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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
PARTITA NO. 1 IN B MINOR, BWV 1002
Allemanda & Double
As with many influential figures throughout history, during the latter stages of JS Bach’s life opinions of his character and work had become polarised. In 1737, composer and theoretician Johann Adolf Scheibe openly criticised Bach in his weekly journal in the name of simplicity and melodiousness, accusing him of abusing overcomplicated counterpoint and harmonic structures in his music.
This great man would be the admiration of entire nations if he had more pleasantness, and if he did not allow a bombastic and confused style to suffocate naturalness in his pieces, or obscure their beauty through excessive artifice.
JOHANN ADOLF SCHEIBE
The criticisms levelled by Scheibe did not go without reply, and in the following year the virtue of JS Bach’s music would receive a thorough and academic defence from Johann Abraham Birnbaum, a professor of rhetoric at Leipzig University situated some 500m from St Thomas Church where Bach was employed at the time. The resulting dispute would become known as the Scheibe-Birnbaum affair and to this day is recognised as one of the most important documents regarding the reception of Bach’s music before his death.
Throughout his own research, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Matthew Greco has also formulated ideas regarding JS Bach’s music that are in stark opposition to those forwarded by Scheibe nearly 300 years ago:
As historical performers, it is our job to continually ask questions about the function of music in which we have chosen to specialise. In the case of JS Bach’s collection of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, we are dealing with works whose function is to portray all the richness of harmony and multi-voiced texture that is characteristic of Bach’s music, on an instrument that is primarily melodic. This approach makes it clear that Bach is pushing the violin to the limits of its technical and expressive capabilities. Once again when looking at function, Bach adds to this already considerable technical feat, the task of presenting these works in the model of the French and Italian dance forms.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
The opening Allemanda & Double frames the beautiful dissonances of the key of B minor in a rather simple textural progression, where more vertical chords become flowing triplets, then finally semiquaver arpeggios in the Double. This development is very clear in the score itself, and Matthew Greco’s masterful control of time helps render it audible. Here is what he has to say about the music:
What is important to me and part of my decision to record these movements, is the essential character of this music. The darkness and anguish brought on by the dissonant and unexpected chords of this partita resemble the religious gravitas of works like Bach’s aria Es ist vollbracht! from the St John Passion, which is also in the key of B minor. This incredible aria is sung right before Jesus’ death on the cross, as he cries:
It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!
Program Notes: Joanna Butler & Hugh Ronzani, 2021
Image Credit: Katelyn-Jane Dunn, 2020
BACH SERIES PRESENTING PARTNER