Skip to page content

The pieces that begin and end this program were published as “instructional” compositions in all the varied and subtle senses that that particular adjective can suggest. Bach’s Partita in B-flat major was published in a volume grandly titled:

Clavier Übung
Bestehend in
Praeludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden, Giguen, Menuetten, und andern Galantieren;
Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertiget
Von
Johann Sebastian Bach

This can be translated as Keyboard Practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Minuets, and other Gallantries; prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach. But let’s take a close look at that second word of the title.

The word Übung is usually translated as practice or exercise. In English these words have a connotation of repetition and rote, something even strenuous – not at all the composer’s intention. Bach’s “exercise” suggests more of an experience through doing; learning while playing; activity rather than duty.

This intention is clarified when we skip ahead to the phrase “Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergötzung” or “for the enjoyment of music lovers.” More accurately than ‘enjoyment’, “Gemüths Ergötzung” should be understood as the delight or edification of the spirit or soul. And “Denen Liebhabern” when translated literally means “to those who have love,” that is amateurs in the original sense of the word before it acquired a derisive connotation of incompetence. Amateur comes to us from the latin amator or lover – someone who is devoted. The overused term “music lover” trivializes this point.

Who then are these devotees for whose “spiritual delight” this music was prepared?

For Bach, this could only have meant the player. The idea of an audience gathered to hear this music played by a solitary keyboardist would have been alien to him. We must remember that the recital format, as we know it, was invented by Liszt in the mid-19th century. Bach might have envisioned the music of his Clavier Übung played by a teacher for a student, but never a soloist before an audience of hundreds or thousands.

Bach’s six Partitas, of which we hear the first, followed the basic form of the Baroque dance suite. An elaborate opening movement is followed by four stylized dances: the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, with one or more extra dances interpolated before the Gigue. While the opening movements can vary widely in scope and style, the allemande movements tend to be moderately paced in 4/4 time. The courante also tends toward a moderate pace in triple meter, but in this Partita, as in the 3rd, 5th, and 6th Partitas, Bach titles this movement corrente, opting for the somewhat faster pulse of the Italian rather than the French version of the dance. The sarabande was originally a wild and lascivious dance inherited from Mexico, through Spain, but by Bach’s day it had been completely re-imagined as a slow stately dance in triple meter. It was here that Bach confided his deepest reflections. The menuets are poised and graceful while the gigue retains the energetic character of its Irish and English heritage.

General descriptions of character can be given to the Partitas, but it is impossible to describe the many subtle emotional states which might comprise a given movement or even section of a movement. The overall sunny geniality of the B-flat Partita contrasts starkly with the gravity and tragedy of, for example, the 6th Partita. But how does one accurately describe the balm and comfort of the sarabande or the virtuosic acrobatics of the gigue? Understanding this music requires an emotional agility denied to words alone.

– Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the executive director of a Chicago-based private foundation.