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About this Piece

“Fiddler” is seldom how we first or best know Johann Sebastian Bach, but it is worth remembering that he was born and bred in the Stadtpfeifer tradition of practical multi-instrumentalists. His father, Johann Ambrosius, was a notable violinist (and trumpeter) who seems to have left his son a legacy of strong technique and artistic curiosity, and possibly the fine Stainer violin that formed part of Sebastian’s extensive working collection.

In 1708, Bach was appointed court organist to Wilhelm Ernst, the reigning Duke of Weimar, and in 1714, he added concertmaster to his title (along with a substantial raise). “In his youth and until the approach of old age he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord,” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote of his father to Johann Nikolaus Forkel. “He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without bass. One of the greatest violinists once told me that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass.”

The origin of the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin—“Sei Solo” (Six Solo), as the manuscript is simply headed—probably extends back to Bach’s first tenure in Weimar, however: a bare six months in 1703 as “lackey” to Johann Ernst, younger brother of Wilhelm. One of the Weimar court musicians at that time was Johann Paul von Westhoff, a well-educated and well-traveled violinist who had published a set of short, four-movement partitas for solo violin in Dresden in 1696 (and a suite in 1683 in Paris). These are the first known multi-movement works for unaccompanied violin, and Bach would have met and worked with Westhoff.

The “Sei Solo” were brought to finished state in 1720 in Cöthen, however, during Bach’s years in service as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold (brother-in-law to Johann Ernst’s eldest son, Ernst Augustus, in the small world of minor German nobility). This was the period (1717–1723) of Bach’s greatest concentration on instrumental music. Exactly when the works were first performed and by whom is unknown, though clearly Bach himself would be an obvious possibility. (A fingering indication in the “Sei Solo” manuscript is sometimes entered as evidence that Bach himself played the pieces. But if there was any pedagogical intent to the works—as the passage in his son’s letter quoted above suggests—then such an indication might be simply a helpful hint in execution and not a personal annotation.)

The “Sei Solo” are three sonatas and three partitas, entered alternately in the manuscript. Inter-relationships between the six works and how the set fits together—if it does—are issues that have provoked many pages of theories.

The three sonatas are in the four-movement church (da chiesa) form, slow–fast–slow–fast, and all but the third movement in the home key. “The sonata is a piece for instruments, especially the violin, of a serious and artful nature, in which adagios and allegros alternate,” as Bach’s cousin Johann Gottfried Walther defined it succinctly in his Musicalisches Lexicon (Musical Lexicon) of 1723. The Sonata No. 1 provides a clear template: the first movement serves as a prelude to a brilliantly developed fugue, the third movement is a contrasting cantabile, and the finale a lively binary dance of the moto perpetuo sort. Sonatas such as these were probably actually performed in church—as Forkel mentions in the first biography of the composer (1802).

The three partitas or dance suites are much more multifarious in form, and generally lighter in style and texture. The four core dances of the Baroque suite were allemande, courante, sarabanda, and gigue, inherited from the 16th century and usually highly stylized. Other, newer types, often current as actual dances, could be added. In his Partita No. 1, Bach replaced the gigue with a bourrée and added a “double” for each dance, a patterned rhythmic variation. To the four standard dances in the Partita No. 2, Bach added the famous Chaconne (ciaccona in Bach’s Italian terminology), longer than the four other movements combined.

The first half of the Partita No. 2 consists of a clear statement of the four core dances of the Baroque suite: stately Allemanda, “running” Corrente, somber Sarabanda (far removed by this time from its much wilder origins), and dashing Giga. Each of these dances is cast in typical binary form (two halves, each repeated), though rather darker in character than the norm. (The Sarabanda ends, unusually, with a little coda.)

As attractive and winning as those dances are in performance and contemplation alike, they fade into generic anonymity in comparison with the towering Ciaccona that follows. “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann. “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

In some ways, the Chaconne (to use the more common French spelling) is the fulfillment of the previous dances, all of which give intimations of the Chaconne’s repeating bass and harmonic pattern. The Chaconne moves in the rhythm of the Sarabanda (in 3/4, with the weight on the dotted second beat). It is in three-part form, with the exalted middle section in the parallel major. A chaconne is basically a set of free variations over a repeating harmonic pattern (and/or its bass line). This one is protean enough that analysts cannot even agree on how many of these patterns or themes there are, or whether it is 32 variations on an eight-bar pattern or 64 on a four-bar figure.

It should not be surprising then, that the Chaconne has also inspired reworking by later musicians in a multitude of transcriptions and arrangements, nor that it has prompted extravagant theories about the inner nature of its mysteries. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has developed a theory that the entire Partita and the Chaconne particularly are full of coded references to death and to pertinent chorales. Thoene believes that the Chaconne is in fact a tombeau, a memorial piece for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died unexpectedly in 1720 while Bach was away with Prince Leopold. Thoene’s evidence tends to rely on numerology, but several recent recordings have shown, in very different, intriguing, and even compelling ways, how chorale fragments might be embedded in this music.

Whether you accept any of the theories ascribing plot lines and extramusical connections and references to the set, it is not hard to feel that a journey has been completed here, that the fiddler has come happily home from lofty spiritual struggles and contrapuntal communion. —Excerpted from a program note by John Henken