The first Partita appeared in 1726, dedicated to the infant Hereditary PrinceEmanuel Ludwig of Anhalt-Cöthen, son of Bach’s previous employer from 1717 –1723 in Cöthen (both father and son succumbed to smallpox in 1728); as Bach described it in the preface: the “first product of my lyre”. It seems to have a close affinity with the sixth French Suite (which may date from around the same time), and features a similar tunefulness and transparency. After a restrained three-part Invention-style Praeludium, the Allemande, like the same movement in the sixth French Suite, more resembles the Italian allemanda,(employed by both Corelli in his solo violin works and Handel), than it does the more serious, contrapuntal examples that Bach had already provided in the EnglishSuites and the first three French Suites. Its basic texture is two voices(except where the harmony fills out momentarily at the cadences), and the piece seems “violinistic”, with its arpeggiated figuration and (implied) relatively lively tempo, quite far removed from either the allemandes of Froberger or those of Bach’s own suites prior to this and the last French Suite. A gigue-like Italian Corrente (so designated, as are also those ofPartitas 3, 5 & 6) follows, similar in character to the corrente of the fourth French Suite, though harder to play, with lively triplet-against-dotted-note figuration.

The sarabande is more traditionallyFrench, with dotted patterns, floridly expressive figuration, a hint of Spanish hauteur and a deliberate emphasis on the second beat of the bar; while the melodious sequence of Menuets in alternativement, with the French “broken” (brisé) arpeggio style defining the first of the pair breathes the spirit of the stile galant. The Italian Giga (the only one so designated in the set) is straight out of the world of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, with a mere two lines of notes distributed between the hands, the left hand beginning above the right, the spare texture nevertheless ingeniously outlining full harmony; the entire piece finally vanishing into thin air on a single high B flat. The first Partita is, by the standards ofBach’s later suites, a relatively slight work, similar in dimensions to the last three of the French Suites, and technically no more difficult to play thanthe hardest movements from the earlier set (and not even approaching the EnglishSuites in its level of difficulty). Indeed, the gigue of the G major FrenchSuite exceeds in scope and difficulty anything to be found in the first of the Partitas.Nevertheless, this beautiful work stands in a class of its own for elegant simplicity, melodic charm, harmonic sophistication and overall compositional mastery. It suggests an entirely new direction for Bach’s keyboard writing.

©Peter Watchorn

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