The Six Sonatas and Partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach, casually known in English as ‘unaccompanied Bach’, don’t need so much in the way of introduction. Since they were taken up by violinist Joseph Joachim in the middle of the 19th century, they’ve been at the core of classical violin studies. And they do require study. To put it simply: they are difficult. It is hard to play a fugue on a violin. It is hard to play and understand works whose foreground geometry and background harmony are equally powerful. But the reward is also powerful. To experience such density of musical knowledge reduced to four strings and re-released into the air is to witness a feat of spectacular musical fantasy.
Though each is a perfectly self-sufficient unit, it is worth paying attention to the larger organization of the six works, which may most cleanly indicate the level of systematic thought of which Bach was capable. As a set, the works make up a highly organized abstract landscape with a sharp outline:
Sonata g Minor
Partita b Minor
Sonata a Minor
Partita d Minor (some D Major for Chaconne)
Sonata C Major
Partita E Major
where a ‘sonata’ is a sonata da chiesa (strict four-movement church sonata), and a ‘partita’ is a set of dances (varying within a more or less conventional framework). Within this pattern are infinite others. Those of us familiar with the Lawn at the University (of Virginia) might compare the systems of the architecture on the professors’ houses: some more formal, some less formal, but all being the product of knowledge and serving as a means for its distribution. One can keep looking, one can keep listening, and one will keep on finding new things to admire.
The g Minor sonata is the shortest of the three church sonata works (they become systematically larger at each iteration), and it is the most compact of all the six works. It is also, naturally, the first of the set. In this way, stark and powerful, the violin sets out for exploration.