Scaling the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin requires a firm grasp of violin technique and a propensity for soul-searching. John Holloway, Rachel Podger, Julia Fischer, and others discuss their approach
by Laurence Vittes
Fifty years ago, virtuosos like Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Yehudi Menuhin—and many other violinists as well—played the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001–1006), composed in 1720, with little or no knowledge of the way the music would have been performed in Bach’s time. In the 1950s, Baroque violins and bows were not readily available, and there was little curiosity about them. The music was regarded by audiences as not only deadly serious stuff, but deadly boring.
And why not?
Even the greatest violinists played the works as if they were exercises. And in truth, that is what they had become, as much for the superstars as for the students.
Midway through the ’60s, however, a revolution began in the way some musicians thought about Baroque-era music, and each discovery fueled more hands-on work with the instruments that Bach and his contemporaries used. The new viewpoint was that written scores had not been meant to serve as rigid guides to performance—sounds, speeds, and phrasings—but as a departure point for music making, at the heart of which lay the performer’s own sense of personal expression. In the process, Bach and his pre-Classical colleagues were transformed from quaint historical figures into seminal composers whose music fully comes alive only when it is performed with the kind of spontaneous, quasi-improvisational freedom that has its best modern equivalent in jazz.
The six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin took on new life.
Bach composed the works at Cöthen, where he worked as kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Prussia, during a period that also produced the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and the Brandenburg Concertos. The three sonatas have four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast tempi format (the second movement is a fugue); the partitas are a set of three suites composed of dance-based movements of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, though the first substitutes a bourrée for the gigue; the second includes a chaconne as a fifth movement; and the third adheres to that format only in the final gigue.
Ferdinand David published the first edition in 1843, nine decades after the composer’s death (the original manuscript was famously saved after nearly being used as butcher paper). Joseph Joachim first recorded a partial version in 1903; Yehudi Menuhin recorded the first complete set 30 years later.
Recently, music critic and author Kirk McElhearn called the works “miracles of music, where a single violin embarks on some of the most remarkable musical discourses ever written.”
When British musician Rachel Podger (pictured above), a leading star in today’s Baroque violin firmament, first heard professional Baroque string players perform the works on a recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, she heard what “seemed to be an overall clarity of sound which made each part audible.
“It made the overall sonority sound rather translucent,” she says, “and, in a way, it sounded rather bare to my trained modern ear. I liked the gutsy sound of the bow on the string. It made the fast notes sparkle and sound like they were on fire, while the slower ones and longer phrases had real intensity due to the way the bow went slowly into the gut-string when drawn across it.”
A number of recent recordings—including the most recent by John Holloway (ECM New Series 1909/10), who served as concertmaster for both the Taverner Players and the London Classical Players—illustrate how dramatically the Baroque revolution has affected both Baroque- and modern-style performance of the six Sonatas and Partitas. As Holloway says: “No one ever conquers them.”
Holloway’s concern is that Bach’s music “is becoming more and more a foreign language to all of us. Therefore,” he says, “we need to understand that language, learn its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and see what kinds of things can be expressed with it. What you can put behind a performance of the Sonatas and Partitas is an understanding of how Bach reduces complex counterpoints to skeletons, and how brilliantly he translates those into challenges for the violinist; how this fit into what interested Bach, and what his priorities were both in life and as a working musician.
“So, while for the Baroque violinist—and for any violinist since—the Sonatas and Partitas are an encyclopedia of 18th-century violin techniques, for Bach, who was teaching himself what the limits of the violin were, it was part of his ongoing exploration of what the possibilities were for the instruments that interested him. And, of course, in teaching himself—for he probably played most of the music he wrote— he’s also teaching us.”
The Dutch violinist Lucy van Dael—who with Frans Brüggen founded the Orchestra of the 18th Century and for 18 years served as its concertmaster—joined the Baroque revolution when she realized “that what I wanted to do with Bach couldn’t be done with a modern bow and violin.”
In Amsterdam, where Gustav Leonhardt was working, and in Brussels in the 1970s, where the Belgian Kuijken family was doing the same thing, the time was ripe, Dael says, to embrace period performance and apply those practices to the six Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo. “It was a revolution against the way Bach was being taught and played, where the individuality of the musician was not valued anymore. If you were playing the Sonatas and Partitas, you had to play as perfectly as Milstein or Heifetz. It was like the assembly line in Chaplin’s movie Modern Times.”
Sigiswald Kuijken, whose 1981 recording of the complete cycle was one of the first on a Baroque violin, describes another dimension to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. “Not only is it very hard music,” he says, “it is a challenge to play these pieces because the technique Bach is looking for is not the technique you learn at the conservatory. You have to approach it from ‘underneath,’ from a context of the earlier music for violin that Bach would have been familiar with. Bach then took the violin—which is, after all, a relatively limited, high-pitched instrument with no bass capability—to the limit essentially by writing a compendium of what you can do on four strings.
“And keep in mind,” Kuijken stresses, “that Bach’s language [on these works] is not any different from that of his other works. In other words, it wasn’t violin music as much as it was Bach written on the violin.”
Kuijken believes that the emotional bond musicians have with Bach results from “the incredible depth and mystery in his music that brings us close to the very nucleus of existence. When I was in Leipzig in 2000,” he says, “the commemoration for the 250th anniversary of his death was like the celebration of a saint; it was so because there is something in Bach’s music that goes beyond daily life.”
That emotional attachment to Bach seems to unite all violinists, whether they are of the Baroque or modern persuasion. Susanna Yoko Henkel says that “Bach’s music, along with that of Mozart, represents my musical homeland. My earliest childhood memories include my mother playing the English Suites after my brothers and I had been sent to bed. My father was always practicing the six Cello Suites. My teacher, Ana Chumachenco, has often reminded me that practicing Bach has a cathartic dimension to it and is the best preparation for other pieces, because you become so focused and clear.
“Practicing Bach for me is like meditation, a daily prayer that connects me with higher spheres.”
Tedi Papavrami has a similar relationship, extending even to his ability to “manage my time alone and to be responsible of the understanding of whatever I’m studying.”
He cites a deeper existence in Bach’s music than in that of others, of “the necessity for complete humility in its expression. The essential emotional bond I have with this music is more as a listener. Of course, Bach’s solo-violin music is the only music I play when I am not preparing other repertoire, and I must play my Guadagnini to keep up my instrumental level. But to listen to or simply to think about the Bach would be enough.”
For Julia Fischer, asking violinists whether they like Bach is like “asking them if they like the Bible. It’s basic for any violinist—it’s music you spend all your life with. In fact, if you don’t like Bach’s solo-violin music, it’s very hard to be a violinist.”
What makes the music so basic for Fischer, who started playing it when she was seven, is not only the comprehensive range of its technical difficulties—“You can learn to play the violin with the Sonatas and Partitas,” she says—but the fact that Bach was the foundation “for all music that has been written afterwards. Like violinists, every composer has a relationship with Bach.”
Each of these modern violinists acknowledges the insights to be gained by experimenting with Baroque violins and, especially, Baroque bows. Henkel was astonished to find out how much more easily and naturally she could play the Sonatas and Partitas with original instruments.
“I have benefited a great deal from the Bach recordings of eminent Baroque violinists, such as Sigiswald Kuijken. In the past, my interpretations of Bach were influenced by the ‘Romantic’ violin tradition—after all, my mother was a student of Gingold’s—but this older generation was cultivating an altogether different understanding of Bach than we have today.
“When I started to acquaint myself with historical performance practice, with Baroque ornaments and tempi, and to experience a Baroque violin and bow, my view changed.”
Similarly Papavrami, who felt technically comfortable with such fiendishly difficult composers as Paganini, Sarasate, and Wieniawski, was surprised that his bow technique “was not good enough for Bach. It was necessary to develop my bow technique, to erase any tension in the left hand and to let the music breath naturally.
“Paradoxically, I learned much more from Bach about technique than from the so-called virtuoso pieces.”
Many modern violinists remain either indifferent or openly hostile to the whole question of authentic performance practice—Israeli violinist Pinchas Zukerman is the most notable, if unofficial, spokesperson for this group. Ironically, most Baroque violinists start out as modern violinists. There’s the practical aspect of having to make a living—Baroque music concerts and recordings represent only a tiny percentage of professional work—and then there’s the imposing technical challenge.
Accordingly, most Baroque violin teachers assume that new students will come to them with at least adequate technique on modern violin. Lucy van Dael says it takes most students four to five months “to understand the approach and change their way of playing.”
She’s pretty blunt about it: “If you have someone who never played the modern violin very well,” she says, “then you have someone whose ability to express himself is too limited.”
Of course, it might take you longer than four months—it took Maxim Vengerov almost two years to learn.