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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Part 1)

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For the next two weeks, we will be sampling the set of six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001–1006) composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. The set consists of three sonatas da Chiesa (or church sonatas), in four movements, and three partitas (or partias), which are “dance suites”. The set was completed by 1720, but was only published in 1802 by Nikolaus Simrock in Bonn. Even after publication, it was largely ignored until the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim started performing these works. Today, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas are an essential part of the violin repertoire, and they are frequently performed and recorded.

This week’s instalment focuses on the three sonatas.

The Sonata da chiesa was a common baroque compositional for, period, generally consisting of four movements, following a slow–fast–slow–fast formulawith respect to tempo. The second movement was usually a fugal allegro, and the third and fourth were binary forms that sometimes resembled the sarabande and gigue.

Although it was not uncommon to play Sonatas de Chiesa (or sinfonias written along the same formula) as part of church services, they were not necessarily written with an explicitly liturgical function, such as, for instance, a Requiem Mass. Symphonic works written in the sonata da chiesa were more often performed as concert pieces for entertainment.

Bach who wrote a great number of sacred works didn’t leave us with many sonatas in that form – these three sonatas for solo violin and his six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord are about all he wrote. Other baroque composers like Arcangelo Corelli and Giovanni Battista Bassani are more prolific in that regard.

The sonata da chiesa had become outdated by the time of Joseph Haydn, although he did compose a few of his early symphonies in this style (slow-fast-minuet-fast). Later, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would compose seventeen "church sonatas", but these served a different purpose. Mozart's works were single-movement organ and strings pieces that were played during the celebration of the Mass between the Epistle and the Gospel. I have programmed some of these sonatas for a podcast this month.

Although these works have been performed and recorded by luminaries of past generations (Enescu, Szigeti, Menuhin, Heifitz…) and contemporary violinusts, there are some recordings of the set on the viola – and it is in that specific setting that we will be listening to them in this two-part series.

According to the International Music Score Library Project, viola arrangements of these works are by Angelo Consolini (1859–1934) [ca. 1910]. In this recording, the artist lowered the pitch of the works a fifth to accommodate the range of the viola.

Next week, I will discuss the partitas, and the artist, Scott Slapin

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonatas for solo violin
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005
Scott Slapin, viola
(1st recording of these works by S. Slapin. Jan 1998)
Eroica Classical Recordings JDT-3025
Downloaded from MP3.COM, 15 May 2002

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June 12 2014, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "Sonatas by Beethoven" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel . Read more on our blogs in English and in French.