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Saint Paul SundayFeatured Artist

Hilary Hahn

Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it's clear to the listener without being pedantic - one can't fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way.
-Hilary Hahn

Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
J. S. Bach
J. S. Bach
Most people associate Bach with the organ, but he was, among his other roles, a virtuoso on the violin. At Weimar, while in the employ of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, he served as a chamber musician as well as a church organist. In Cöthen - where he completed work on the sonatas and partitas - he was in charge of chamber music for Prince Leopold. Even after his move to Leipzig, where he wrote many of his organ masterpieces, he maintained his skill at the violin. One of his composer sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, wrote about his father in a letter of 1774, "In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly .... He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin .... One of the greatest violinists told me once that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be learn, than the said violin solos without bass."

Johann Sebastian Bach's six sonatas and partitas for solo violin are some of the most challenging pieces for the violinist, and there is some evidence that Bach intended them to form part of a "school" in unaccompanied violin playing. They were not written to commission and not intended for any one performance or artist. Plus they explore two genres of music popular at the time-the Italian sonata (basically a four-movement work with a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement) and the French suite (a group of dances usually following the standard sequence of allemand-courante-saraband-gigue). The works involve so many techniques that they have become staples in the repertoire of any professional violin student. The violinist not only has to play the main melody, but also provide the accompanying harmonic lines by playing more than one string at a time (called "double-stopping" or "triple-stopping") - inherently challenging both in terms of intonation and bowing technique.

But Bach did not intend these pieces to be merely didactic or showpieces for virtuosos. For him they were explorations in musical invention, driven more by his desire to explore the widest possible range of musical problems on the violin than by his interest in violin technique per se. His natural inclinations were for polyphonic music-multi-voiced melodic inventions naturally suited to keyboard instruments-and it was Bach's genius in expressing these complex musical ideas and textures in works for a solo violin that make the six sonatas and partitas stand out as some of his greatest masterpieces.

Bach's solo violin works have been an inspiration to composers ever since: 22 versions alone of the Chaconne (from the Partita in D Minor) were produced in the period 1845 to 1923 - everything from piano transcriptions to fully orchestrated interpretations. Schumann and Mendelssohn composed piano accompaniments and Brahms even transcribed it for left-hand-only piano. As composer and musicologist Bruce Adolphe points out, the pieces are compelling not just for the virtuoso talent they demand. "The power of this writing comes from the metaphor it embodies - it is the self, with its various aspects and contractions; it is the mind's inner counterpoint, both conscious and unconscious, that we all recognize at some level. It holds us enthralled - as does a Shakespearean soliloquy that reveals multiple aspects of a personality - and is a hallmark of Bach's art."

The quotations from Hilary Hahn and Bruce Adolphe are from the liner notes to Hilary's album, Hilary Hahn plays Bach (Sony Classics 62793).

Hilary Hahn Discography: Works by Hilary Hahn

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