Storytelling with Music: A Listening Guide to Bach’s Partita №3

In this post, I’ll share my personal “music-listening” guide for Bach’s Partita no. 3 for solo violin. I’ll also attempt to articulate some thoughts on what music means to me as a listener and a performer. Enjoy!

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Gidon Kremer performs Bach’s Partita no. 3

Music is one of the most emotionally fulfilling activities in my life. It has meant many different things to me over the years — from when I first started serious classical training as a young kid, to years in high school exploring different genres, and to recent reconnection with performance — but has always represented a vast emotional universe that I was able to tap into whenever I needed emotional support, means for self-expression, or even just temporary distraction.

A great piece of music — and a great performance — transports me into an all-immersive emotional landscape. The type of landscape varies based on the style of music: for example, “programmatic” music tells a clear narrative story, music from the Impressionistic Era paints visual images and the associated emotions, and some music even describes the passions and human complexities of a stream of thought. [*Examples at the end.]

Composers can provide a range of guidance to the performer, but there is always a nebulous process of collaboration between the template of a written score and the output being delivered by a performer. As performers, we spend countless hours internalizing basic instrumental technique in order to successfully communicate an emotional story without any disconnect between intention and output.

One of the most fun parts of learning a new piece (or revisiting an old one!) is to generate a vision, map it to the phrasing and contour of a piece, and perform it successfully for listeners. I remember many discussions during performance class and lessons around topics like: “How does this passage make you feel?”, “What do you want to say with this movement?”, “What image do these notes conjure up in you?” Without further ado, here is the story I keep in mind when performing Bach’s Partita no. 3 for Solo Violin.

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Bach wrote a set 3 sonatas and 3 partitas for solo violin around 1720. The final work, the Partita №3 in E Major, consists of a Prelude and 6 short movements inspired by Baroque dances. In this interpretation, I imagine that the 6 movements of Baroque dance tell a story of two dance partners over the course of an evening. They meet and introduce themselves (mvts 1+2), establish a sweet partnership (mvts 3+4), and finally leave in joyful and exuberant spirits (mvts 5+6). This story is communicated by the sequence and emotional quality of each movement and dance style.

Partita no. 3, Prelude (00:11)

The first movement, the Prelude, sets the stage for the narrative. Pyrotechnics in the left hand (notes) and right hand (bowing) immediately capture the attention of the audience. The emotional quality of the piece is equally arresting: there are no breaks, and the mood continuously shifts between triumphant, introspective, tension, and release… sometimes even in the space of just a few seconds. Once finished, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. We are ready to enter the story and begin the dance.

Partita no. 3, Loure (03:29)

Our story begins with the first of the dance partners introducing themselves to the other. The first dance is a “Loure”, gentle yet expressive. There are moments of extroversion, but these usually fall back into the calmer sway of the piece. I imagine this first partner a bit reserved, quiet and contained… but you can surely sense a hope and expectation below the surface.

Partita no. 3, Gavotte (07:17)

Now, the second partner introduces themselves. This dancer is more upbeat and playful, dancing a set of brilliant episodes around a recurring theme in the dance style of a “Gavotte”. This person is spirited and excited to engage. The episodes get more and more complicated… I almost imagine this dancer getting too excited, pushing the edge of control, before settling back to their comfort zone.

Partita no. 3, Menuets 1+2 (10:15)

After these two introductions, two partners are ready to dance together. They dance in two simple yet expressive “menuets”. The pieces are gentle and playful, perhaps even a combination of the moods presented by the initial two dance movements. These pieces feel less “individualistically” expressive than the first two; instead, they reflect a tempered elegance with cute idiosyncratic moments. Our two partners have settled into the dance.

Partita no. 3, Bourree and Gigue (14:20)

Finally, after formal introductions and dancing… the mood shifts to joyful exuberance. The fifth dance movement is a “Bourree”, faster-paced and leaping. The restrained performance of the first two movements and the elegant pairing of the second two movements has now given way to purer joy. The set finishes with a “Gigue”, a lively dance inspired by Irish jig that flows happily from beginning to end. By this time, the dance floor is all smiles and we can imagine partners dancing arm in arm as the night comes to a close.

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Listening with this sort of imaginative storytelling helps transport me into the world of the music, engages me, and leaves me feeling emotionally satisfied. Every performer has their own take on the work — and even my own interpretation changes based on how I am feeling and what is happening in my life. I encourage all of you to come up with your own stories! And if you can’t find a performance that does it for you… maybe time to record your own ;)

— Ben

[Some examples of each musical landscape mentioned in the introduction:

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