The Greatest Hit of 1720: JS Bach's Partita No 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 for Solo Violin
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The Greatest Hit of 1720: JS Bach's Partita No 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 for Solo Violin

Analysis of JS Bach's most well-known solo, the Partita in D minor, concluding with his great Chaconne. Composed in Cothen in 1720, the work has been arranged in dozens of settings over nearly three centuries.

During the time that Bach was employed by Prince Leopold I at Anhalt-Cöthen, from 1717-1723, his musical output was strictly secular. This was quite unusual for the pious Lutheran composer, but his Calvinist employer disdained sacred music and had a special fondness for instrumental music. Consequently, most of Bach's chamber works were composed during these six years at Cöthen including two trio sonatas, the six Brandenburg Concertos, the concertos for violin and the first two of his four orchestral Suites. It was during this same time that Bach composed such notable instrumental works as Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, six sonatas for violin and harpsichord, six suites for solo cello and six sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

Bach wrote the set of six pieces in 1720 at Cöthen, consisting of alternating sonatas and partitas. Even without a basso continuo, these pieces function as full polyphonic compositions with their carefully rendered melodies and a few expertly chosen chords. While the six works are titled as Sonatas on the manuscript, Bach paired them into “church sonatas” (sonatas da chiesa), always with a fugue as the second movement and “chamber sonatas” (sonatas da camera) or partitas. The movements of each partita are played within the same key and are two-part form, where the first section modulates to the dominant, followed by variations on I, ending at the tonic. The Partita in D minor omits the double.

Of Bach's Partitas, in 1802 Johann Nicolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer, commented: "This work (the Partitas) made a great noise in the musical world of its time. Such excellent compositions for the harpsichord had never been seen or heard before. Anyone who had learned to perform some pieces out of them well could thereby make his fortune in the world, and even in our times, a young artist might gain acknowledgment by doing so; they are so brilliant, fine sounding, expressive, and always new."

The first page of the original manuscript of Bach's Chaconne.

The D minor Partita's renown is due largely to its Chaconne. Its inventiveness is truly incomparable and after two centuries, it still reigns supreme. It is the most gigantic of all sets of variations in existence. It is also interesting to note that the theme of the Chaconne is the same as that used by Bach in the "Crucifixus of the B minor Mass". The Chaconne was a dance that flourished in Spain during the 16th century. Through the curious changes in which dances and folk songs became strict musical forms, it made its way into Italy, then on into Germany. While originally a dance, for Bach it was a set of variations on a solid tonic. He presents twenty-nine variations on a solemn eight-measure theme not unlike that of a sarabande. In triple meter, the Chaconne glides along in a regular rhythm - it is full of textural changes, from violent double and quadruple stops to sweet solo passages to a poignant section full of suspensions, arpeggios and antiphonal effects.

* Recommended listening: Links to the Chaconne, the final section of the Partita.  This is a superb live performance by Isaac Stern. This is only an example. Please support those who work in the arts by purchasing music and art legally.

 * The cover image is a life statue of Bach in Leipzig.

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Comments (1)

Bach is very surprising to me. When I was studying him in a music class, his piano sonatas always reminded me of the turbulence during World War II. There's just some haunting about his music. I like it.