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PROGRAM NOTES: Gil Shaham, violin

by Eric Bromberger


In December 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach left the employment of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, where he had served as chamber musician and organist for the previous nine years. It was not a cordial parting. Tensions between Bach and his employer had been escalating for several years, there had been resentments on both sides, and the rupture was serious: the Duke apparently placed Bach under house arrest for his final month in Weimar and gave him the going-away present of an “unfavorable discharge.”

Bach did not care, for he had secured what looked like an ideal new position as music director at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, about sixty miles northwest of Weimar, but the move would bring many changes musically. The Cöthen court was strictly Calvinist in its observances and would not for an instant have tolerated the organ music and cantatas Bach had composed for Weimar. However, his new employer–Prince Leopold–was an enthusiastic musician, an enlightened ruler who played violin, viola da gamba, and clavier and who maintained a seventeen-member private orchestra, which he was glad to put at Bach’s disposal. Bach–who once said that music exists for two purposes: the glorification of God and the refreshment of the soul–spent six years refreshing his soul in Cöthen. From this period came the great bulk of his secular instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concertos, several of the orchestral suites, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the works for unaccompanied cello and for unaccompanied violin.

Bach was famed in his own day as a virtuoso organist, and–like virtually all composers of his era–he also played the violin. Very probably he played in the orchestra at Cöthen, but it is known that he preferred to play viola in chamber music, and in fact we know nothing about Bach’s skill as a violinist: his biographer Phillipp Spitta has noted that in all of the writings about Bach by family and contemporaries, there is not one mention of his ability as a violinist. What is indisputable, however, is that his understanding of the instrument was profound. The three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin, composed about 1720, represent one of the summits of the violin literature: not only are they great music in their own right (and this is wonderful music when played on any instrument), but they also confront the fundamental problem facing any composer who writes for solo violin, which is that the violin–unlike a keyboard instrument–cannot really play more than two notes at once. Within that limitation, a composer must find a way to provide a harmonic foundation for this essentially linear instrument over the span of an extended work.

Bach does not simply confront this problem–he annihilates it. For this linear instrument he creates the effect of a fully-realized harmonic texture with rolled chords, broken chords, multiple-stopping, and a complex polyphonic interweaving of voices. The effect of sounding a chord and then leaping away to resume the melodic line in another register can seem stark, almost fierce, and some listeners have found this music–amazing as it is–very difficult listening. In the nineteenth century, Mendelssohn and Schumann wrote piano accompaniments for these works–they saw what Bach was getting at musically but felt the solo violin inadequate to that task and so wanted to “help” the music by “completing” the harmonies (embarrassed by the existence of these arrangements and what they imply, the editor of the modern edition of Schumann’s works has refused to include them or to publish them in any form). Beyond this, these works are virtuoso music for the violin in the best sense–they require not just good musicianship but good violin-playing: the ability to sustain a long melodic line, to chord cleanly, to keep complex polyphonic textures absolutely clear, and to master the technical complexities of this music, which occur at both very fast and very slow speeds. We may not know much about Bach’s abilities as a violinist, but few composers have understood the instrument, its strengths, and its possibilities as well as he did.

It has become a matter of verbal convenience to speak of Bach’s “six solo sonatas,” but he distinguished carefully between the sonatas and partitas, and so should we. The three sonatas are all in sonata di chiesa (“church sonata”) form, a set of four movements in slow-fast-slow-fast sequence, which Bach may have encountered in the violin sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli. The opening slow movement is serious and sometimes improvisational in character, while the second is always a fugue. The third movement, always slow, is in all the sonatas the one movement in a different key from the other three. The last movement, very fast and in binary form, has a perpetual-motion brilliance to the writing. The structure of the partitas is more complex. As that name implies, it is a form made up of “parts,” and that title has come to be used almost interchangeably with the name suite. As a (very general) rule, Bach’s partitas are collections of between five to seven movements in dance forms that incorporate the expected suite sequence of allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue, but in all three partitas Bach makes changes in this basic pattern. One should be very careful of the old generalization that sonatas are “serious” music while partitas are lighter and intended to entertain: there are very serious movements in his partitas and movements in the sonatas that are absolutely charming. Take these outlines of form in the most general sense–this is music that needs to be understood on its own compelling terms rather than pushed into patterns for the sake of easy understanding.

Partita No. 3 in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1006

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

The title Preludio suggests music that is merely an introduction to something else, but the Preludio to the Partita No. 3 in E Major is a magnificent work in its own right, in some ways the most striking of the seven movements of this partita. Built on the jagged, athletic opening theme, this movement is a brilliant flurry of steady sixteenth-notes, featuring complicated string-crossings and racing along its blistering course to an exciting conclusion. Among the many pleasures of this music is Bach’s use of a technique known as bariolage, the rapid alternation between the same note played on stopped and open strings, which gives this music some of it characteristic glinting brilliance. It is no surprise that this Preludio is among the most popular pieces Bach ever wrote, and those purists ready to sneer at Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for full orchestra should know that Bach beat him to it: in 1731, ten years after writing the violin partita, Bach arranged this Preludio as the opening orchestral movement of his Cantata No. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott.”

Bach follows this striking beginning with a sequence of varied dances. The term Loure originally referred to a form of French bagpipe music and later came to mean a type of slow dance accompanied by the bagpipe. Bach dispenses with the bagpipe accompaniment, and in this elegant movement the violin dances gracefully by itself. Bach was scrupulously accurate in his titles, and the Gavotte en Rondeau (gavotte in the form of a rondo) conforms to both these forms: a gavotte is an old French dance in common time that begins on the third beat, while rondo form asks that one section recur throughout. This vigorous and poised movement features some wonderful writing for the violin as the original dance theme repeats in many guises. The two minuet movements are sharply contrasted: Menuet I takes its character from the powerful chordal beginning, while Menuet II, dancing gracefully, is more subdued. The Bourrée drives along its lively course, energized by a powerful upbeat, and the Gigue (an old English dance related to the jig) makes a lively conclusion.

Sonata No. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1005


Unlike the opening movements of the other two unaccompanied sonatas, which were conceived to suggest an improvisatory character, the Sonata in C Major begins with a long Adagio built entirely on the steady rhythm of the dotted eighth. The figure is very simple at its first appearance; gradually it grows more complicated, and the melodic line is elaborately embellished. The second movement is the expected fugue, in this instance one of the most difficult fugues Bach wrote for the violin; its subject is based on the old chorale tune Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott. The simple opening evolves into music of unbelievable complexity, but the fugue subject remains clear throughout, despite Bach’s complicated evolutions, which include its appearance in inversion. The Largo is a lyric slow movement; once again, the main idea is stated simply and then developed contrapuntally. This movement is in F major, the only one in the sonata not in C major. The binary-form Allegro assai is linear music, built on a steady flow of sixteenth-notes. This is the sort of dance-like movement one expects to find in the partitas, and here it makes a brilliant conclusion to the sonata.

Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004


The Partita No. 2 in D Minor has become the most famous of Bach’s six works for unaccompanied violin, for it concludes with the Chaconne, one of the pinnacles of the violin literature. Before this overpowering conclusion, Bach offers the four basic movements of partita form, all in binary form. The opening Allemande is marked by a steady flow of sixteenth-notes occasionally broken by dotted rhythms, triplets, and the sudden inclusion of thirty-second notes. The Courante alternates a steady flow of triplets within dotted duple meters. The Sarabande proceeds along double and triple stops and a florid embellishment of the melodic line, while the Gigue races along cascades of sixteenth-notes in 12/8 time; the theme of the second part is a variation of the opening section.

While the first four movements present the expected partita sequence, Bach then springs a surprise by closing with a chaconne longer that the first four movements combined. The Chaconne offers some of the most intense music Bach ever wrote, and it has worked its spell on musicians everywhere for the last two and a half centuries: beyond the countless recordings for violin, it is currently available in performances by guitar, cello, lute, and viola, as well as in piano transcriptions by Brahms, Busoni, and Raff.

A chaconne is one of the most disciplined forms in music: it is built on a ground bass in triple meter over which a melodic line is repeated and varied. A chaconne demands great skill from a performer under any circumstances, but it becomes unbelievably complex on the unaccompanied violin, which must simultaneously suggest the ground bass and project the melodic variations above it. Even with the flatter bridge and more flexible bow of Bach’s day, some of this music borders on the unplayable, and it is more difficult still on the modern violin, with its more rounded bridge and concave bow.

This makes Bach’s Chaconne sound like supremely cerebral music–and it is–but the wonder is that this music manages to be so expressive at the same time. The four-bar ground bass repeats 64 times during the quarter-hour span of the Chaconne, and over it Bach spins out gloriously varied music, all the while keeping these variations firmly anchored on the ground bass. At the center section, Bach moves into D major, and here the music relaxes a little, content to sing happily for awhile; after the calm nobility of this interlude, the quiet return to D minor sounds almost disconsolate. Bach drives the Chaconne to a great climax and concludes on a restatement of the ground melody.