at Bach’s grasp of the human spirit, as profound as an adagio, as elaborate as a fugue, as lilting as a heartfelt song, as grand as a chaconne, as lithe as a minuet or gigue. Listen closely to what Bach has to say…
© Jacques-André Houle