The History of Bach’s
There is an old musical game in which the players try to recognize a piece after hearing only its opening. Example 1-1, for instance, surely inspires music lovers to anticipate the glorious solo entry of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. The game becomes more difficult if one hears only a piece’s very opening sound. A colleague once posed Example 1-2 as a real puzzler, until his addition of a note or two at a time revealed to all the opening of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, op. 120.
But not all opening sounds are so difficult to identify. The densely packed, low C-minor chord beginning Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, op. 13, is a dead giveaway, as are the opening chords of the Eroica Symphony or Symphony of Psalms. These chords are such special sonorities that they have become icons for those compositions.
Violinists know Example 1-3 as such an icon—clearly it is the opening of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata in G Minor for Violin Solo. This fournote chord is an icon for the entire sonata, resonating through all four movements and concluding all three G-minor movements.
Indeed, since this chord opens Bach’s cycle of solo-violin works, in a larger sense it alludes to the entire collection of unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. And from the broadest perspective, it is an icon for all violin music—in part because these Bach pieces have been so central to violin pedagogy for more than two centuries, but even more because the chord, containing the two lower open strings, so embodies violinistic sound and sonority. Just as Bach opened his Well-Tempered Clavier by arpeggiating a major triad from middle C and opened his cycle of Inventions with a scale rising from that same middle C—both simple statements of the most central sounds on a keyboard—Bach ingeniously opened his solo-violin cycle with the simplest and most characteristic chord a violin can produce.
Later composers knew this chord well. Over two centuries after Bach composed his G-minor Sonata, Béla Bartók (1881–1945), writing in a musical idiom far removed from Bach’s, opened his own Sonata for Solo