Six sonatas for harpsichord and violin BWV 1014-1019
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SONATAS
Missing Bach's sonatas and partitas is like missing the Art of Fugue or the Passions: it means loosing one of the pillars of the whole classical music. Bach is ground to all his successors in all fields: he wrote everything for any instrument and one can find Bachian fugues in Beethoven and Rachmaninov, the Bach's Ciaccona, BWV 1004, in Mendelssohn's violin concerto, Bach's contrapunctum in Schumann's symphonies... Bach is everywhere at any time, but unfortunately not many music lovers are aware of that!
These six sonatas are part of a huge set of sonatas and partitas for any kind of instrument: they summarise well all that work and therefore must be known entirely. Their "standard" structure can be described as follow: 1.A slow graceful first movement; 2.A fast movement; 3.A slow, deep and sweet piece; 4.A bursting out and lively fast movement. There is however an evident exception in the last sonata, further considered.
Please do not think these pieces are minor, just because they have been written for a few instruments (there are pieces of Bach played by a single violin, cello or flute): instead they are soaked of Bach's magnitude and the monumentality of a Passion is "concentrated" in these pieces. On the contrary, it seems that the less instruments he composed for, the higher the accuracy of his compositions: the typical example is in the partitas for solo violin, in which a single melodic line entirely describes the deep sensitivity of the greatest composer of all times.
A brief notes about how I sequenced them. In order to keep as close as possible to Bach's intentions, I used original texts (URTEXT); who has approached these unavoidable books, knows perfectly that Bach did not indicate nothing more than the necessary on his score: that is why one can hardly find indications for legato, staccato or embellishments. It was indeed usage of that time to leave the performer free to develop the phrasing and enrich the pieces with the right embellishments at the right time. This wasn't due to the fact that the players were bright stars in the baroque period and therefore they were free to "interpret" the music and to twist the composer's initial idea; simply every player knew perfectly the "do's and don'ts" of a performance, as rules in this field were rigid and nobody would have played legato a sequence of alternating sixteenth and eighth notes in a fast piece, unless clearly indicated. Traditional rules, that's all, passed on and on from masters to disciples and possibly developed on a basis of common good sense (or, more appropriately, good... sounding)!
A high contrast between staccato and legato, the exact use of embellishments, not excessive changes of tempo in the fast movements and more noticeable (but not affecting the overall tempo of the piece) in the slow ones were ground to a good phrasing; moreover, this was reported also by Bach's disciples and fans, about the way of playing of the composer himself: his performances were very sweet and graceful in the slow movements, quick and plenty of rhythmical spring in the fast ones. This granted him the appropriate definition of being "a man with the rhythm in all limbs"! Therefore, I respected the usage of the time and can assure the result is great in all parts of it.
Another consideration: the usage of calling these sonatas "Violin Sonatas" tout-court is absolutely wrong, because Bach was probably the most... democratic musician in his time and granted to each instrument its own personal space in his works. Indeed, the autographed copies of these sonatas report them as "Sonatas for cembalo certato and solo violin, accompanied by a viola da gamba, if one likes (!)" and listening to them makes understand why, in the headline, the priority has been given to the keyboard instrument. Have you got doubts about this? Here is a sequence of 5 movements from the sonatas. In each one, parts have been "inverted", i.e. the violin and the right-hand of the harpsichord have been interchanged. If you know these sonatas a little or not at all, you'll probably perceive no difference between the two versions; only if you know them well, you'll notice something different in certain parts, like if you were discovering an extension of the piece that you didn't know before, but nothing unnatural. R=Right, M=Modified:
1R, 1M 2R, 2M 3R, 3M 4R, 4M 5R, 5M
Instead, if you try to "invert" a sonata for flute and figured bass (WARNING: not a harpsichord and flute, that will give the same effect of a harpsichord and violin), you'll find out that the piece sounds clearly "inverted" (the harpsichord has become the leading instrument and the part of the flute has become a... group of Peruvians accompanying the harpsichord!) and totally unnatural, also if you don't know it.
Generally speaking, in all sonatas defined as "for harpsichord and...", the harpsichord is dominant; this does not amaze, because Bach was the first great composer to give the keyboard instrument a solo part, where the piece is for more than one instrument (the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is the solo-keyboard christening in an orchestral work). Up to then, the harpsichord had been used only as a "complementary" instrument, leading the rhythmical part of the bass or accompanying (through simple chords) another instrument which led the melodic part. There are a lot of examples for it in Bach's sonatas for Flute (violin) and figured bass.
A funny remark. Someone has heard for sure about Bach's ability in transcribing the same piece into different instrument configurations. His harpsichord concerti are a typical example: Bach wrote also versions for violin(s), flute, oboe, and some of them were originating from previous compositions, not necessary concerti. Well all his music seems not to be conceived for a particular instrument; as I have already stated, Bach's music is pure music, so you can play it on... glass or any other funny instruments you may imagine! A demonstration is also in these sonatas. Please listen to the 2nd movement of the C minor one, played in an unusual version for flute, oboe and bassoon: If you did not know this piece before, you couldn't find out which is Bach's real version!
Doesn't it remind a trio in other pieces of the same author? Finally in this sonatas I decided, with bad grace, to use the clarinet instead of the violin, just because on many systems it sounds much better then the string instrument: on most PCs the violin screeches ridiculously and... sawtoothly. The clarinet, as the violin, has a brighter and more extended sound than the flute or the oboe and I came to the decision that it was therefore appropriate (other similar instruments of the time have been considered as well, but having a limited extension, they could sound unnatural in some parts).
AN ESSENTIAL LISTENER'S GUIDE
There would be a lot to say about any single movement of these sonatas, however I prefer to comment only those which wander from the standard structure mentioned above, or that give me the opportunity of adding further considerations.
N.1 IN B MINOR, BWV1014
In the second movement, there are a few notes that give the idea of Bach's sensitivity and accuracy. In some of his sonatas, the violin starts with the harpsichord playing the left-hand part only (and there are sometimes similar episodes also in the middle); in the idea of the author, this could give a sensation of "emptiness" or "incompleteness". He solved this adding, for the missing part, a precise figured bass indication, which could be "translated" in chords to be played by the right hand. The first four measures of this movement are given that figured bass part; I sequenced them on a lower level to avoid a perturbation of the beautiful fugato at the beginning. Other sonatas have similar parts with the figured bass "attached".
N.2 IN A MAJOR, BWV1015
The third movement is one of Bach's masterpieces, even if it is not well known as other famous ones. It is a pure and perfect canon for violin and the right hand part of the harpsichord. The violin starts a measure in advance and the harpsichord follows it up to the last note. To sequence it has been very easy: it has been sufficient to copy the violin part, avoiding the last measure, and paste it into the right hand part of the harpsichord, one measure after! I used the harp for the left hand part of the harpsichord to simulate the mute bass register of the keyboard and this gives the piece, already wonderful, a particular atmosphere of serenity in the sadness...
N.3 IN E MAJOR, BWV1016
May be the same key signature, may be the similar use of chords, anyway I find a lot of analogy to the first movement of this piece, in some parts of Chopin's piano studio in E major! The second movement is probably the clear description of the happiness of children: the theme is of an absolute joy, simplicity and brightness, and the rhythmical structure is astonishing. This and the last movement are like drug for the two players! Indeed, in the latter, the idea of a race of two fast competitors is natural...
N.4 IN C MINOR, BWV1017
It starts with a sweet and resignedly doleful siciliano and the second movement is a champion to demonstrate Bach's skill and musical equity: the three equivalent melodic lines mix furiously in a complicate but perfect and nearly divine contrapunctum. This has been the most difficult piece to sequence, due to the continuous change between legato and staccato and the total diversity of all its parts.
The third movement comes as an oasis of serenity after the avalanche of the second one, but it is only a rest to resume a hard battle in the fourth movement, which, for that reason, may remind the most famous (no reason why) first movement of the 5th symphony of Ludwig Van Beethoven: one straggles up to the end, against an unchangeable and determined destiny.
N.5 IN F MINOR, BWV1018
In my opinion, this is the deepest and greatest sonata. The first movement, sweet and sorrowful, sometimes looks like an opening sky, allowing a bright sun shining, but after an illusion of a few seconds of comforting warmth, the sorrow comes back again and again. It is hard to find something deeper in the music of any time; did you know that many people say they don't like Bach, because his music is "cold" and "rational"? This movement gives the exact idea of how much ignorance and insensitiveness are spread around the world!
Up to now, in the sonatas one can notice the exact equivalence between the part of the harpsichord and that of the violin, even if the former is often working twice, having to lead two melodic lines! Well, the third movement, seemingly written in a preludio style, grants the keyboard a leading part and "relegates" the violin to a simple accompaniment. In opposition to the other one in a minor key, this sonata confers to its movements no official space to the major mode and the result is that it has a remarkable character of tender sadness; however the third movement, although starting in C minor, turns unexpectedly into A flat major right at the end, giving some instants of relief, immediately annihilated by the difficult and uproaring fourth movement.
N.6 IN G MAJOR, BWV1019
This is an exception in the whole work, as: 1) it is composed of five movements; 2) it starts with a fast movement. The first part reminds the Italian concerto style, with the alternating between the orchestra and the main instrument repeating the same phrase, but it is the third movement that amazes: in a sonata for two instruments, a single one plays a whole movement, while the other stands still... Looking at the title of the six sonatas, one can easily imagine which of the two instruments plays: please do not call them "Violin Sonatas" anymore! A brilliant, quick and overwhelming fifth movement closes the piece and the whole work in a similar way to the sonata in E major.
Bruno de Giusti