Johann Sebastian Bach. Sonatas and Partitas for solo Violin

To state that Bach is a "grand master of counter-point" would not only be a commonplace. It would also be inappropriate for several reasons. First of all, one who applies this phrase to Bach fails to distinguish him from other great musicians. Composer and musicologist Philip Herskowitz, a student of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, explains, "Each great composer before and after Bach, whether Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler, certainly has the mastery of counter-point at Bach's level" above which no one can rise, since this is absolute.

What then are his personal merits?

He certainly knew everything, which is concern to the practice of his day, from teaching to structure of a harpsichord, from performance techniques to the acoustics of a hall. He has a perfect mastery of every instrument - from organ to voice. Being infinitely removed from such type of "marketing", Bach invented no new genre or trend. He is a great explorer of the nature of music, and he is a man of art. It means: everything that caught his eye he brought to a state of perfection. He studied and critically examined any noteworthy events, and then created the perfect pattern whatever the genre.

For Bach Gregorian chant, English and French suites, Italian concerto were just a cause to show "how it must be!" As if he mumbled under his breath: "great idea, but if we base on it, the whole must be like THIS!" All his concertos could be described as «Italian», as the concerto was an Italian genre in his day. This description has nothing to do with the national character, which can only apply to folk music. Just like science, the arts are supra-national, as their aim, like in science, is to attain a certain truth, an artistic truth in our case.

Being a child of his epoch in the sphere of genre or form, he was ahead of the time in harmony. That's where he was really an innovator! And here he looked extremely far. (Let's just remind same of his chromatic compositions, for example 25th section from Goldberg Variation, so strikingly rich in harmony). With the same diligence with which he didn't give up any of the genres until he achieved a perfect pattern, Bach with an exhaustive completeness studied language of music. An illustrative example is a supercycle of "24 preludes and fugues".

What is the idea of this work (or the whole set of ideas)?

Let's examine first the genre aspect. His "prelude and fugue" is a two-part cycle, built by the juxtaposing two methods of composition: polyphonic (where the underlying principle is the logic of melody and the unit of thought is a note) and homophonic (where the unit of thought is a chord, and the logic of the construction of the whole is a sequence of chords). Of course in all he did, there is a pedagogical aspect: Bach by his owns examples explained to us what is the art of prelude, what is the art of fugue. (Isn't it a credit to Bach that Goethe introduced a model category, as one of the most important aesthetic principles?). And last but not least "Bach was the first absolute dodecaphonist" as Philip Herskowitz said.

What does it mean? How can we understand it? 

In "24 Preludes and Fugues" is represented the whole palette of (as Schoenberg said) "bisexual" major-minor system (which was a result of the integration of five or six modes). Bach didn't invent tonality, but method of temperament, realized by him, determined the way of the tonality development. Tonality started to be a developing phenomenon. It enrich itself by borrowing the harmony content from the nearest fields and then from more and more distant relatives, what in the end led to "expanded tonality" which, as if it were a global empire, conquered the territory of all 24. The development would come to the end, "from the bisexual major-minor system appeared one supersex" (Schoenberg). The next step will be atonality. But this is already by Schoenberg. As to Bach...

With a strong conviction we can say that music in the contemporary sense started from Bach. He worked out the language that would use all the next generations of composers (till Schoenberg). His concept of tonality will be a departure point for R. Wagner and A. Schoenberg innovations.


In the epoch of Vienna Classics would be created piano compositions that will be not less important than Bach's music for Harpsichord. Although his Organ works are unsurpassed, this genre has had a long tradition and many significant names.

Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin have their own place in the history of music. They occupy a specific niche, filled to the brim, where there is no place for anything else. They are out of comparison.

Leopold Auer writes on this subject: "Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, unlike Corelli's and Tartini's Sonatas were not born directly from the violin itself. They were not violin's offspring but rather the result of pure inspiration, a great artistic concept. Sometimes the limited possibilities of the instrument were ignored; therefore they made a violinist resolve difficult technical problems".

Well, not only Bach's works for violin demand solving difficult technical problems. In fact, creating perfect compositions Bach would not be led by the instrumental stamps, believing that resolving technical problems is a duty of an instrumentalist. And here a question comes to mind worth considering.

How can we understand the fact that great masters like Wagner, Mahler or Schönberg created orchestral music, in which you cannot separate composition form the orchestra (their music is being born by the orchestra and it cannot be performed by different instruments), and Bach created his "Das Musikalische Opfer" not specifying the instruments?

Therefore in his "Das Musikalische Opfer" he is only a composer, «pure (separated from the interpreter) composer. As if he said: "the thought has been expressed, and the fact that it wasn't instrumentalised is not essential. To determine the instruments is a task for an interpreter, not for composer". But on the other hand, when Bach wrote a score assigning the instrument, his instrumental thinking is impeccably exact. Otherwise we could be playing without any loss "Ciaconna" on the Piano.


Generally Bach used to believe an interpreter. He has a respect towards the performer and he never overloaded his score with author's commentaries. Do many performers deserve such respect?

Each well performed composition should to arouse a felling of originality and authenticity. That's why all deep interpreters we can call «authentists». Let's hear like Heinrich Neuhaus literally «reanimated» Brahms! We feel the authenticity effect as a real artistic impression - a vivid delight from experiencing an author's thought.

Unfortunately in the contemporary performance (and not only contemporary) we can hardly find a good understanding of the tasks. Someone aims to «express oneself» and forget about the composition itself. The other, quite the contrary, aims to reconstruct an «objective historical truth», forget about himself and instead of performing this present work he plays probably "style of the epoch". Though, historical and artistic truths are not the same. I don't believe that «new music» we should play in a modern manner, and «old music» - in an old fashion. It's easy to hide one's own lack of understanding of the form under the archaic traits of the performance. The explanation: «I play it in such a manner, because it was established in those days» doesn't make an impression as well. The only justified explanation is: «I play it in such a manner, because it's an artistic truth». Music can be neither old nor new at all. It's either temporal or, to the contrary, timeless.

A performer, whose aim is to reconstruct a historical truth, can only show us, what from his (contemporary) point of view seems to him historically authentic. It's ridiculous when someone wants to open "antiques" (when neither he nor we haven't seen the original). At best he can make a copy of the antiques, or in other words counterfeit. We can create the effect of antiquity but we don't know if the composer wished it. After all if this result had satisfied musicians, no one would have improved the instruments and no one would have invented the new ones.

«If we perceive a classical work of the past as old-fashioned, says Heinrich Neuhaus, it means that we lack a historical perspective (culture), it's the doleful fact of our biography not a history of music. For an educated man three or four thousand years is a ridiculously short period».

When we perform Bach's music we, essentially, should ask and ask ourselves if we don't deserve his trust. We cannot achieve the effect of authenticity with the external means. The only thing that can help us with it is a harmonic hearing and sophisticated sense of form. Art is a thing in itself. It cannot be explained with words. We cannot explain it with things, existing out of it. On the contrary, music can explain us a lot. Maybe that's why it's always relevant. All the more Bach's music. He is always into the future if three hundred years before the advent of genetics; he discovered that in music "organism", everything is constructed by only one theme.

His discovery; «all from one and according to one rule» - is it not a universal philosophical view?

Let's however listen to Bach as Michael Vaiman hears it.


Leonid Hoffman

Moscow, 14.10.2007