By Richard Luby

On a cold, bleak Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1985, I performed the complete cycle of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin in an all-but-unheated Playmakers Theater on the UNC campus. I performed them on Baroque violin, on gut strings, at low pitch (A+415). I believe I broke several E strings in the course of the evening.

On January 20 and February 2, 2012, I will return to “Historic” Playmakers Theater to revisit the cycle, on modern violin, and in a more comfortable two evenings. Hopefully there will be more heat! If anyone from the audience of 1985 attends these performances please come back stage after – I want to get your autograph!

I’d like to share some ideas about these works that have come to mind in the interim.

I will perform the works in order as I did in 1985, an order that I now consider inevitable, given a view that the cycle constitutes a continuum and progression from spiritual struggle and crisis to quiet joy and depiction of worldly contentment. Inner relationships between each Sonata and Partita, as well as the overall trajectory of the cycle itself, create a vast musical, spiritual/secular journey that I feel truly distinguishes and characterizes these unique works.

The Solo Violin Sonatas of Bach are, superficially, examples of Sonatas da Chiesa, the Partitas, Sonatas da Camera. The historical Sonata da Chiesa, originally inserted into a church service, used a “slow-fast-slow-fast” movement structure, presumably to vary and enhance the pace of the service. Bach, a man of the church as much as Mozart was a man of the theater, used the original derivation of the Chiesa and Camera forms to his own purposes – spiritual, philosophical, and artistic – to create a quite miraculous self-contained small universe.

In Bach’s hands, the Sonatas seem to become the service itself, the “sermon” contained in the Fugas, introduced by a first movement Adagio, in quasi-improvisational style, as a church organist might supply (if he were an incredible genius). Each Sonata third movement constitutes an individual reaction to, and internalization of, the content of the sermon/Fuga, and each final movement, an exit from the spiritual space created by this interaction of individual and institution.

Each Sonata is paired with a Partita, the secular form that advances and transfers to a secular space the musical affective elements of the preceding Sonata. The Partitas constitute not mere dance movements as entertainment, but rather the symbolic life-dances that represent the worldly sphere in which even the most spiritually-minded must dwell.

There is an ongoing evolution in mood and content throughout the six works: from the stern, moralistic G minor Sonata I, the more contemplative A minor Sonata II, and the C major Sonata III, a work that moves from solemnity (it has been described as the most tragic sounding major work ever written) to affirmation, lyric joy and exultation.

Each of the three Partitas seems linked to the Sonata which precedes it. The B minor Partita, containing some of the most extreme, intense music of the cycle, seems to struggle with the moral rigor presented within the G minor Sonata. The D minor Partita carries forward the “mid-life” complexities of the A minor Sonata to an ultimate and powerful conclusion in the mighty Ciaccona. The E major Partita receives and extends the final music of optimism and quiet joy that emerges in the C major Sonata.

Discussion of a possible unity contained in the Bach works for solo violin is not new but has tended to focus on a narrative “curve” that places the D minor Partita at a tragic center, perhaps as an expression of grief at the loss of Bach’s second wife. We can never know the original motivation for these unique works. The idea of the cycle representing a kind of vast, novelistic treatment of Bach’s view of the spiritual and secular is undoubtedly anachronistic. Bach’s compositional intentions were usually more technical, in exhaustively and miraculously advancing all possibilities of contrapuntal invention, temperament, harmony, and, of course, in musical depiction of the stories and celebrations of his Lutheran faith and heritage. However, I know of no other body of Bach’s work that so juxtaposes genres of historically sacred and secular musical forms. And what could be more illustrative of his Lutheran world than the symbolic use of the single violin as the individual’s sacred right and opportunity to contemplate the deity?

Note: Violinist Richard Luby performs the Sonatas and Partitas in two installments, on January 20 and on February 2. See the sidebar for details. In addition, for Durham’s Chamber Arts Society and Duke Performances, Christian Tetzlaff plays them in one fell swoop, on January 23. For information on that concert, click here. Gil Shaham played three of these six works in Chapel Hill, in October; for a review, click here. It would appear that the last local performance of all six was by Nicholas Kitchen, in 2003. For a review of his two concerts, click here. Given the comparative rarity of concerts featuring these works, Bach lovers among us may wish to take in both Luby’s and Tetzlaff’s traversals.