J. S. Bach: You Are Alone
The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, composed by JS Bach, are quite significant in the world of any violinist. An integral part of a violinist’s repertoire, I would argue that one cannot consider themselves to be a serious violinist without knowing at least ONE of the whopping 32 movements that make up the three sonatas and three partitas. These sonatas and partitas were composed during the Baroque era of music (in the early 18th century, to be precise). Though a violinist cannot typically recreate an authentic Baroque performance with modern instruments, one can study what techniques were used on the Baroque violin and emulate that. But, if one could look at these iconic violin solos in a different light, what else could be gathered about the six works? What if the bigger picture suggests that the sonatas and partitas are actually interconnected, like chapters of an epic? If that were the case, then instead of musically analyzing each movement, or even each individual sonata and partita, one should examines these components as being part of a bigger whole (a roughly 2.5 hour whole I might add).
While Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas are known to be a collection of three sonatas and three partitas, Bach did not actually call these pieces by this title. To Bach, the six pieces were part of a book that he called Sei Solo (with the subtitle) Violino senza Basso accompagnato, which roughly translates to “Six solos for violin without bass accompaniment.” What I want to focus the attention on is the title in Italian, Sei Solo. It is known that Bach was familiar with many languages, including Italian. But anyone who can speak basic Italian knows that the phrase, “Sei Solo,” is grammatically incorrect. “Sei” means six, and “solo” is a singular noun. If the phrase was grammatically, the title would be “Sei Soli,” with the noun being plural to reflect the number of solos. Bach was proficient in enough Italian to be aware of this mistake. However, “sei” in Italian also translates to “you are.” So the title can also be translated as “You Are Alone.”
That is certainly not a coincidence, to name one’s set of violin solos “You Are Alone.” In the Baroque era, though Bach was not the first to write solo violin music, such repertoire was not particularly common at the time. A Baroque violin was really built for monophonic melodies, and monophonic solo music can become really boring really fast. To compensate for this, Bach used counterpoint and rich chords to make a single violin sound like many, which was challenging, as chords were not easy to play on the Baroque violin. However, Bach changed the violin’s monophonic sound into a diaphanous, and even polyphonous sound. Bach’s violin solos are written to sound rich and full, and with no one else to support that sound. It was really down to the lone violinist. So the grammatically incorrect title could simply be Bach reminding the performer the fullness of sound has to come from them, because they are alone in their pursuit to play the solos.
But the plot thickens. I have yet to explain how the Sonatas and Partitas are like chapters in an epic. The connection between the title and Bach’s intention behind the solos was first discussed by musicologist Helga Thoene and has since been generally accepted today. The history goes as follows: After returning from a three-month trip with his patron, Bach returned to find that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died due to illness. Because of the lack of communication in the 1720s, by the time that Bach had returned, his wife of 13 years had already been buried. Bach wrote the Chaconne from the second partita during his grieving, followed by the other partitas. Following the composition of the partita, Bach finalized the order for the partitas and the sonatas (the sonatas were written a few years prior). Knowing that Bach was mourning the loss of his wife, the order of the sonatas and partitas is significant.
The second partita is a critical point in the musical epic, encompassing the Chaconne, the fifteen-minute experience that is both beautiful and demanding. The entire tone of the second partita is melancholic sound. The first movement of the partita, the Allemande, only has a handful of chords used at the beginning and end of a particular section, but the rest of the piece is just a lone melody. The monophony and lonely nature of the Allemande foreshadows the Chaconne to come. The movement that follows is the Corrente, which is more dance-like than the previous movement, but the melancholy from the Allemande lingers. The third movement, the Sarabande, is a despondent movement filled with a beautiful melodic line ladened with chords. The penultimate movement is the Gigue, which carries a sense of urgency with the quick pace and evenness of rhythm.
I could probably write about the Chaconne alone for ages, as it is extremely complex in sound and technique. This movement is the climax of the musical story arc. There are incredibly moments in the Chaconne that are small and quiet, which contrast the large, raw sound that dominates the exposition of the movement and much of the piece. Bach composed the Chaconne as a sort of musical epitaph for his late wife, so this homage to his wife is at the core of the violin solos. Since the composer would have been a widower during the composition/compilation of the works, perhaps Sei Solo is a grim reminder of how, just like the performer is alone in their soloistic endeavours, Bach unexpectedly found himself to be alone as well.
To conclude, though the title of the sonatas and partitas translates to “You Are Alone,” it would not do the music justice to simply interpret the music as if the movements of each sonata and partita were independent to each others. In a way, Bach established the theme of the pieces with the use of his cleverly crafted title. Regardless of whether one is familiar with the story behind the title, feeling or being alone is something which is inevitable when one performs or listens to these works. And given how Bach may have felt during the conception of Sei Solo, it is a reminder that though you are alone, you are not alone in being alone, which is something that tends I think to be forgotten.