Bach Solo Violin Sonatas: At heart a fugue

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Three centuries ago, Bach had completed his set of six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. In the first of two articles, Lewis Kaplan, senior member of the Juilliard School faculty, discusses interpretation of the three sonatas with reference to Bach’s autograph score

From the late 19th century and through most of the 20th, the interpretation of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas seems to have been premised on the fact that Bach was a great composer and therefore the playing had to be impressive, heavy, dominating and ultra-serious, with an emphasis on big sound and melody. Of course it was up to us, the performers, to make Bach great, yet consideration of harmony and rhythm was almost non-existent, despite the fact that the composer’s biographers over two centuries had spoken with insight and emphasis about Bach’s harmonic genius. Something that had a powerful impact on me personally was reading that Beethoven, in a letter to one of his publishers, described Bach as the ‘father of harmony’.

This century-long concept of Bach performance began to change with the awakening of the enlightened concept of playing in Baroque style, mostly on so-called original instruments. The major changes were in sound and articulation – harmony, as always, depended on the imagination and ear of the individual. But the fact that instruments were tuned to a frequency of 415Hz did not by any means assure a profound interpretation…

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