(born 1685 in Eisenach; died 1750 in Leipzig)

Sonata No. 2 in A minor for Solo Violin BWV1003 (1720) from the Sei Sonatas e Partitas senza basso

1. Grave
2. Fuga
3. Andante
4. Allegro

Johann Sebastian Bach's music needs no introduction. But for such a famous and distinguished composer, surprisingly little is commonly known about his personal life except that he had two wives, 20 children and was a devout Lutheran who held several long-term positions, both inside and outside the church. His music is universally respected; his works epitomize music as an international language.

After Bach's death in 1750, his music was neglected for nearly a hundred years and the few people who knew about him thought of him as an organist rather than as a composer. The rediscovery of Bach began with the publication of a biography in 1802 by the German musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote that "This sublime genius, this prince of musicians... dwarfs all others from the heights of superiority." Then in 1829, the young Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy conducted a performance in Berlin of the St. Matthew Passion, which had never been heard outside Bach's own Leipzig church. A performance of the St. John Passion followed in 1833. Camille Saint-Saëns, among other composers, made transcriptions of Bach's works, drawing them to the attention of a wider public. In 1850, a complete critical edition of Bach's works was undertaken; it took 50 years to complete.

Bach wrote Sei Sonatas e Partitas senza basso (Six Sonatas and Partitas without bass) for solo violin in 1720 during the six-year period in which he was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. While at Cothen, which was a secular court, Bach was released from the many liturgical duties that had been required of him in his previous employment. Most of the music he wrote in Cothen was therefore secular and instrumental. The Brandenburg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Six Suites for Cello also date from this period.

Like the rest of Bach's compositions, the Six Sonatas and Partitas were forgotten after his death. Their revival began with the violinist Ferdinand David, who prepared the complete set for publication in 1843. Joseph Joachim also performed selected movements, helping to make the works more familiar. Felix Mendelssohn issued the Chaconne movement of the D minor Partita with an original piano accompaniment and Robert Schumann issued all six sonatas and partitas with piano accompaniment in 1854. Brahms and Busoni later made piano arrangements of the Chaconne. Nevertheless, it was only in the 20th century that the six works took their rightful place among the masterpieces of the violin repertoire. The Six Sonatas and Partitas (actually three sonatas and three Partitas), are the pinnacle of the violin repertoire because of their complexity and their beauty. Emotionally powerful and passionately involving, these pieces challenge the performer to the limit of his or her technique and musical integrity. Many violinists feel that a lifetime is not long enough to master these great works.

Adjustments have often been made to the modern violin to increase the tension of the strings in relation to different parts of the instrument so as to maximize the sound volume to meet the demands of large concert hall settings. During Bach's lifetime, violins had shorter fingerboards and lower bridges; thus playing double and triple notes was less difficult than the same execution on modern-day adjusted instruments. Bach's works demonstrate complete mastery of contrapuntal writing, which requires many voices to be played simultaneously while often retaining the independence of the lines. For example, in the Fugues of the six sonatas (Bach followed the slow-fast-slow-fast movement structure for all three sonatas with the second movement being a four-voice fugue), the various lines interact, and should be played as if by separate violinists.

The Sonata No. 2 in A minor begins solemnly with the Grave movement. In this somber opening, the melodic lines are lyrical yet highly ornamented, and contain unusually large intervals for Baroque music--certainly the widest leaps of the first movements of the three sonatas. The last two and a half bars serve as a bridge to the next movement, the Fuga (Fugue). The first nine notes of the four-voice fugue are the rhythmic basis for the entire movement, each voice in turn taking a leadership role. There is no noticeable break in this long movement; the music continually heightens in intensity until the climax at the very end.

The third movement, Andante, resembles a procession. The two voices take distinct roles, which they maintain through the entire movement: one is an aria-like melody; the other is strict, ostinato-like eighth-notes. The quiet sound of the final broken chord fades away into the abandon of the fast Allegro final movement. Here, the composer specifically indicates the dynamics forte and piano, as well as bowings that enhance the legato and articulated execution of the notes. The 32nd notes throughout add direction and flair, manipulating the momentum of flow with pleasing surprises.

(May 2005)
  Notes © 2005 by Midori, OFFICE GOTO Co.Ltd.
Referential sources available on request.