Contrapuntal climax

To look at the fair copy which JS Bach prepared in 1720 of his Sei Soli a Violino senza a Basso accompagnato is a moving experience. Bach’s fluent, dramatic, perfectly poised musical calligraphy is exquisitely laid out on the page; as was his custom, every page of manuscript is used to the utmost, with extra staffs to complete the movements added to the bottom of the page where necessary. . The writing is impeccably clear, and there are very few signs of erasures and alterations. Doubtless Bach was copying from previous manuscripts, though experience suggests he was probably modifying as he copied. But the sheer command of technique and expression in these highly unusual forms still leaves one breathless: no wonder that nineteenth-century musicians, baffled by the extraordinary scope of these pieces, decided they need the assistance of piano accompaniments, which both Schumann and Mendelssohn duly provided.
Bach, we know, played the violin skilfully, and used also to play the viola when he directed the orchestra, so that he could be in the midst of the sound. His first biographer reported:

As the greatest expert and judge of harmony he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness. In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and this kept the orchestra in better order than he could with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments…

But apart from the brilliant violin solo in the fourth Brandenburg Concerto, and some later solos in the cantata arias, there is no violin music in his output which approaches the sonatas and partitas in their range of difficulty. And yet there is nothing showy or demonstrative in these pieces in the Italian sense: their demands are unfailingly subordinated to musical results.
The many problems posed by the multiple-stoppings in these sonatas and partitas have been solved in a variety of ways by modern performers. The strangest misconception, which flourished for some time, was that on a violin of Bach’s period it would have been possible to play all four strings at once and so sound Bach’s written-out four-part chords in glorious organistic harmony. This was never the case: the short bow, relaxed hair tension and flattened bridge of Bach’s time gave a far greater agility and subtlety in moving from string to string, but a quadruple-stopped chord still had to be played by touching three strings and sustaining only one or two of them. Nevertheless, strenuous efforts were made to invent a ‘Bach bow’ which could play these noted ‘precisely as written’, and a monstrous arc with a huge curvature in which the violinist could tighten or relax the hair during the performance was created. This bent its way across all the strings so that they could sound together. (Far more useful advice in adapting Bach’s music to the modern violin is given by Joseph Szigeti in his book Szigeti on the Violin.) There is yet to be a player who has mastered the art of the Baroque violin to a sufficient extent to give a performance of these works in period style which can stand beside the greatest performances on modern instruments; but already the attempts that have been made have revealed much about the original concepts of phrasing and articulation in the music.
Three of the six pieces are Partitas, in the free form of the dance suite: three are sonatas in the slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement of the old church sonatas (although there is no evidence, as some commentators have suggested, that they were used in church). The works were written down in Cöthen in 1720, but they may well have begun at Weimar, where it seems that Bach did more violin playing himself. The first sonata, in G minor, includes one of the massive fugues that dominate this set, a work Bach liked so much he transcribed it for organ. Its hammer-stroke chords illustrate perfectly the kind of resonance Bach expected from his instrument, with the fugal line supporteby accompanyinggg chords underneath or on top. The preceding Largo traverses quite a simple framework, but the sweeping decorations elaborate the outline in great detail. The Siciliano is written like a trio, with a melodic bottom line accompanied by harmonic thirds and sixths above, which might sound like a pair of flutes. Then, as will happen often throughout this set, the complexities of multiple-stopping are dissolved in a triple-time Presto of brilliant, perpetual single-line motion.
The second sonata, in A minor, also includes a fugue, one that found favour even with Johann Mattheson (who on another occasion mocked the word-setting in Bach’s cantatas). He quoted the fugue’s subject:

Who would believe that these short notes would be so fruitful, as to bring forth a counterpoint of more than a whole sheet of music paper, without unusual extension and quite naturally? And yet the skilled Bach who is particularly gifted in this form, has just this before the world; indeed, he has also introduced the subject here and there in inversion.

Mattheson’s brief account does less than justice to the fantastic resourcefulness with which Bach works his two-bar fragment, alternating between two, three and four-part writing, reducing it to a single line of figuration for the fugal episodes and then building up the episodes again; the fugue’s modulatory scheme and plan of entries and episodes are perfectly constructed down to the final, intense two-bar flourish at the close. The opening Grave is similar in its decorated style to the Largo of the first sonata; the Andante, by contrast, sings its Vivaldi-like melody over pulsing repeated notes which would have been touched in on the lower strings. This time the final Allegro is in common time, with indications of forte and piano echoes; again it eschews complexity in the continual drive of its single line.

The third sonata, in C major, presents the most astonishing of the three fugues of this set; it is said to be the longest fugue in terms of bar numbers that Bach ever wrote. The solid, four-square theme is built on a Lutheran chorale melody, Komm, heiliger Geist, which is given a bold descending chromatic line as counter-subject. The massive plan of the fugue includes four separate expositions, the second in stretto (with the entries occurring at twice the speed of the first exposition) and the third, at the precise centre of the work, in which the theme is treated in inversion. In the episodes, single lines wing their way around the the thematic material, and grow to huge climaxes built on cross-string writing- the continually repeated low Ds at the climax of the second section and low Gs at the climax of the third ring out almost like sustained notes (the same technique is used at the most powerful moments in the D minor harpsichord concerto, undoubtedly derived from a violin concerto). The Largo which follows this fugue has to be a relaxation; but the Adagio that precedes it, with its insistent dotted rhythms and repeated, angular quadruple-stopping, screws up the tension. The final Allegro assai, an exultant triple-time movement, makes superbly effective use of cross-string writing.

The three Partitas are more varied in plan: the first in B minor offers an Allemanda, Courante, Sarabande, and a final Tempo di Borea, each with double (or variation). The third, in E major, opens with the brilliant Preludio which Bach later elaborated in the Sinfonia to his Cantata no. 29, Wir Danken Dir, Gott (but how striking it is it is that the orchestration offers nothing that cannot be imagined from the line of the solo violin!); then there is a Loure, a well-known Gavotte en Rondeau, a pair of minuets and a bourrée, and final Gigue. At first, the D minor Partita, the second of the three, looks as if it will have the same plan as no.1. It opens with a sturdy Allemanda and Corrente, both unusually free of multiple-stopping, a short Sarabanda and a powerful Giga with arching arpeggiating lines. But then comes the overwhelming surprise: a Ciacona of the utmost grandeur, in which the old descending tetrachord (the subject used by Biber in his unacompanied Passacaglia) is elaborated with infinite resourcefulness. Every technical possibility is exploited here to expressive ends. The plan is not unfamiliar from the keyboard chaconnes of the French school of Fux and Muffat: two sections in the minor, enclosing a central section in the major. But Bach manages to make these two transition points from minor to major and back again unforgettable, wit the F sharp at the first transition point, and the B flat at the second point each heard in the opening chordto emphasise the change. Arpeggiando playing is called for (Bach did not indicate how he wished this to be realized, which is why various performances can sound very different at this point), and in one D major passage the fanfare-like writing of the North Germans is transformed. The climax is built over the reiteration of the open-A string against sequences of increasing strength: the lines soar upwards with a sense of infinite power that was not to be recaptured in music until the end of Beethoven’s opp. 109 and 110 piano sonatas. There is a final flourish, and the Chaconne theme returns with the same powerful simplicity as at the beginning.

Musicians through the ages have revered this Chaconne as a supreme example of musical art. Brahms, attempting to capture the sense of self-imposed limitations in the work, transcribed it for piano left hand, transferring its sonorities into the tenor register of the keyboard. Busoni, less aware of its limitations, but penetratingly understanding its musical substance, changed it into a flamboyant Romantic masterwork which stretches the limits of the piano as Bach did those of the violin. Bach’s great biographer Spitta was surely wrong in referring to this piece as a triumph of the spirit over substance. It is surely, in a way that only Bach could have achieved, a perfect joining of spirit with substance, so that the very challenge of realizing the music on the violin becomes a central part of the musical experience.

Pointers forward

It might seem appropriate to close this survey with the massive achievement of Bach’s six solos. But in fact another group of his works provides a more significant pointer to the future. His sonatas for violin with obbligato keyboard are the first important members of a musical family whose offspring was to dominate the years of the Classical violin. For in these works, perhaps under the influence of the splendid new harpsichord acquired in Cöthen from Berlin (which may also have inspired the rewriting of the harpsichord part of the fifth Brandenburg concerto), Bach raises the keyboard part to a level of importance it had never previously been given.

His method is to write trios for two instruments: the right hand of the keyboard player and the violinist make a duet on equal terms, while the left hand of the keyboard provides the continuo bass line. It is possible that another bass instrument reinforced this line; when the keyboard player’s right hand was unoccupied with his solo, figures in the bass line indicate that he would have filled in the harmonies in the continuo player’snormal fashion. In the G major sonata the keyboard even has a movement to itself: in one source, the Courante from the E minor Partita, in another, a vigorously worked solo.

The sharing of material varies in the different sonatas. In the opening B minor sonata (BWV 1014) the violin’s line in the Adagio is quite distinct from the harpsichord’s; only later does it adopt the same six-note quaver pattern. The following fugue is in three equal parts; the next Andante is skilfully written so that although the violin has long sustained notes, the harpsichord (which cannot sustain ) avoids them. The second sonata (BWV 1015) in A major opens with an exquisite canon in two parts marked dolce, with a freely imitative bass line; the second Andante is also a canon, worked over a staccato walking bass. The fast movements here are concerto-like in their structure and musical language.

THe opening Adagio of the third sonata (BWV 1016) in E major reverts to an elaborate singing line for the violin with fully realized chords for the harpsichord; in the second Adagio, marked ma non tanto, the harpsichord emerges from its chordal opening to share the violin’s triplets. The two bustling Allegros are both imitative. In the fourth sonata, BWV 1017 in C minor, the harpsichordist keeps a continuous figuration in motion through both slow movements: the first is a Siciliano, the second an Adagio in E flat major. The oddest opening movement is that of the fifth sonata in F minor, where the violinist seems merely to be adding occasional extra counterpoint to an already complete keyboard texture: in this the approach of the Classical ‘accompanied’ sonata is clearly foreshadowed. The balance is redressed, however, in the highly original Adagio, where it is the violin which provides a sustained chordal background to the harpsichordist’s flourishes. The sixth sonata in G major (BWV 1019) opens with one of the most magnificently worked concerto-type movements and closes with another, in which the duetting of violin and harpsichord is placed against a syncopated bass line.

As so often, Bach, in bringing te art of his time to perfection, does not merely look backwards but points to the future. In his unaccompanied violin music he was to inspire future generations of violinists to new- and at times exremely un-Bach-like -achievements; and in his accompanied violin sonatas he was to provide a model for later and regrettably lesser composers; not until Mozart develpoed, through his long line of pieces, the violin and keyboard sonata was the promise of the form to be fulfilled.