The Sei Solo for the violin written by Johann Sebastian Bach are doubtlessly among the most extraordinary musical works of all times. Their extraordinary quality is due to a number of equally extraordinary factors, found uniquely together in this collection.
Firstly, there were very few examples of works written for unaccompanied violin at Bach’s time. The violin was commonly considered as a “melodic” instrument: one best suited for sustaining melodic lines (even very virtuoso ones), but which only rarely played chords, let alone polyphony. Chords imply the simultaneous compresence of multiple notes; since the violin’s strings are positioned over a curved bridge, this implies that the bow’s straight line in principle can touch (and therefore put into vibration) no more than two strings at a time; however, advanced violin technique includes the possibility of producing virtually simultaneous chords of three sounds, and arpeggiated chords of four sounds. If this can be done occasionally, the idea of producing a true polyphony on the violin is extremely daring, since polyphony implies the compresence of two or more parts, each with its own melody, and each with a coherence and consistence of its own. The idea of imagining a polyphony on what was seen as an essentially monodic instrument was revolutionary. As previously said, the fact that the experiment had been attempted prior to Bach did not make it less demanding, for composer and performer alike.
Moreover, the absence of an accompanying instrument – such as those which normally performed the continuo – implies that the entire harmonic/contrapuntal texture must be sustained and produced by the violin alone. This challenge now involves also the listener, besides the composer and the performer, since, occasionally, the utter impossibility of constructing a complete polyphony on the violin requires the listeners to supply – through their musical imagination – the missing notes.
The series is also exceptional under many other viewpoints. All of the works composing it are – needless to say – among the most demanding of the entire violin literature, both technically and musically. Played together, they are probably the Mount Everest of the violin. The difficulty they pose in terms of technique, musicianship and also fruition prevented these masterpieces from being adequately understood for many decades after Bach’s death. They did circulate, in manuscript copies, transmitted from musician to musician, from teacher to student; but they were considered to lay beyond the limits of what is playable. Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who were among the most enthusiastic promoters of Bach’s music in the early nineteenth century, admired these works and loved them; yet, they implicitly agreed with their contemporaries in considering them as unworkable. This idea is demonstrated by the fact that both wrote piano accompaniments for these pieces, with the intent of showing their underlying harmonic structure.
Indeed, Bach himself allegedly used to play them on keyboard instruments, and actually transcribed some of them for other instruments or ensembles (occasionally in their complete form, occasionally as individual movements). This demonstrates that this set occupied a very special place in the view of the composer himself. Furthermore, Bach’s justified pride in this incomparable achievement is also shown by the beautiful autograph fair copy he realized in 1720, probably collecting works written in the previous years. It is a magnificent example of Bach’s calligraphy and of his care in laying down the text of an exceptional set.
The occasion for the creation of this beautiful manuscript has long been debated. It is commonly known that Bach loved to systematize some of his best creations, at times preparing them for publication. On other occasions, he collected some other works in equally beautiful manuscripts, which could become refined homages for aristocratic patrons. However, if Bach had envisaged a printed publication of the Sei Solo, this never came to completion during his lifetime; and if a patron or dedicatee was the intended recipient of the set, he or she has never been identified.
If these works were intended as a homage, the recipient must have been an exceptional violin player, or at least have one extraordinary such musician in his or her employment. On the other hand, it is also possible that Bach intended this set first and foremost as the summit of his own violin technique and understanding of violin playing. After his death, Bach would be remembered for decades more as an organ player than as a composer; however, he had been a great violin virtuoso in his youthful years, and it has been argued that his first steps in musical education may have been as a violin, rather than as a keyboard player.
Certainly, he knew the secrets of violin playing perfectly; and whilst he surely drew from the most recent developments of Italian and German violin technique, he arguably brought many innovations, some of which would remain unrivalled for decades. After the initiatives of Joseph Joachim, who, in the nineteenth century, started to perform these works in public, the alleged unplayability of the set became a challenge to be overcome by the players; but their definitive popularization came only in the twentieth century, particularly after the first complete recording realized by Yehudi Menuhin. By then, of course, the idea of writing for unaccompanied violin had gained widespread acceptance, not least thanks to the Capricci by Niccolò Paganini; yet, the firm establishment of Bach’s works in the violin repertoire provided new fuel to this tendency and certainly inspired many modern masterpieces for unaccompanied violin.
The set consists of six pieces, three of which are labelled “Sonatas” and three “Partia” (“Partia” being one of the names commonly used in Baroque Germany to indicate a “Partita”, i.e. a suite). They follow a precise tonal ordering, both as concerns the keys involved and the modes (major and minor): this also reveals their intimate connection and unified concept.
The odd-numbered works are Sonatas, following the scheme of church sonatas: a slow, solemn opening movement is followed by a Fugue; then comes a lyrical piece, in a different key, and finally a virtuoso movement with bravura traits.
The Partitas (even-numbered) are more varied in their concept; for example, the B-minor Partita is constituted by pairs of movements, in which one of the traditional dances of the suite is always followed by a variation, called “Double”, with a quicker pace; here, moreover, the traditional concluding Gigue is omitted. By way of contrast, in the great Partita in D minor the Gigue is followed by a further movement, the Chaconne. This structure was rather typical for keyboard Suites, and in fact this Partita seems to reveal a concept indebted to keyboard music.
The Chaconne is rightly considered as a masterpiece of its own, crowning the beautiful second Partita. It is much longer than all other movements; structurally, it consists of a series of variations over a bass line. However, these variations are conceived by Bach also in a very narrative fashion, so that the impression one receives is not of a repetition, but rather of an evolution, of a progress. Recently, musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested a symbolic interpretation for the entire set, and particularly for the Chaconne. Some elements of her reading are indisputable, such as, for example, the numeric ratios between the number of bars of some individual movements and of some works of the set. Others are very suggestive, such as the possible presence of “hidden” chorale tunes in the Chaconne, and the evident citation of the Chorale Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist in the magnificent Fugue of the C-major Sonata. Others are more speculative and debatable, such as the presence of encoded words in the set, although the idea is doubtlessly fascinating.
The main point of Thoene’s theory is that the Chaconne could have been intended as a post-mortem homage to the memory of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who had suddenly and unexpectedly died during her husband’s absence from home. The itinerary suggested by the Chorale tunes “hidden” in the Chaconne strongly supports this theory, mirroring the musical itinerary apparent in the music itself: from despair to reflection, then to enlightenment, to the expectation of an eschatological feast, and finally to the acceptance of God’s will in this life. Against this view are chronological aspects, which may undermine an otherwise fascinating theory; in all cases, the spiritual quality of the Chaconne and of many other movements of this set is undeniable. The Sarabandes are always moments of intense expressivity and frequently suffused with a prayerful mood; the opening slow movements and the Fugues of the Sonatas are always solemn, sublime, but also touching and emotionally involving, even in the midst of the most intricate counterpoint and polyphonic structures. There are also many moments of pure joy, many of which are found in the shining E-major Partita, with its Italianate features and the brio and elan it displays.
Together, these works represent a journey of the soul, “per aspera ad astra”: an experience through which the composer, the performer and the listener are joined together, attempting to understand the meaning of musical events as symbols for the meaning of life itself.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Paolo Ghidoni was born in Mantova, Italy in 1964 and graduated at the young age of 17 under the guidance of Ferruccio Sangiorgi. Following this instruction, he attended chamber music courses at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole with the Trio di Trieste and at the Accademia Chigiana di Siena where, for three years (1983-85) he worked towards the completion of the distinguished violin diploma from the class of Maestro Franco Gulli. In addition to his studies with M. Gulli, Paolo Ghidoni has also studied with Ivri Gitlis at the Accademie de Sion, Franco Claudio Ferrari in Mantova and with Salvatore Accardo in Cremona. As a soloist and chamber musician, Ghidoni has performed more than 1500 concerts. He is a founding member of the prestigious Trio Matisse (1983), which won the "Vittorio Gui" prize in Florence when Ghidoni was only 19 years old. He has widely performed in Europe, the United States, Australia, Israel, China and South America. Paolo Ghidoni has collaborated with various musicians such as: Mario Brunello, Enrico Dindo, il Trio d'Archi della Scala with Franco Petracchi, Giuliano Carmignola, and Danilo Rossi. In addition, he has collaborated with hornists: Ifor James, Hermann Baumann and Jonathan Williams and also with various pianists, one of which being Bruno Canino.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.