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!
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!
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:
- Melody and harmony became intricately linked. Phrases follow clear “harmonic” arcs (e.g. the Circle of Fifths), and melodies would flow through and over these chord progressions.
- Pieces were often written with pretty complicated textures. There were many voices weaving in and out and layered on top of each other, trading off and sharing melodies.
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 :)
- Sonata #1 in G Minor: Pensive, nostalgic. It is written in the standard sonata structure described above. I’d say the highlight is the introductory movement —one of the saddest and most beautiful opening movements in the whole collection. The Fugue (2nd movement) is the shortest of the three fugues, so it may be a good place to start if you want to start getting a grip on this composition technique.
- Partita #1 in B Minor: Vigorous, formal. As we mentioned, each partita has a unique structure. This one follows a fun pattern: each movement comes in “pairs”, a first version and then a second version written twice as fast! So this makes for pretty exciting listening, as you are always curious what the fast version will sound like. Otherwise, I’d say that this partita is one of the most “typical” Baroque-sounding of the whole collection, with many chord progressions and rhythm styles that may sound familiar to you.
- Sonata #2 in A Minor: Yearning, curious. Once again, written in the standard sonata structure. The highlight from this work is definitely the third movement — an incredibly beautiful love song featuring a very unique technique for the violin, which manages to play a melody and accompaniment at once. This movement is often performed on its own as an encore by soloists.
- Partita #2 in D Minor: Journey, awe-inspiring. The highlight from this work is the final movement, the epic 15-minute Chaconne, a journey of mourning, hope, and death. Some say it was written in memory of the death of Bach’s first wife. It stands on its own as a masterpiece, but I would definitely recommend listening to the whole partita! The first four movements slowly build in emotional energy, setting the scene, until reaching the final fifth movement.
- Sonata #3 in C Major: Complex, thoughtful. Finally, we have a work which is not as depressing as the four leading up to it. But don’t fool yourself — the piece is still very deep! In fact, the first movement is unique in that it has no melody: it is a series of harmonies, written almost like a heartbeat, rising and falling in intensity. (This is actually one of my favorite pieces in the whole collection.) And, the Fugue is over ten minutes long! So that is some intense listening. But it is not as sad as the other pieces, so you can just drop into the world and let yourself enjoy the textures.
- Partita #3 in E Major: Playful, exuberant. Bach closes out the collection with fun and easy listening. This partita is a collection of short pieces that always felt to me like I was at an 18th-century French ball. It starts off with the famous, show-off Prelude, and then dives into a set of happy and elegant dances. This is one of the most fun works to listen to in the collection, and isn’t too emotional or sad at all. So, you can reward yourself with some fun after all the serious business if you made it this far!
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.
- Henry Szeryng (Spotify): This is widely regarded as one of the top recordings from the past 100 years, and is a pretty standard way of performing the pieces. Szeryng brings a modern playing style to the performance— strong tone, heavy chords, leaning into key notes and phrases. Szeryng really brings a strong emotional force to the performance.
- Rachel Podger (Spotify): This recording is performed in an “authentic” Baroque violin style. In this relatively new approach to performance, violinists have begun to use some of the techniques from the 1700s. You’ll notice that the tone changes completely: similar to the difference between a harpsichord and a piano, it is lighter and more airy. Compared to the heavy emotional content of Szeryng, I feel like this Baroque style really lets the harmonies and melodies of Bach speak for themselves.
- Josef Szigeti (YouTube): Finally, a very special recording. This version was performed by Josef Szigeti towards the end of his life: he is old, he has arthritis, he is clearly not as technically capable as when he was younger. But he plays the pieces with such a unique and special interpretation, as if every note has a meaning to him. The record is highly interpretative, and it may not appeal to everyone, but I really love it. I’d recommend listening to this after the other two, because it really does deviate from the typical style of the pieces.