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Length: c. 18 minutes

About this Piece

Bach the composer and keyboard player has become such a towering figure in the 270-plus years since his death that we sometimes forget just how wide-ranging his musical gifts were. One of his early jobs was actually as a violinist at the small ducal court of Weimar in the heart of German-speaking central Europe. It was to this brief tenure—six months in 1703—that we can trace the beginnings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, a set of pieces born as much from practice as from imagination.

When he arrived in Weimar in January 1703, the 18-year-old Bach already had a wealth of musical experience to his credit. In Weimar, Bach met the violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff, another member of the court’s musical establishment and the author of six partitas for solo violin, published in Dresden in 1696. Westhoff was one of the leading violinists of his day, spoken of by his contemporaries in the same breath as the great Bohemian virtuoso Heinrich Biber, and the young Bach, in his only professional gig as a violinist, must have been impressed.

Bach may have started working on his set of solo violin sonatas and partitas while he was still in Weimar—he left that post in 1717 to become Kapellmeister (the 18th-century German equivalent of music director) in Cöthen, a princely seat about 60 miles northeast of Weimar. The autograph fair copy of the sonatas and partitas is dated 1720, midway through Bach’s Cöthen tenure. The sonatas and partitas were almost certainly performed at the prince’s palace there during one of the court’s regular musical evenings. Bach himself may have been the violinist, and several other names have been proposed, including the “premier cammer musicus” (i.e., concertmaster) in Cöthen, Joseph Spieß.

That Bach would have been up to the technical demands of the pieces is confirmed by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–1788), who, reminiscing to Forkel in the 1770s, recalled his father’s playing. “In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.”

The sonatas and partitas reflect Bach skill as both performer and composer. Only someone involved with the violin as a performer could know its possibilities and limitations so well. The works demonstrate a level of technical and musical mastery previous composers had not approached, and, indeed, they are still one of the high peaks of the violin literature today. Bach’s chosen genres allow for a musical variety of staggering scope, encompassing everything from densely worked counterpoint to elegant courtly dances composed in a style marked by rhythmic and melodic invention underpinned by complex harmonic shifts. The partitas offer up a sequence of dance-inspired movements, including dances rarely found in Bach, such as the Loure of the Partita No. 3, BWV 1006.

The formal rigor of the sonatas (BWV 1001, 1003, 1005) is by no means abandoned in the partitas—the dances Bach selects for each partita pose a series of musical challenges of their own. —John Mangum