J.S. Bach: Clavier-Übung I: The Six Partitas,BWV 825 – 830

When Bach’s attention turned towards publishing his Opus 1, the six Partitas, first in installments from1726, then as a set in 1731, he was well aware that this latest collection of dance suites for harpsichord was something entirely new. Indeed, every aspect of its composition – from the carefully determined key sequence to the precise configuration of both the introductory preludes and the highly stylized dance movements that follow them – was calculated to demonstrate Bach’s mastery of writing the most sophisticated dance suites possible.

Bach’s choice of the title Partitas reflects their diversity, remaining close in spirit to the word’s original 17th century connotation as a set of variations on a specific theme. Applying the idea of“variation” to the wider context of the dance suite, Bach created the mostc omprehensive set ever conceived. The titles of the opening preludes –different in every case: PraeludiumSinfoniaFantasiaOuverture – Preambulum – Toccata, read like a compendium of free and formalized keyboard forms derived from native German, Italian and French sources. To emphasize diversity Bach altered the original titles of the introductory movements of Partitas3 and 6 from those found in the AnnaMagdalena Notebook of 1725 (Prélude= Fantasia; Prélude =Toccata), which contains fair-copy versions of both works. Bach’s replacement of these titles to fit a new context reveals the fluidity of Baroque musical nomenclature; as the new collective title shows Bach’s intent to unite diverse French and Italian styles and, as aGerman composer, to transcend both.

Bach’s earlier sets of suites – the EnglishSuites from perhaps the late 1710s, and the French Suites of a slightly later period (most likely the early1720s) – show his unsurpassed skill at composing extended sets of keyboard suites; these collections being different in emphasis but equally brilliant in their effects. While in the English Suites Bach uses the Vivaldian Concerto-Allegro as an extended prelude, explores rigorous and often uncompromising contrapuntal techniques (especially in the allemandes and gigues) and adopts a uniform structure throughout the sequence of dance movements (German-style allemandes, French courantes, bourrées, gavottes, passepieds, minuets and Italian gigues), in the FrenchSuites he emphasizes everything that is tuneful, elegant and “galant”, mixing up the national styles much more freely and lightening the moods and textures –though the results are by no means trivial or superficial. The final two FrenchSuites – in G major and E major – bridge the gap between Bach’s earlier suites and the more galant style of the Partitas, anticipating their cosmopolitan style. The Partitas consciously exploit an unprecedented richness of mood and affect, representing the embodiment of the late Baroque ideal of Les goûts-réunis, where French and Italian styles are combined seamlessly to create a “perfect” music, transcending both.

The Partitas, like the later works that comprise the remaining harpsichord portions of the four-volume Clavier-Übungissued in 1735 and 1741 – the Italian Concerto, French Overture and Goldberg Variations – explore the very latest in keyboard techniques: crossing of hands on different manuals,  forte/piano contrasting dynamic effects, while demanding an expanded keyboard range, from GG – d’’’. Clearly, in volumes 1, 2 & 4, Bach intended to provide his public with a compendium of the very latest in harpsichord styles and techniques, while undertaking a thorough survey of the major keyboard genres: suite, concerto, prelude and fugue; culminating in the Goldberg Variations, the greatest set ever composed, which explore the strictest contrapuntal art within the closed harmonic framework mandated by the variation form. Moreover, the six works that comprise Bach’s Opus I contain movements that range in difficulty from the simplest to the most technically demanding. It appears that Bach had already encountered the keyboard music of his greatest contemporaries: George Frideric Handel (the EightGreat Suites of 1720) and Domenico Scarlatti (perhaps in manuscript copies ,though the Italian composer’s Essercizi did not appear in print until 1739), as their influence is apparent in the textures, styles and techniques to be found throughout the Partitas, as well as the later volumes of the Clavier-Űbung.Perhaps Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1724 and 1728 publications of Pièces de clavecin, which exemplify the most up-to-date French keyboard writing of the time also found their way into his orbit. After all, Bach and Rameau had already separately changed the course of Western musical history in 1722:  Bach by composing his (unpublished) Well-Tempered Clavier, exploring all the possible keys; and Rameau, by publishing his Treatise on Harmony, the first essay to codify the new harmonic system that composers had already been utilizing for over half a century. In 1726, as Bach guided the first of the Partitas into print, Rameau published his NewSystem of Music Theory.

Bach originally planned a sequence of seven Partitas – using an overall key scheme based on an ever-widening interval radiating in both directions outward from B-flat: – C – A – D – G – E– F. In the end, Bach opted for the more usual set of six works, reserving the final key of the proposed cycle (F) for the Italian Concerto which opens the second part of the Clavier Übung, published in1735. Bach then provided his “seventh” Partita in the form of another fully-fledged French Ouverture, similar in scope to the four he composed for instrumental ensemble (BWV 1066 –1069), and, like them (and unlike the fourth Partita, BWV 828), lacking an allemande.To ensure the greatest possible contrast between the French Ouverture and the ItalianConcerto, Bach transposed the Ouverture from its original key of C minor down atone into B minor – a tritone away from the F major of the Concerto, further underscoring the absolute distinction between the musical worlds of France andItaly. Including these two radically different works in the same volume, on the other hand, united the Italian “style” (gusto) with the French “taste” (gout).

©Peter Watchorn
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