Baroque Continued: Bach’s Instrumental Suites

Continuing in the vein of solo instrumental works, today we will look at Bach’s writing for solo stringed instruments. Bach wrote six cello suites and six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. He also wrote many works for soloist and accompaniment, for example sonatas for gamba and keyboard accompaniment, but our focus today will be what Bach was able to do with one stringed instrument all by itself.

These solo works have become the backbone of even modern instrumental repertoire for several reasons. They are, above all, exquisitely beautiful pieces of music. They are also compelling examples of harmony, counterpoint, form, and all the music theory terms you could want to study as a student of classical music. Despite all the depth they contain, the suites, sonatas and partitas are also logistically friendly in that only one musician is required. For these reasons they have been transcribed for all sorts of other instruments and have become a staple in the repertoire for instruments as far-reaching as the marimba and xylophone! If you learn to play any orchestral instrument, you will almost surely come across one of these exquisite works.

Format of the Sonatas, Partitas and Suites

Bach’s solo suites, sonatas, partitas draw from Baroque formats that we’ve already seen, the only difference being that only one person is playing instead of several. They all have several movements, usually dance-inspired, that contrast in character but are all united by being in the same key.

The six suites for cello all have the same format: a prelude to establish the key, and a series of dance movements in that key. The prelude to Cello Suite 1 is particularly famous and many people don’t realize that it’s the introduction to several more movements. I recommend listening to the entire suite, not just the prelude!

There are three sonatas for violin, and these follow a typical trio sonata format of four contrasting movements, just like the Corelli we saw last week. The main difference is that Bach chooses to have a prelude and fugue (which we also discussed last week) as the first two contrasting movements for each of his sonatas.

The three partitas for solo violin are even more unorthodox in their format. Their four (sometimes more) movements are drawn from the favorite Baroque dances of the day:

  • Allemande, “German Dance,” slow, stately and in two.
  • Courente, “French Dance,” fast, in three, and spritely.
  • Sarabande, “Spanish Dance,” slow, in three, lyrical and melancholy.
  • Gigue, “English Dance,” a translation of jig, a pub dance in a two/three hybrid called compound meter. Think of a drinking song such as “For He’s a jolly Good Fellow.” Usually used as a rousing finale!

The partitas also have added dances from various European origin. We will discuss one of the most striking of these additions now.

Sonata for solo voilin no. 2 in d minor

Bach’s sonata no. 2 is the most widely known of his solo violin works; it is perhaps his most emotionally tortured writing and no music appreciation training is required to hear its grieving character. Whether its profound emotional effect is due in part to the sudden death of Bach’s wife shortly before writing it is a topic of debate still today.

The partita presents the four classic baroque dances in order: First a stately allemande, made particularly brooding by the minor key, a dark but rhythmically compelling courente, a mournfully lyrical sarabande and finally an athletic, virtuosic gigue. The gigue’s active and flourishing character is a compelling end to the sonata, four usual movements in the expected order, all gorgeous and very much worth a listen. Hearing this trajectory and finale makes it all the more effective when, in fact, there’s still a movement to go.

The Chaconne

This extra movement, the chaconne, is one of the great works of the violin repertoire, a masterpiece held above nearly everything else ever written for the violin (and there’s a lot!). Although scholarly opinion is inconclusive as to the chaconne’s relationship to Bach’s personal grief, it’s hard not to be convinced of it. Not only is the chaconne tacked onto a tried-and-true format that should already be over, it’s 16-minute length is as much as the other movements put together. Bach knew what the audience was expecting to hear and chose to format it this way. There’s no timeline for a person’s grief, and even the placement of this chaconne in relationship to the other movements could be interpreted as a powerful statement.

Chaconne is another dance term, meaning a baseline and progression of chords that repeats, over and over, while the upper voices decorate this basic “theme” in different ways. You may have seen the Italian term passacaglia which has the same meaning. It can continue on and on, until the composer decides which variation will be the last.

The Narrative of Bach’s Chaconne

Bach managed to make the repetitive format into a narrative which has buildup and release of tension on an impressive number of levels: within each four-bar cell (the theme), over several cells in a group, and over the entire 16 minutes. Despite hearing the same basic harmonies over and over again, you’ll pay this no attention because cells are related to one another in an almost story-telling way.

This is also an opportunity to remind listeners that the performer they listen to will take interpretive license and elements may differ slightly. For example, I hear the beginning as an angry, agonized expression of grief. I enjoy performances that highlight this by playing in a rougher, “modern,” or “romantic” way that probably isn’t accurate to how it would have been played in the Baroque period. Other performers may choose to dial this back and express the harmonies more simply, since this opening tells us what our repeated “theme” is and should be made very clear. Both arguments, and many more, are convincing, so you select the interpretation to which you connect most.

Toggle to 15:31 to begin the Chaconne.

Bach’s Chaconne is split into three large parts. The first third is in d minor, the home key, the second is in D Major, still based on our “home key” but varied to highlight major harmonies, and the last section is back in d minor again. All sections end on a single held pitch, D. The first phrase of the Chaconne repeats after the end of each section and at the end.

The first third of the Chaconne has its overarching rise in intensity interrupted by a low point in the middle. Pay particular attention after the two variations with very fast, aggressive running notes. The subsequent loss of intensity seems anxious instead of calm due to the chromatic (pitches related by a the smallest distance,half-step, usually dissonant) pitches that Bach adds. This mood instigates a climb to the high point of this section. The increased use of dissonance, use of several notes at once and entire chords, all make this high point effective, and finally we hear the opening of the piece again but even more emphatically. This opening material starts to morph into something else, and we’re left with a very long single pitch, D.

At this point, we assume we will continue in d minor, but Bach uses this common pitch, also the home pitch of the entire sonata, to transition to D Major instead. In contrast to what’s just happened, it is particularly cathartic and peaceful. The following several variations are calm and optimistic. Perhaps Bach’s grief is over? Perhaps he’s reflecting on happier times with his wife? Eventually this section also builds in energy toward another truly glorious high point, one that lasts nearly ten variations, in which victory has been decisively won over whatever darkness came before. This is most evident when the opening material returns in a Major key. The same ending, the lone D pitch, sounds.

This brings d minor, the darkness we thought we dealt with, back. This is the shortest section of the piece, starting at a low point for several variations, even delving into major tonalities as if it’s teetering over an edge. This section stays quite low-energy for a long time, but the use of dissonant, chromatic motion makes it perhaps the more foreboding of the two minor sections. It gathers lots of speed over just one variation and the final variations flourishes to the finish. But like hitting a wall, the opening cries of grief (the harmonic theme by itself) are back. They finish the chaconne once and for all, again on the solitary D. Depending on who you listen to, this last note may be a myriad of different characters. Some are bold and loud, some are defeated and quiet, or somewhere in between. Much can be said for either extreme and that’s the beauty of it.

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