Johann sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
the sonatas and partitas
interpreted as a liturgical narrative through scared iconography
The majority of Bach's prolific output was in the sacred genre – works to celebrate the events and feasts of the Christian calendar. Here his Sonatas and Partitas, originally for solo violin, are interpreted through the same lens: as a narrative of the events of the New Testament, accompanied by sacred iconography. Excerpts from complete performances by Polivios.
sonata I - bwv 1001
The Nativity. The opening Adagio invokes the calm and introspective quietude of the event. In the second movement the forward momentum of the fugal theme inclines to the motion of travel, evoking the journey of the three Magi following the guiding star. The following Siciliana with its slow lilting gesture expresses the bowing devotional character of the Adoration of the Magi. In the final Presto there is a unique fury accentuated by its minor key ferociously driving forward - the terror of the slaying of the 10,000 newborn infants simultaneous to the fleeing of the Holy Family into Egypt.
Partita I - bwv 1002
In this first Partita we find the use of the Double (a common practice in the Baroque wherein a work is followed by a variation). The Gospel tells the story of two individualities: Christ and John the Baptist. For me, the Mystery of the Double is related to these two intertwining stories. The central theme of this Partita is the Theophany - the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and the life of St. John the Baptist. The opening Allemanda in the less common dotted variety has a majestic movement, suitable for the event. The following Corrente, brisk and lively: the journey to the desert and the scene of the temptation, followed by a fierce Double anticipating the arrest of St. John and the horrors and tremors of temptation. The Sarabanda, with unique and tranquil beauty, portrays the first preachings and the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. The Double is an austerely plodding work (one of the only with not a single slur notated), conveying patient anticipation - John in captivity. The driving Bourée accompanies the images of the many deeds of Jesus travelling and performing the acts of his ministry: healing the blind, driving out the possessed, preaching and so forth, accompanied by the dance of Salome and the sentencing of John. The Double pushes onward into the final act - culminating with the decapitation of John. Note the unique chromatic passage that seems to invoke such a gesture.
sonata Ii - bwv 1003
Following the cycle of feasts in the Liturgical calendar after Epiphany/Theophany comes the Transfiguration or Metamorphosis, which celebrates the transformation of Christ into his divine form on Mount Tabor. The Grave of the second Sonata unfolds in with a quiet and introspective beauty - filled with mystery both sublime and ecstatic with its slow pace and flowing passages, yet filled with static, rich and complex harmonies. The Fugue, filled with forward momentum seems to narrate the many deeds and actions that fill the chapters of the bible after the Transfiguration. The gorgeous Andante with its steady pulse emerges as a peaceful oasis with its major key, conjuring the events prior to the entry into Jerusalem. Concluding with a fiery Allegro, we feel the anticipation of the Passion combined with the final great act outside the city walls with the raising of Lazarus.
PARTITA II - BWV 1004
The centrepiece of the cycle includes one of the most well known and studied works for a solo instrument: the Ciaconna or Chaconne. There can be no doubt that here we have the music of the Passion. The anointing of Jesus in Bethany, the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the kiss of Judas... the trial, and apotheosis - the Crucifixion. All these dramatic moments appear mirrored in this work. Much ink could be spilled in delivering a programmatic attempt of the sequence of events depicted in the Ciaconna alone. The observation that there are 33 notes in the main theme followed by 33 variations is a symbolic formula that seems realistic and acceptable. What else could the so-called great arpeggio section be but the ascent to Golgotha. Each variation could be explored in intricate detail, but better to let this fascinating masterpiece speak for itself.
SONATA III - bwv 1005
pentecost - anastasi
iv allegro assai
After the agonizing drama of the previous work, the major key finally dawns upon us and remains everpresent until the final concluding note of the entire cycle. Here we have the music of Pentecost. The Adagio with its perfidia pattern - the constant repetition of a rhythmic motif - resembles the beating of a heart. Christ in the sepulchre. The solemn procession of the Myrrh-bearers or three Marys. The powerful chain of dissonances in the next to last bars awaken astonishment and surprise as before an empty sepulchre and the final long awaited return (since bar 7) to the home key of C major brings the unparalleled peaceful conclusion - He is Risen. The glorious Fugue (the longest Bach wrote) is based on the first notes of a Chorale for Pentecost Veni Sancte Spiritus. Perhaps we are following Mary, the first to have witnessed the risen Christ, as she brings the news to the Apostles and other believers. The enormous work unfolds its theme and after a lengthy interlude and glorious cadence turns the theme upside down. Marked al reverso the unprecedented power and brevity of polyphonic and harmonic changes seems to be a bursting into the ecstatic realm. Finally the music arrives back at the beginning with an exact repetition of the exposition but with the introduction of an extra voice, seeming to add the company of those to whom the news was brought. The sublime peace of the Largo invites a reflective and calm spirit - as the apostles hear and experience the presence of the risen Master. Some curious dissonances near the end bring to mind the doubt of Thomas and a perplexing disappearence or Ascension. The Allegro Assai bursts forth filled with energy, as a joyous light - the music of the Pentecostal fire as it lit upon the Apostles- the energy of the Holy Spirit.
partita iii - bwv 1006
iii gavotte en rendeau
iv menuett i/ii
Evangelismos - the "Good News". Containing some of the most beloved movements of the Sontatas and Partitas, and certainly the most joyful, this Partita is a happy postlude to the events of the previous works. The apostolic missions, the conversion and ministry of St. Paul, the spread of Christianity through East and West; in short, the proliferation of Christian thought and culture throughout the world and the changing of history. Apparently a favourite of Bach himself, he also arranged this Partita for Lute (BWV 1006a) and, significantly, he used the exhilarating Prelude in his Cantata BWV 29 Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir - "We thank you, God, we thank you".