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Adagio and Presto from Sonata No. 1 in G minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1001

April 3, 2016: Sean Lee, violin

Though we find precedents for Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin in works by Johann Jacob Walther, Heinrich Biber, and Johann Paul Westhoff, Bach’s contributions totally eclipsed these and remain unsurpassed to this day in invention and magnificence. Trained as a violinist in his youth by his father, Bach knew the capabilities of the instrument and expanded greatly upon them. The autograph manuscript, dated 1720, presents three sonatas in alternation with three partitas. The sonatas represent the serious Italian sonata da chiesa (church sonata) form with four movements in a slow, fast, slow, fast pattern; the partitas resemble the sonata da camera (chamber sonata), a series of dance movements, which if Bach had been writing in the French style would have been called a suite.

Throughout the unaccompanied violin works and in those for solo cello, Bach showed his mastery at creating a many-voiced texture with what is essentially a single-line instrument, often by the use of double stops or rolled chords, but even more often by implying several melodic lines by artful figuration. He counted on the ability of the ear to pick out and hold onto notes in one register and string them together over time as an independent voice; one can often hear such implied voices in counterpoint, occurring in two or more registers.

Bach’s elaborate ornamentation in the G minor Adagio makes a fitting opening to the Sonata and indeed to the entire set of sonatas and partitas. He was not content to simply write out a few chords and a figured bass and leave the rest up to the performer. Rather, his ornamentation is carefully notated, though the Adagio gives a free, improvisatory impression.

The Presto closing movement runs along in constant sixteenth-note motion and single-voice texture until the concluding chords of each half. This lighter style provides wonderful contrast to the weightier preceding movements.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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