Partita No.1

Johann Sebastian Bach

Partita No.1 in B minor


About this work

Of Bach's three partitas for solo violin, the first is the most old-fashioned in its choice of dance movements. The work is structurally unusual among Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo instruments in that it consists of four pairs of movements, the second of each pair offering a variation (or, employing the French term double) on the first. Another nod to older forms is the overall layout of the movements; the pairs fall into the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the church sonata or sonata da chiesa. To complicate matters, each double is much faster than the movement it varies. The work is technically challenging, generally more difficult than the third partita but not as tough as the second, the famous Chaconne of which is clotted with double and triple stops.

The opening Allemanda announces that it's not for sissy violinists with an immediate series of double stops (which were easier to play in Bach's time than today, thanks to the convex Baroque bow). This is a typical example of the allemanda (or allemande), a slow, serious German dance in quadruple meter and binary form, its improvisational-seeming melodies refusing to conform to the expected phrases. Its "Double" is faster and in 2/2, following the same contours as the original melodies, but now filling them in with even runs of notes. The "Correnta" is the Italian version of the dance form known in French as courante: fairly fast, in 3/4, sawing up and down the scale. Its 'Double," marked Presto, again rolls all over the staff, but the notes now fly by almost as fast as possible. The mood becomes somber with the Sarabande, the only movement in this partita to receive the French version of its title. Indeed, unlike the common Italian model, this French Sarabande is slow (in 3/4 meter) and expressive, its second half almost entirely in double stops. Its "Double" switches to 9/8 and increases the tempo, but the mood remains questioning and unsettled; at least Bach now eases off the multiple stops. Finally comes a movement in Tempo di Borea (related to the bourée), fast and sharply accented in a meter marked 2/4 but really feeling more like 2/2; again, Bach employs multiple stops through most of this movement. Its "Double" is in 12/4, the shape of the original melody obscured by the fast, nonstop passagework.