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Prelude from Violin Partita in E, BWV 1006

March 24, 2019: Kristin Lee, violin

We find precedents for Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin in works by Johann Jacob Walther, Heinrich Biber, and Johann Paul Westhoff, but 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.

Whereas Bach began each of his solo cello suites with a Preludio, the E major Partita is the only solo violin work to open with such a movement and is notable for its larger than usual number of authentic dynamic markings. The cheerful perpetual motion of the Preludio has contributed greatly to the work’s popularity. Bach himself showed a fondness for it by transcribing it for organ and orchestra in Cantatas 120a and 29; he also made a transcription of the entire Partita for lute.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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