Bach composed these works in 1720 at age 35 while secular music director in the Cöthen court of Prince Leopold. They greatly extended the technique and expressive range of solo violin music, for which the first solo piece had been composed about 1676. Tho’ composing for a melody instrument, Bach was able to create the illusion of two, three and four voices moving contrapuntally, the illusion of a melody accompanied by a bass, and of harmony embedded in a single horizontal line. The Sonatas follow the church sonata form of 4 mvmts: Slow¬¬–Fast (fugal)–Slow–Fast; the Partitas are suites of dances on the model of the chamber sonata. Manuscript copies circulated among great violinists until the collection was finally published in 1802. Individual descriptions below are derived from Schwarz, B. in Deutsche Grammophon booklet for the Nathan Milstein recording (423 294-2)
Sonata No. 1. Adagio – a broad, richly ornamented melody. Fuga/Allegro – chordal, with a brilliant coda. Siciliana – dialogue between the low G string and 3 upper strings. Presto – brilliant.
Partita No. 1. Each dance mvmt consists of 2 halves: a statement and a “double” (variation). Allemanda – strong dotted rhythm and heavy chords; Double – smooth, sinuous embellishment of the basic harmonies. Courante – widely arched melody; Double – rapid 16th notes. Sarabande – slow, dignified mvmt with a beautiful melody; Double – dissolves the harmonies into a single line. Bourrée – jaunty dance is one of Bach’s most popular mvmts, with heavy chords punctuated by light, graceful staccato notes.
Sonata No. 2. Grave – broad melody, highly embroidered. Fuga – exhilarating, rich use of double-stops (playing two notes at once) and chords; Andante – beautiful melody supported by continuous bass accompaniment. Allegro – broken chords alternate between forte and piano.
Partita No. 2. Allemanda – Arched melody with harmonic support. Corrente – triplets contrast with dotted rhythms. Sarabanda – a beautifully shaped melody supported by sonorous chords. Giga – sprightly, buoyant. Chaconne – 29 beautiful, immensely creative variations.
Sonata No. 3. Adagio – austere, mysterious, with a passionate climax. Fuga – grand and difficult; “the episodes are marvels of violinistic inventiveness”. Largo – pleasing. Allegro assai – virtuoso display of dexterity.
Partita No. 3. The most extroverted and joyous of all six works. Preludio – marvelous display of violin virtuosity. Loure – dance, all double stops. Gavotte en Rondeau – merry. One of Bach’s most popular mvmts. Menuet I and Menuet II. The 1st is outgoing, the 2nd subdued. Bourrée – decisive, with accents on weak beats. Gigue – elegant and cheerful.