Twenty Years of Solo Bach
by John Goodin

At the CMSA Convention 2000 in Atlanta one of the highlights was hearing Chris Thile play snatches of solo Bach violin music. I believe he even said that he decided it was time to learn to read music when he realized that he couldn't learn this music by ear. By "solo Bach" Chris meant primarily the beautiful collection of pieces known as the Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (BWV 1001-1006) which J.S. Bach completed in 1720.

Sometime after I returned home from the convention it occurred to me that I have been working through my now well-worn copy of the Dover edition of these pieces since before Chris was born. Around 1979 I paid five dollars for this solidly bound edition which also includes the "Six Sonatas for Violin and Clavier", 158 pages of some of the most brilliant music ever written. It's hard to imagine a purchase that has given me as much in return. Maybe my first LP copy of "A Love Supreme", but that has been replaced more than once.

I've never performed a single movement of any of the solo Bach pieces, I keep them as private pleasures. I have, however, spent countless hours alternately struggling with them and luxuriating in the sense of well-being that comes from being able to play even a little of this wondrous music. Every once in a while I even have the sensation of being inside the mind of Bach and seeing just a glimpse of the beauty that he could create.

I'm sure that many readers have their own dog-eared copy of the Sonatas and Partitas. I thought it would be fun to write my story and encourage other readers to share their encounters with these pieces. If you haven't started your course of Bach study yet let me encourage you to go straight to the nearest music store and buy your own copy.

Twenty years is a long time and, from one point of view, my progress towards mastery of the solo Bach has been pitiful. Hearing Chris Thile play some of this music with such brilliance and obvious love only inspires me to continue meeting Bach at my own level and doesn't fill me with despair. Puzzling over this I've decided it's because I'm not really interested in mastery so much as pleasure. The handful of movements that I can play, sometimes haltingly, always at tempos slower than optimal, are just so beautiful and satisfying that I keep going back to them again and again.

There are thirty-two movements in the six Sonatas and Partitas. Many of them contain multi-voice writing that is enormously difficult for me and far beyond my meager ability. Still I will sometimes crawl, measure by measure, through a part of one just to show myself some of the things that are possible on a humble four-coursed instrument tuned in fifths. The movements that I return to over and over are almost completely constructed of single note passages with only occasional double stops, usually at the end of sections. Here are my current favorites:

Sonata No. 1 in G minor begins with an Adagio that is difficult for me and is followed by a Fuga that is way out of my league. The Presto is the first section that is almost all single notes and this is the piece of Bach that I have worked on the longest. Most days I can now play all the notes at a moderate tempo but nowhere near the kind of presto that I've heard from violinists. The first half is just 54 measures long but it takes you on an incredible harmonic journey full of delightful patterns for your fingers and ears. After twenty years I'm still amazed to hear this music being produced by my instrument.

Partita No. 1 in B minor contains eight movements including four titled Double. All of the Doubles are single-note workouts but my favorite is no. 3. I'm pretty sure that there is a guitar arrangement of it on John Renbourn's The Lady and the Unicorn that I used to listen to all the time in the early seventies. The first half of this Double is only eight measures long and is a melody to remember.

Sonata No. 2 is in A minor and has another daunting Fuga plus an Andante that is a good place to try some of Bach's multi-voiced writing. My favorite here is the closing Allegro which is a brilliant romp through rapid arpeggios and scalar passages. This movement is almost completely playable out of first position but it covers a lot of ground.

Partita No. 2 in D minor concludes with the awesome Chaconne, a true bravura, virtuoso piece that runs for six full pages in the Dover edition. The same pieces takes up 22 pages in the Mel Bay publication J.S. Bach for Mandolin where it is presented with tablature as well as in standard notation. I've never been interested in working on the Chaconne although one could argue that it alone is worth a lifetime of study. My favorites here are the Allemande that opens the Partita and the Gigue that precedes the Chaconne. Both movements are full of beautiful moments and require me to occasionally venture out of the first position. If the Chaconne had not been written the Gigue would serve as a completely satisfying finale and I often think of it that way when I play it.

Sonata No. 3 is in C major and is the piece I've spent the least amount of time with. It ends with an Allegro assai and I like to play it to the first repeat sign, only forty-two measures. The second part, much longer, requires a few measures of high playing, up to the G at the fifteenth fret. Eventually I'll get this bit under my fingers also.

Partita No. 3 in E major is familiar to many of us because the opening Preludio sounds great on the mandolin and has also been arranged for organ with orchestra. Offhand I can think of a fine Mike Marshall recording but I'm sure there are others. My limitations lead me to play the Gigue at the end of this Partita. It's another piece of brilliance playable entirely in first position and it consists of two simple sixteen measure sections. Within these limits the player gets to thoroughly explore the key of E major and work through some more of the patterns on neighboring strings that are so pleasurable in the Presto of Sonata No. 1.

So, this is where I am after twenty years of Sonatas and Partitas. In the last couple of years I've allowed myself the guilty pleasure of buying a violin edition of the six suites for solo cello and working through bits of those pieces as well. Nonetheless, I return faithfully over and over to my Dover volume and always find inspiration in the old notes that Bach left us. It would be great if other readers who have played some of the solo Bach would share their stories and suggestions with the rest of us in future issues.

Created on ... April 04, 2005