For classical music beginners: Bach’s 6 Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

Today, I want to provide an overview of Bach’s incredible collection of Violin Sonatas and Partitas for anyone who is exploring these for the first time. In this article, I’ll give a bit of historical context, a description of each of the works, and some suggestions for recordings. If you want to dive into some of the individual works and movements, I have a few blog posts with write-ups!

Introduction

The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are a collection of 6 long-form works (each ranging 15–30min long) written in about 1720 by J. S. Bach. Today, these are known as some of the greatest pieces in the European classical music tradition and are part of the standard training and repertoire for anyone learning classical violin. One movement in particular, the 15-minute epic Chaconne from the 2nd Partita, is widely regarded as one of the greatest musical compositions for violin of all time. These are the sort of pieces that you can listen to over and over again — instead of wearing out, they become more familiar and reveal more hidden musical patterns with each listen. I’ve been playing and listening to them for about 20 years now and am certainly not bored yet!

Historical Context

J. S. Bach is known today as one of the greatest composers in the entire history of the European classical music tradition. He is the prototypical composer of the Baroque era (1600–1750). During this time, composers were aligning around some standard approaches to musical composition that would set the scene for the next 250 years or so of European classical music tradition.

Here are two important aspects of the Baroque musical tradition to set the scene for his Sonatas and Partitas:

So, as you listen to these pieces, you can listen for the interplay of melody and harmony, and notice how Bach is able to draw out many voices from a single instrument. Sometimes, the melody will lead your emotional journey and sometimes the harmony. And each vocal register of the violin will bring a different mood and flavor to the piece.

Another fun fact: During the 1700s, many of the instruments we know today were being developed for the first time: the modern violin, cello, and piano for example. In fact, Bach wrote solo works for all three of these instruments. You may check out the famous Cello Suites, or the great Well-Tempered Clavier or Goldberg Variations for keyboard.

Overview of the Sonatas

The Six Sonatas and Partitas consist of three sonatas and three partitas. Each of the three “sonatas” follows the same structure: an introductory movement (setting the scene), a complicated fugue (the centerpiece of each work), a slow beautiful movement (some respite after the fugue), and then a fast-paced conclusion (an exciting finish). So, each of these sonatas take the listener on a similarly-shaped emotional journey.

The “partitas,” on the other hand, don’t have a common structure — instead, each is a collection of dance-inspired movements arranged in a unique format. We’ll get to each of them in turn.

In general, the Sonatas and Partitas are very thoughtful and intricate works. They aren’t what I would call “easy” listening; they are best to listen in a quiet space, setting aside time for an entire single sonata or partita. They pack an emotional punch when listened deeply: so much pathos coming from a single instrument. In fact, one legend about the collection tells us that Bach specifically titled the work “Sei Solo” instead of the more grammatically correct “Sei Soli” — affording a literal translation/pun of “You are alone.” The first four sonatas and partitas are all pretty heart-wrenching (some movements devastatingly so), until the final sonata and partita end the collection on a happier note.

The six works

I’ll describe the works one by one. You may use this as a listening guide, or to pick one that you are curious about, or just to observe the variety that Bach presents in this collection. The moods I listed are my own interpretation :)

Recordings

Almost every famous violinist of the 20th/21st century has recorded this collection, and everyone brings their own style. I’ll share three of my favorites, which I feel highlight different interpretations. I’d actually recommend listening to the recordings in this specific order, as you’ll discover something new with each subsequent style.

I love music and literature. This is my app: https://itunes.apple.com/app/id1332841582.