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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.

The origin of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin – “Sei Solo” (Six Solo), as the manuscript is simply headed – probably extends back to his first tenure in Weimar, 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.

The Sonata No. 3 is in C major although that is not immediately apparent in the music that emerges in an almost penitential dotted tread. This poignant Adagio does find its way to C, but it is hardly a conclusive victory. The Fuga thus introduced is also full of struggles, spiritual and technical. This is a monumental movement, with a variant of the chorale “Komm, heiliger Geist” as its subject. Bach develops it with great brilliance, finally arriving at a strong cadence on the dominant, well prepared by a lengthy passage over a pedal point. Astonishingly, he now starts over again, but in reverse order, which he indicates in the manuscript with the marking “al riverso.”

— John Henken