Bach's Works for Solo Violin: Style, Structure, Performance

By Joel Lester | Go to book overview
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SIX
The Partitas

Bach’s solo-violin cycle alternates between sonatas and series of stylized dances. Chapters 2–5 of this book study the first sonata in detail and comment on the two others, touching on a number of principles that concern the structure and aesthetics of Baroque compositions and of Bach’s own style. This chapter surveys some aspects of the three soloviolin partitas.


Series of Dance Movements

Whereas the three solo sonatas all contain four movements in the same order (a slow movement and fugue that form a prelude-fugue pair, a different sort of slow movement in some sort of parallel-section structure, and a fast finale with two reprises), the three partitas differ considerably from one another in their number and type of movements. The D-minor Partita has five movements, the E-major seven, and the B-minor eight. But these numbers do not accurately reflect the variety of these pieces. The Dminor Partita has the fewest movements yet is by far the longest because it ends with the monumental Chaconne. (Indeed, the D-minor Partita has fewer movements than any of Bach’s keyboard suites or partitas yet lasts longer than any of them.) The B-minor Partita includes the most movements yet has the fewest dance types, since four of its eight movements are “doubles” (or variations on the preceding dance).

All in all, the partitas comprise 20 movements of 11 different types: nine types of dances (two each of allemandes, bourrées, correntes, sarabandes, and minuets and one loure, gavotte, gigue, and chaconne) plus one prelude and four doubles.1 And in those dance types that recur, the two instances often contrast significantly with each other. The Allemande in the D-minor Partita features a variety of steady rhythms (mostly sixteenths and sixteenth-triplets, with occasional pairs of thirty-seconds), whereas

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