Johann Sebastian Bach
Six sonatas for harpsichord and violin BWV 1014-1019
NaturGIS have to permission from Bruno de Giusti to
use one of his recordings of the Bachsonatas.
Following text by Bruno de Giusti
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SONATAS
Missing Bach’s sonatas and partitas is like missing the Art of Fugue or the Passions: it
means loosing one of the pillars of the whole classical music. Bach is ground to all his
successors in all fields: he wrote everything for any instrument and one can find Bachian
fugues in Beethoven and Rachmaninov, the Bach’s Ciaccona, BWV 1004, in Mendelssohn’s violin
concerto, Bach’s contrapunctum in Schumann’s symphonies… Bach is everywhere at any time,
but unfortunately not many music lovers are aware of that!
These six sonatas are part of a huge set of sonatas and partitas for any kind of
instrument: they summarise well all that work and therefore must be known entirely. Their
“standard” structure can be described as follow: 1.A slow graceful first movement; 2.A fast
movement; 3.A slow, deep and sweet piece; 4.A bursting out and lively fast movement. There is
however an evident exception in the last sonata, further considered.
Please do not think these pieces are minor, just because they have been written for a few
instruments (there are pieces of Bach played by a single violin, cello or flute): instead
they are soaked of Bach’s magnitude and the monumentality of a Passion is “concentrated” in
these pieces. On the contrary, it seems that the less instruments he composed for, the higher
the accuracy of his compositions: the typical example is in the partitas for solo violin, in
which a single melodic line entirely describes the deep sensitivity of the greatest composer
of all times.
A brief notes about how I sequenced them. In order to keep as close as possible to Bach’s
intentions, I used original texts (URTEXT); who has approached these unavoidable books, knows
perfectly that Bach did not indicate nothing more than the necessary on his score: that is
why one can hardly find indications for legato, staccato or embellishments. It was indeed
usage of that time to leave the performer free to develop the phrasing and enrich the pieces
with the right embellishments at the right time. This wasn’t due to the fact that the players
were bright stars in the baroque period and therefore they were free to “interpret” the music
and to twist the composer’s initial idea; simply every player knew perfectly the “do’s and
don’ts” of a performance, as rules in this field were rigid and nobody would have played
legato a sequence of alternating sixteenth and eighth notes in a fast piece, unless clearly
indicated. Traditional rules, that’s all, passed on and on from masters to disciples and
possibly developed on a basis of common good sense (or, more appropriately, good… sounding)!
A high contrast between staccato and legato, the exact use of embellishments, not
excessive changes of tempo in the fast movements and more noticeable (but not affecting the
overall tempo of the piece) in the slow ones were ground to a good phrasing; moreover, this
was reported also by Bach’s disciples and fans, about the way of playing of the composer
himself: his performances were very sweet and graceful in the slow movements, quick and
plenty of rhythmical spring in the fast ones. This granted him the appropriate definition of
being “a man with the rhythm in all limbs”! Therefore, I respected the usage of the time and
can assure the result is great in all parts of it.
Another consideration: the usage of calling these sonatas “Violin Sonatas” tout-court is
absolutely wrong, because Bach was probably the most… democratic musician in his time and
granted to each instrument its own personal space in his works. Indeed, the autographed
copies of these sonatas report them as “Sonatas for cembalo certato and solo violin,
accompanied by a viola da gamba, if one likes (!)” and listening to them makes understand
why, in the headline, the priority has been given to the keyboard instrument.
Generally speaking, in all sonatas defined as “for harpsichord and…”, the harpsichord is
dominant; this does not amaze, because Bach was the first great composer to give the keyboard
instrument a solo part, where the piece is for more than one instrument (the 5th Brandenburg
Concerto is the solo-keyboard christening in an orchestral work). Up to then, the harpsichord
had been used only as a “complementary” instrument, leading the rhythmical part of the bass
or accompanying (through simple chords) another instrument which led the melodic part. There
are a lot of examples for it in Bach’s sonatas for Flute (violin) and figured bass.
Finally, with bad grace I decided to use the clarinet, instead of the violin, just because
on many systems it sounds much better then the string instrument: on most PCs the violin
screeches ridiculously and… sawtoothly. The clarinet, as the violin, has a brighter and
more extended sound than the flute or the oboe and I came to the decision that it was
therefore appropriate (other similar instruments of the time have been considered as well,
but having a limited extension, they could sound unnatural in some parts).
AN ESSENTIAL LISTENER’S GUIDE
There would be a lot to say about any single movement of these sonatas, however I prefer
to comment only those which wander from the standard structure mentioned above, or that give
me the opportunity of adding further considerations.
N.1 IN B MINOR, BWV1014
There are a few notes in the second movement that give the idea of Bach’s sensitivity and
accuracy. In some of his sonatas, the violin starts with the harpsichord playing the left
hand part only (and there are sometimes similar episodes also in the middle); in the idea of
the author, this could give a sensation of “emptiness” or “incompleteness”. He solved this
adding, for the missing part, a precise figured bass indication, which could be “translated”
in chords to be played by the right hand. The first four measures of this movement are given
that figured bass part; I sequenced them on a lower level to avoid a perturbation of the
beautiful fugato at the beginning. Other sonatas have similar parts with the figured bass
N.2 IN A MAJOR, BWV1015
The third movement is one of Bach’s masterpieces, even if it is not well known as other
famous ones. It is a pure and perfect canon for violin and the right hand part of the
harpsichord. The violin starts a measure in advance and the harpsichord follows it up to the
last note. To sequence it has been very easy: it has been sufficient to copy the violin part,
avoiding the last measure, and paste it into the right hand part of the harpsichord, one
measure after! I used the harp for the left hand part of the harpsichord to simulate the mute
bass register of the keyboard and this gives the piece, already wonderful, a particular
atmosphere of serenity in the sadness…
N.3 IN E MAJOR, BWV1016
May be the same key signature, may be the similar use of chords, anyway I find a lot of
analogy to the first movement of this piece, in some parts of Chopin’s piano studio in E
major! The second movement is probably the clear description of the happiness of children:
the theme is of an absolute joy, simplicity and brightness, and the rhythmical structure is
astonishing. This and the last movement are like drug for the two players! Indeed, in the
latter, the idea of a race of two fast competitors is natural…
N.4 IN C MINOR, BWV1017
It starts with a sweet and resignedly doleful siciliano and the second movement is a
champion to demonstrate Bach’s skill and musical equity: the three equivalent melodic lines
mix furiously in a complicate but perfect and nearly divine contrapunctum. This has been the
most difficult piece to sequence, due to the continuous change between legato and staccato
and the total diversity of all its parts.
The third movement comes as an oasis of serenity after the avalanche of the second one,
but it is only a rest to resume a hard battle in the fourth movement, which, for that reason,
may remind the most famous (no reason why) first movement of the 5th symphony of Ludwig Van
Beethoven: one straggles up to the end, against an unchangeable and determined destiny.
N.5 IN F MINOR, BWV1018
In my opinion, this is the deepest and greatest sonata. The first movement, sweet and
sorrowful, sometimes looks like an opening sky, allowing a bright sun shining, but after an
illusion of a few seconds of comforting warmth, the sorrow comes back again and again. It is
hard to find something deeper in the music of any time; did you know that many people say
they don’t like Bach, because his music is “cold” and “rational”? This movement gives the
exact idea of how much ignorance and insensitiveness are spread around the world!
Up to now, in the sonatas one can notice the exact equivalence between the part of the
harpsichord and that of the violin, even if the former is often working twice, having to lead
two melodic lines! Well, the third movement, seemingly written in a preludio style, grants
the keyboard a leading part and “relegates” the violin to a simple accompaniment. In
opposition to the other one in a minor key, this sonata confers to its movements no official
space to the major mode and the result is that it has a remarkable character of tender
sadness; however the third movement, although starting in C minor, turns unexpectedly into A
flat major right at the end, giving some instants of relief, immediately annihilated by the
difficult and uproaring fourth movement.
N.6 IN G MAJOR, BWV1019
This is an exception in the whole work, as: 1.It is composed of five movements; 2.It
starts with a fast movement. The first part reminds the Italian concerto style, with the
alternating between the orchestra and the main instrument repeating the same phrase, but it
is the third movement that amazes: in a sonata for two instruments, a single one plays a
whole movement, while the other stands still… Looking at the title of the six sonatas, one
can easily imagine which of the two instruments plays: please do not call them “Violin
Sonatas” anymore! A brilliant, quick and overwhelming fifth movement closes the piece and the
whole work in a similar way to the sonata in E major.
Bruno de Giusti
Supplement by Tommy Löfgren:
There are many of the movement that I wanted to use on NaturGIS website but now I choosed the
sonata 2 – part 3 – andante !
I believe Bach:s music often illustrates equality and lovefull cooperation (all parts are equally important for the whole)
and all create the progession and development of a theme or themes of importants.
Several of the violin/cembalo – sonatas combines a tender fragility of the individual with the beautiful power of cooperation.
One may think of love and cooperation and development between man and woman or between people.
The fragility of the parts have made me think (also) of fragile lifeforms,
like an individual of a rare and beautiful type of flower – growing and living,
dependent of a sensitive symbiosis and cooperation with others to exist and together creating a certain environment (biotope) ..
Like Bruno de Giusti writes the midisounds do not always give the original timbre of the sound (although it can be modified in a midisekvenser).
But what is important here- the structure of the creation is clearly shown.