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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
PARTITA NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1004
Music making with instruments is an art form born of invention and perhaps as old as humanity itself. In this regard, the music of the Baroque period is no different and it is in the life’s work of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries that much can be learned about the art of transcription.
In general terms, transcription is the adaptation of a piece of music for a different instrument, voice, or group of these. During the Baroque period, competition between courts in Europe was rife and the sharing of the most fashionable music of the day created a necessity for musical solutions to suit the specific instruments and forces at hand. Bach’s organ and harpsichord transcriptions of music by Vivaldi, Marcello, Torelli and others attest to this.
Despite being known primarily as a keyboard virtuoso, Bach’s skill as a multi-instrumentalist surely facilitated his work transcribing music. While he never wrote music for solo viola, it would not be irreverent to imagine transcriptions of his works for solo violin or cello being performed by other solo instruments, like the viola.
During her research in preparation for her solo performance in the Bach Series, Brandenburg violist Marianne Yeomans came across some interesting insights into JS Bach’s musical preferences:
Bach was a keen violist. He is reported to have preferred playing the viola in chamber music. Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote in his 1802 biography of Bach, “In musical parties… he took pleasure in playing the viola. With this instrument he was, as it were, in the centre of harmony, whence he could best hear and enjoy it on both sides."
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From all accounts 1720 would have been a terribly difficult year for JS Bach; the sudden death of his much-loved first wife, Maria Barbara, was only announced to him upon his return home from Carlsbad with Prince Leopold. Whether it was one of the couple’s four surviving children who gave him the news or Maria Barbara’s older sister who had been living with the family for more than a decade, is not known. History only records that this profound loss had a lasting impact on Bach’s life.
The completed autograph manuscript of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin also comes to us from the year 1720. Some scholars have drawn comparisons between the tragic loss of his wife and the sorrowful music of Partita No. 2 in D minor in particular. The Sarabanda is the third movement of the D minor partita, written by Bach in keeping with slower French and German sarabandes: set in a slow triple metre with a strong sense of balance based on four-bar phrases.
Transposed for viola into G minor, here the opening chords of the first phrase are particularly haunting. From a performer’s perspective, Marianne Yeomans shared the following observations:
Each movement [of the partita] is written in a minor key and has strongly emotive characteristics. Despite the dance-like movements, joyfulness is not depicted in them.
Program Notes: Joanna Butler & Hugh Ronzani, 2021
Image Credit: Katelyn-Jane Dunn, 2020
BACH SERIES PRESENTING PARTNER