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1 Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sei Solo à Violino senza Basso accompagnato bears the date 1720. Its uniqueness as an extended example of unaccompanied composition is striking , because there are so few compositions of that genre that have come down to us from that period and none of such scope. Heinrich von Biber’s Passacaglia from the Rosenkrantz Sonaten of 1675, which bears great similarity to Bach’s Ciaccona, and Johann Paul von Westhoff’s unaccompanied Suite (1683) and Partitas (1696) each predate Bach’s pieces by decades. Johann Georg Pisendel’s Sonata à Violino Solo senza Basso, itself a substantial example of early eighteenth-century virtuosity, is thought to have been composed a few years earlier. Each of these demonstrates the advanced state of polyphonic composition in the German school of violin playing in the time of Bach. Whereas the Italians had previously shown the way, even with the introduction of polyphony by composers such as Biagio Marini in his Sonate, Symphoniae . . . Op. 8 (1626), and Carlo Farina—Il quarto Libro delle Pavane, Gagliarde . . . Sonate, Canzon à 2, 4 (1628)—it was the Germans who explored and exploited the polyphonic possibilities of the instrument. The final, ingenious work in Biber’s 1681 set at first glance appears to be a trio sonata with two individual parts on separate staffs: these are, however, to be played by one violinist. There is ongoing speculation as to the influence the music of all these composers may have had on Bach, even as to the possibility that he was familiar with Pisendel’s sonata, which certainly cannot be ruled out, but if one examines Johann Jakob Walther’s monumental Hortulus Chelicus (1688/1694), even though the pieces in this particular collection have figured bass accompaniment, one cannot help but be struck by the similarity of the chordal writing. Apart from the polyphonic influence of the German school, though, one may detect other similarities, such as the arpeggiated episodic passages in the fugues that recall variations in the sonatas of Schmelzer and Biber, and the climactic thirty-second -note passage in the first part of the Ciaccona, which has its counterpart in the music of Biber and Walther. The E-major Partita is an interesting combination of national tastes: the Preludio has a distinctly Vivaldian flavor, and the subsequent dance-like movements are clearly inspired, as with the work of other contemporary German composers, by the ordres of the French school. Describing Bach’s composiIntroduction 2 The Accompaniment in “Unaccompanied” Bach tional style as eclectic, the product of the compilation of various national influences —German, French, and Italian—has long since become a cliché. However, this does not prevent us from marveling at his ability to synthesize them and to produce something so unique, an individual compositional language that was the last word in the evolution of unaccompanied violin writing for the next two centuries. For whom, then, did Bach write these pieces? It seems unreasonable to assume that they were merely an exercise in composition. This is a question for which, in the absence of a dedicatory preface, we shall probably never have a definite answer. However, it is possible that they were for Pisendel, who, as concertmaster in the court of Dresden, was the reigning virtuoso in the region. Whatever the truth is, that he himself was an excellent violinist is indisputable: in a letter to Johann Nicolaus Forkel, his father’s biographer, Carl Philipp Emanuel stated that “he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly” and that he “understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.”1 Whereas the Sonatas and Partitas were not published in his lifetime, though, and were comparatively unknown until the nineteenth century, they were already mentioned in correspondence and writing of the period as being valuable pedagogical material. Forkel, writing in 1802, reported that “for a long series of years, the violin solos were universally regarded by the greatest performers on the violin as the best means to make an ambitious student a perfect master of his instrument.”2 Three centuries later, these works are still used as vehicles for the development of technique and, as such, are standard curricular requirements in most music schools. They nevertheless comprise some of the most controversial of repertoire, and in my experience, discussions of their interpretation are generally avoided by violinists who have not immersed themselves in the music of composers preceding and contemporary with Bach. In the past half century, however, a remarkable development, the intensive archaeological research into performance practices...


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