On Bach’s Second Violin Partita
Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato (Six Solos for Violin Without Bass Accompaniment), as Bach entitled them, were completed in 1720 in Köthen (in old spelling Cöthen), where he was Kapellmeister. Unusually, Bach indicated the year of completion on the title page of this composition. In July of the same year his first wife Maria Barbara Bach (1684 –1720) unexpectedly died, and there is a popular theory that this work was probably written in memory of her. However this theory is not supported by the most of scholars.
The Partita in D minor for solo violin (BWV 1004) consists of five movements given in Italian as Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabanda, Giga & Ciaccona.
This partita is especially famous because of the astonishing Ciaccona, its final movement. Here is how Brahms expressed his feeling about it in the letter to Clara Schumann in June 1877: “The Chaconne is for me one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad”.
The most of the movements of dance suites in baroque music are written in so called “binary form”: AB. It means that the form has two complementary, related parts or sections of approximately equal duration. The second part is a sort of repetition of the first one, but with some tonal and structural changes. Normally the first part starts in a certain key, and then modulates to a related key. The second part begins in the newly established key and then modulates back to the original key. Every part is repeated: AABB. For the compositions in major keys the related key is normally the key of the dominant (V). For the compositions in minor keys it is often the key of the mediant (III) or the minor dominant (v); and we will see that in this work Bach decided to use them both. Sometimes highly developed binary form could have some similarity to sonata form, and this piece is one of such examples.
A baroque suite traditionally begins with allemande. It is a medieval German dance usually written “in a grave and ceremonious manner”, “a serious and well-composed harmoniousness in arpeggiated style, expressing satisfaction or amusement, and delighting in order and calm”. Normally it has two parts, and each of them begins with a sort of double knock: a short note in upbeat and a longer note on the first bit of the next bar – usually of the same pitch. After these two or three steps the dancers are “balancing on one foot”.
The Second Violin Partita by Bach begins with such “double-knock”: a short upbeat and a longer note on the strong beat of the bar:
This is the cell from which the whole piece grows. The both notes occupy 4 semiquavers or the crotchet. We shall call this rhythmic element “a”. The next crotchet consists of two “double-knocks”, where all the notes are short:
We shall call this variant “b”. It is repeated and followed by the repetition of the initial element “a”: “a b b a”. Here we have the more elaborated construction that we can regard as a motive (or “complex motive”, a “motive-group”, or “Gestalt” (as it was named after Schoenberg). The motive is repeated, but with some transformations: “b b b c”, where “c” is elaborated version of “b” with triplets at the end:
Here are the first two bars:
- Ex. 1. Allemanda. Motives.
The repetition of the motive follows by reduction and liquidation:
- Ex. 2. Allemanda. The structure of the theme.
This structure has all the features of the sentence (or ‘der Satz’) and can be treated as a principal theme.
In b.8 one more element appears that can be explained as a result of further division and reduction of the motive: demisemiquavers:
- Ex. 3. Allemanda. The episode in A minor.
This new feature becomes the main characteristic of the episode in A minor (b.8-16), which function is similar to the subordinate theme in the sonata form. This episode is a loose construction. Its structure is asymmetric and based on the principle of sequencing, that is, the repetition of melodic fragments of different lengths at different pitches in the descending or ascending direction. We even can distinguish a several stages in it (as in a group of subordinate themes: bars 8-10, 11-13, 14-15 and 15-16 – the last of these serves as closing bars or cadence.
Alongside the development of motives, harmonic processes play a crucial role in structuring musical form. In compositions for a solo instrument, such as a violin, harmony is often hidden behind the bends of melodic phrases. But in this music the harmonic functions can be easily defined.
The scheme below shows that the first thematic formation begins in D minor, and in the middle of b.3 deviates into the key of the mediant: F major. The segment ends with the cadence in the new key. But on the second beat of b.6 D minor immediately returns back. There is a question: to regard this as a modulation, or rather as a cadence on the mediant of D minor. We can chose this or that, but my teacher, who believed that “a principal theme, as a rule, does not modulate”, would probably chose the second point of view.
However in b.7 we see a real modulation, where i – II 5/6 of D minor becomes the pivotal iv – V 5/6 of A minor that lasts until the end of the first part of the piece. It ends on the A major chord – the dominant of D minor, which returns us back to the beginning or to the second part of the piece.
- Ex. 4. Allemanda. The harmony of the 1st part.
This is very much similar to the exposition of the sonata form: here we have the Principal theme b.1-6, the Transition b.6-7, the Subordinate (group) theme(s) b.8-15 and the Closing bars b. 15-16. The division inside this section can be defined as follows:
The second part also has 16 bars. Beginning with V – i of D minor it soon modulates through its VI degree (B-flat major) into the key of the subdominant: G minor, where it stays for four bars. Since this segment is based on the material of the second half of the first part, it could be regarded as a sort of the recapitulation of the Subordinate theme. In b. 23 the new section begins on the subdominant, and via the mediant, modulates into the main key D minor establishes itself within the last eight bars.
The overall tonal plan of the piece is as follows:
||: d – F – a :|||: d – B♭ – g – F – d :||
||: i – III – v :|||: i – VI – iv – III – i :||
This is important to remember because in the following movements the tonal plan will follow the same pattern.
Corrente or courante literally means “running”. The French courante is “a grave and majestic” dance in ¾ of 6/4 in rather slow tempo, while the Italian corrente can be much faster. In a Baroque suite the courante is normally the second movement that follows allemande.
The piece also begins with a “double knock”. The first four bars forms the antecedent of the period, which structure is based on a contrast between the triplets of the motive A, and the dotted rhythm of the motive B. It is built as: AABB:
- Ex. 5. Corrente. The motives at the beginning.
The consequent modulates into the key of the III degree (F major) and, being twice longer than the antecedent, occupies eight bars. Schematically it may be shown as ABAAABAA.
The four bars of the Transition (BABA) modulate into the key of the minor dominant (A minor) and lead to the thematic formation (b.17-24) that we can regard as the Subordinate theme:
- Ex. 6. Corrente. Episode in A minor.
The first part occupies 24 bars, but the second part is extended at the end and occupies 30 bars. The tonal plan follows exactly the same pattern as allemande.
Sarabande, saraband, sarabanda (or zarabanda) a slow dance in triple meter with accent on the second beat. It has Spanish/Mexican origin. It is described as “a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people”. Sarabande is normally included in a baroque suite as the third movement followed by a gigue.
The theme of Sarabanda in this Bach Partita occupies the whole first part of the piece. It is structured as a period (b.1-8) with very exquisite and extravagant harmony: the antecedent ends with a cadence on the major tonic treated as the secondary dominant on the first degree; the consequent begins with the subdominant and ends with a cadence on the dominant. Then the theme is repeated.
- Ex. 7. The theme of Sarabanda.
The second part is twice longer than the first one, and it would be more reasonable speak here not about binary, but rather about ternary form. It begins with the dominant of D minor that is resolved into the tonic of D major, and then modulates through C major into G minor (the key of the subdominant) finishing here with a full cadence. The next 8-bar segment we can regard as the third part of the ternary form. It begins with a modulation to F major, and then higher and higher: to G major and to A major that leads to the tonic of D minor. These structural transformation and extension of the form were caused by a substantial presence of the subdominant that had to be properly balanced. But these efforts were not sufficient enough, and Bach added four more bars of the Coda at the end to strengthen the principal tonality.
The overall division in the form is like follows:
Giga or Gigue is a lively baroque dance usually in 3/8 6/8, 6/4, 9/8 or 12/8 meter. It is originating from the British folk dance called jig. Giga in this Partita is written in the binary form. Both parts are equal in their length: 20 bars each. The main theme occupies the first five bars. It is built as a sort of a sentence. The initial group of motives (b.1) is repeated with exchange of harmony: i – V – V – i, and then developed with a reduction and liquidation: i – iv – VII – III – VI – ii – V – i – V – i
- Ex. 8. Giga. The beginning.
It is continued with an extensive 8-bar episode in relative major (F major, b. 6-13) that can be regarded as a sort of a Subordinate theme.
- Ex. 9. Giga. The beginning of the episode in F major.
It is followed by the modulation into the key of the minor dominant (A minor), changing to A major at the end. We can see that Bach systematically repeats the tonal plan of the first two movements of the Partita. And we see the same in the second part of the Giga.
At the beginning of the second part the A major seventh chord is resolved into the tonic of the principal key (D minor), followed by modulation into the key of the subdominant (G minor). The following 8-bar episode can be treated as a recapitulation of the subordinate theme. So, in this piece, as well as in Allemanda and Corrente, written in developed binary form, we can see certain features of the sonata form.
Ciaccona or Chaconne is originally 16th century Spanish “dance-song characterized by suggestive movements and mocking texts”. Also it was a “sexily swirling dance that appeared in South America at the end of the sixteenth century and quickly spread to Europe”. But later it became an instrumental genre: a cycle of variations on a short harmonic progression. It was also often involving so called "Ground bass" or "basso ostinato" (obstinate bass) that is the main feature of passacaglia. Normally chaconne is written in a triple meter in the character of sarabande with the stress and stop on the second beat of bar. In this Partita Bach even begins his Ciaconna from the second beat of bar, which is the upbeat to the following bar, and we have to begin to count bars after this upbeat.
There are some different views on the length and structure of the theme. For example “Encyclopædia Britannica” states: “In Bach’s Chaconne, the basic theme is four measures long, short and simple enough to allow for 64 variations”. If to agree with an opinion that the theme is 4-bar long, then we have to regard the next four bars as the first variation, as well as to consider the bars 8-12 and 13-16 as two different variations, which is very doubtful. We hope that the analysis will show us where the truth is.
If we consider this from the the point of view of an advanced system of musical analysis, underpinned by the teaching of Schoenberg, Webern, and their followers, then we see that the theme of Ciaccona occupies eight bars (b.1-8). The form of it is a period, which consists of the antecedent and the consequent that structured as a short sentence and its repetition.
The theme based on the motive:
In the antecedent this motive is repeated three times and then developed by a reduction and liquidation. These processes occurred on different levels: in melody, bass and middle voices, One can easily see that "number three" here is the main unifying idea:
- the time signature is 3/4;
- the motive consists of three notes;
- the first note of the motive is the dotted quaver (= 3/8);
- the other two notes together make up 3/8;
- the motive is repeated three times;
- as a result of the reduction and liquidation of the motive (b.3-4), we have the grouping: two quavers and one quaver (together = 3);
- at the end of each of these groups we can see two groups of three 16th notes.
- Ex. 10. The motives of the antecedent
The same happened with the consequent, however there is some noticeable difference in the cadences: the cadence in the antecedent is imperfect (the vii° chord used instead of the V chord), but the cadence in consequent is perfect and full.
- Ex. 11. The theme and its harmony. In the circles: the “ground bass”.
This supports the idea that the second four bars are not an independent structure, but the part of the theme. This also is not a variation of the first four bars ether, because it doesn’t introduce any principal structural or textural changes. Moreover, if to look at several first variations, each of them consists of eight bars and reflects difference in harmony between two cadences of the initial period.
The main idea of variations is to invent as many as possible new melodic shapes, rhythmic patterns and textures, keeping the same harmonic progression. The basis of this progression is the “ground bass” that we can see in a pure or hidden form in each variation. This is “Romanesca”, a bass line descending stepwise from tonic to dominant: d – c – b♭ – a, which very often used in baroque music for cycles of variations. Here in the theme the ground bass is presented it in a slightly transformed form: d – c♯ – b♭ – a, if we see the bass notes that appeared on the second beat of the each bar.
Some of these variations keep 8-bar structure of the whole theme, but others are twice shorter. Sometimes it is difficult to define for sure if a certain variation is independent or just the part of previous one. This is why there are so many fierce and inconclusive disputes about how many variations in thus Chaconne. To be honest, I tried to count them many times and each time it was a different result. Let us try again.
The 1st variation (b. 8-16) begins from the first bit of 8th bar, which coincides with the end of the Theme. So, the theme and all the variations overlap each other at their ends and beginnings. The 1st variation repeats the chords of the theme, but the melodic line is different in its shape. It is based on a dotted rhythm and placed into the tenor voice. The soprano voice sings along with the tenor in sixths twice: in b.10-11 and 14-15.
- Ex.12. Variation 1 (on the small staves: the scheme of harmony).
The 2nd variation (b.16-24) is written mostly for two voices with melody, based on the dotted rhythm, in the upper voice, and a new form of “ground-bass” in the alto voice that it based on a chromatic scale descending from the tonic to the dominant.
- Ex.13. Variation 2 (beginning)
The antecedent in the 3rd variation (b.24-32) begins in a smooth motion by the quavers, but a similar melodic shape in the consequent is filled by the semiquavers.
A similar idea is used in the 4th variation (b.32-40). It is concentrated in a single melodic line, but the wide leaps between its segments suggest a dialogue of two contrasts voices.
The 5th variation (b.40-48) is presented by semiquavers only. It consists of dramatic ascending and descending diatonic passages alternating with a wavy motion.
The 6th variation (b.48-56) continues and develops the same idea.
The beginning of the 7th (b.56-64) variation has a characteristic rhythm: each of the first three bars consists of four eighths and four sixteenth notes. All other bars are filled by the sixteenth notes (semiquavers). In the bass voice on the second beat of each bar we can see the “ground bass” in a pure form: d – c – b♭ – a.
- Ex.14. Variation 7. In the circles: the “ground bass”.
In the 8th variation (b.64-72), the motion accelerates; the 16th notes alternate with the 32th (demisemiquavers) and become more and more similar to the billowing waves
The 9th variation (b.72-76) is short: it has only four bars, but it is full of very fast sweeping passages. In the first two bars a new characteristic element appears: a short trill in the low register of the violin.
The idea of the 10th variation (b.76-80) is a combination of arpeggios: up-down-up, repeated four times.
The 11th variation (b.80-84) is similar to the previous, but it has different pattern: the melody jumps up on a huge interval (sixth plus octave), and then descends by the arpeggio, where each of the first four notes is repeated. In the last bar the melody changes its direction to the opposite. The 32th notes in the passage prepare the next variation.
- Ex.15. Variation 11
The 12th Variation (b.84-88) is like a gust of a whirlwind: the swift passage of the 32th notes winds upward, and after the circling in the sky crashes down.
The next set of variations, 32 bars long, is unified by one idea: improvisation on a given harmonic progression. Bach uses a schematic notation, giving the chords and a small example that explains the way of a possible reading the scheme. We can divide this whole section ether into 8 segments of four bars each or 4 segments of eight bar each – it doesn’t change anything. But if we prefer to connect things rather than to divide them, we chose the second way of counting.
- Ex.16. Variation 13
The 13th Variation (b.88-96) is fast arpeggio played on three lower strings. In the harmonic progression we can hear real three-part polyphony, where every voice is expressive and memorable, especially the base voice in the second four bars.
This melodic fragment becomes a theme of the canon that fully exposed in the 14th Variation (b. 96-104), where the theme is moved into the upper voice and then, four bars later, appeared in the middle voice. In the cadence the fourth voice entered: the harmony became full.
The canon is developed in the 15th Variation (b.104-112): the chromatic version of the theme entered in the alto voice, which is answered in the soprano voice two bars later, and then the tenor voice joined them in bar 109.
The 16th Variation (b.112-120) is a conclusion of the canon: the theme enters again in the tenor and at last in the bass voice. This entire episode has also the features of passacaglia and can be regarded as canon-passacaglia – a complex polyphonic form that amazingly represented here by just one string solo instrument!
The fast and short 17th Variation (b. 120-124) is based on the contrast between the accented bass and swift passages in higher register. It leads to the dramatic return of the theme that sounds like a climax of the whole piece.
- Ex.17. Variation 18, the return of the theme.
This is a recapitulation of the theme (b. 124-132), however the theme begins right from the consequent – the antecedent is missing. The upbeat at the beginning is replaced with the passage of 16th notes. The theme is developed in the next four bars. The only appearance in the piece of the monogram BACH could allude to the personal character of this music. Since the theme here is quite different from its original form, we will consider it as a 18th Variation.
Now the picture is totally changed: instead of a gloomy or passionate D minor, a light and warm D major appeared. The change of harmony from minor to major as well as later from major to minor is very strong and emotional here. This major episode lasts for 72 bars and contains 10 variations.
- Ex.18. Variation 19, in D major.
The 19th Variation (b.132-140) has a playful dancing rhythm. The “ground bass” in its major version clearly heard in this and in the following variations.
The 20th Variation (b.140-148) is more concentrated on the motion: the melodic line is played by quavers; it is accompanied by the chords that revealed the rhythm of the theme. In the consequent the (b.148-152) melody and accompaniment exchanged their places.
The 21th Variation (b.148-152) is short, it is only 4 bars long. It is based on a contrast between the passages by 16th and double chords.
The next three variations are composed of 16th notes only.
The 22nd Variation (b.152-160) consists of broken arpeggios moved downwards, then upwards, and downwards again.
In the 23rd Variation (b.160-168) the arpeggios alternate with triple repetition of the certain notes.
- Ex.19. Variation 24
The 24th Variation (b.168-176) sounds like fanfares, that involve a repetition of one note in the bass (like timpani), alternating with the canon of two upper voices (like two trumpets).
The next three variations have the character a solemn procession.
The 25th Variation (b.176-184) has two- and then three-part polyphony between its voices.
The 26th Variation (b.184-192) is more homophonic; it strictly repeats the rhythm of the theme.
The 27th Variation (b.192-200) the same but the melody raises up to the higher register.
The 28th Variation (b.200-208) sounds like festive ringing bells.
But suddenly the mood is changed, and the sorrowful melody appears.
- Ex.20. Variation 29
The motives of 29th Variation (b.208-216) have a simple but delicate combination of the elements with dotted rhythm, and passages of sixteenth and eighth notes. There are dissonant seventh chords on the first beats of the bars. The “ground bass” is seen and heard very clearly.
The 30th Variation (b.216-224) is like a series of waves, composed of the passages of the 16th notes, moving up and down.
The 31st Variation (b.224-228) is similar, but the amplitude of the waves became wider, and they became more intensive and filled with 32th notes. The variation is 4 bars long.
- Ex.21. Variation 32
The 32nd Variation (b.228-236) has a drone on the open A-string with the melodic line moving below.
The 33nd Variation is the same, but there the second melodic line was added to the first The variation is 4 bars long.
- Ex.22. Variation 34
The 34th Variation is 4 bars long and is composed of triplet arpeggios - the first appearance of triplets in the movement. It is interesting that in this passage it is possible to distinguish three parallel melodic voices. Each of the voices is expressive but the lower voice is the primary line, with the main phrasing stress on the fifth quaver of the bar..
- Ex.23. Variation 34. The lower voice is marked here with a grouping below staves.
The 35th Variation is similar, but the triplets are composed of the short segments of diatonic scale that are moving downwards. The Variation is 4 bars long. It is finished with the fast passage of 32th.
Ciaccone ends with the repetition of the theme, where antecedent is repeated precisely, but the consequent is completely recomposed: it is a continuation of the reduction, diffusion and liquidation of the motive that finishes with a full and perfect cadence.
Each of these musical segments, which we call "variations", are a small world created by the genius of Bach. All these variations are united by the ideas embodied in the theme, but for each of them Bach had some specific compositional ideas that belong only to this particular variation: the melodic shape, rhythm, details of harmony and texture, which all together form an unique musical structure with its individual mood or character.
The Second Partita by Bach belongs to the highest achievements of music. It is one of the most popular and favourite compositions for those who love real music. We can express our love for music by listening or playing it, if we are capable of this. But we can also try to analyse music, and then we can discover in it such depths, which we had not previously suspected. Or at least it can make some “wonderful, incomprehensible piece of music” a little bit more comprehensible.
- Avins, Styra (ed.): Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (New York: OUP, 1997)
- Bach, J.S.: Sonaten und Partiten, neue Ausgabe von Carl Fleisch, Peters Edition, Leipzig, 1930.
- Johnson, Catherine: Bach Chaccone (blog): www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/7151/
- Schwarm, Betsy: Chaconne, Work by Bach by www.britannica.com/topic/Chaconne-by-Bach
- Silbiger, Alexander: Chaconne, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie and J. Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001).
- Smirnov, Dmitri: A Geometer of Sound Crystals. CreateSpace, England/USA, 2017
- Smirnov, Dmitri: The Anatomy of Theme in Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. Berlin 2008. Verlag Ernst Kuhn, Berlin 2003
- Solomon, Larry: Bach’s Chaconne
- Wikipedia: Chaconne
- Correct Italian would be "sei soli".
- Styra Avins (ed.): Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, p. 515
- Johann Gottfried Walther “Musikalisches Lexicon”, Leipzig, 1732.
- Johann Mattheson “Der Vollkommene Capellmeister”, Hamburg, 1739.
- The Oxford Companion to Music, 10th edition, 1970
- Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2007.
- Die Gestalt means the shape, form, figure.
- The music examples were copied from the “urtext” line in Bach, Sonaten und Partiten, neue Ausgabe von Carl Fleisch, Peters Edition, Leipzig.
- It is interesting that b.8-9 are very similar to some parts of Chaconne and if to transpose them to D minor, they could be one of its variations.
- Philip Herschkowitz.
- A Geometer, p. 116. But he also said: “We know that a theme cannot modulate, but sometimes there are recipients of a merit pension – exceptions to the rules.” – Ibid, p. 119. Herschkowitz told as well: “We have only one modulation per piece, occasionally two.” – Ibid, p. 26.
- Juan de Mariana: Tratato contra los juegos públicos (Treatise Against Public Amusements, 1609).
- Alexander Silbiger: Chaconne
- Wikipedia: Chaconne (the quotation from Alex Ross).
- There are different ways of bar-numbering in different editions. In some of them, unfortunately, the upbeat is numbered as the 1st bar, for example in the "urtext" edition Neue Bach-Ausgabe, Serie VI. Kammermusik, Band 1. Kammermusik 1: Werke für Violine (pp.30-41), Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1958. I know one musician who renumbered all the bars in his "urtext" edition, because he "felt that this is not right". The music examples in our article are taken from the Peters Leipzig Edition, new Ausgabe von Carl Flesch, 1930, where the bar after upbeat is numbered as the 1st bar.
- “Encyclopædia Britannica”: Chaconne, Work by Bach written by Betsy Schwarm, a music historian from Colorado. See also the blog article: Larry Solomon: Bach’s Chaconne. The opinion also is supported by Wikipedia. However this calculation is not accurate. If we divide 256 bars of Chaconne to 4 we will receive 64 segments 4 bars each. But we have to deduct from this the segments of the theme at the beginning and the end of the piece (16 bars), and the result would be = 60 variations.
- "This was noted by Jesse Irons, who said: "I think the closest thing to a B A C H appearance is bars 127-130... check out the bass line. It's not Art-of-the-Fugue literal, but it is kind of poetic, coming as it does at the moment of transition into D Major." See www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/7151/ .
- This idea was prompted by discussion with Enrico Alvares, who mentioned that very rarely do we hear this variation played so that the main line is clearly heard and phrased so that the main stress is on the *fifth* quaver of these bars.