Not surprisingly, Bach reserved his greatest keyboard suite of all for last. The E minor Partita is longer than any of its companions, with a level of technical and musical complexity that takes it to an entirely new plane, even when considered in such illustrious company as the first five Partitas. The opening movement is now re-named Toccata (it was called Prélude in the 1725 Anna Magdalena Bach Book), conjuring up an image of the ultimate display piece of the 17th and early 18th centuries for professional keyboard virtuosi, consisting of alternating free fantasia and strict contrapuntal sections. In this example Bach unifies the opening and closing arpeggiando portions with the large central fugue by including the aria-like episodes of the outer sections in an important thematic role within the fugue.The overall effect owes as much to the French Ouverture as it does to the Toccata, the fugue framed by stylized, dotted figurations along with the arpeggios –another conscious mixing of French and Italian styles to a broader purpose.

The Allemanda (the only time in the set that Bach applies the Italian title to this dance) expands and develops the basic idea in the allemande of Partita 3, with its fundamental 4/4 rhythm virtually obliterated under an avalanche of elaborate and expressive ornamentation. The “violinistic” quality of this figuration recalls the allemandes found in some of the violin and cello suites. The corrente complements the allemanda, both in its elaborate figuration and tempo, which, despite the Italian title,must remain, like the tempo of a French courante, on the moderate side, in this case to allow the later-occurring 32nd-note arpeggios to be comprehensible. The pulse is moderate, but the note divisions in the upper voice make the piece sound brilliant. Bach also used this movement (as well as the Tempo di Gavotta movement that follows the sarabande) for one of the versions of the Sonata for violin & harpsichord, BWV 1019a: very likely the violin version came first.

Bach clearly had a spare page to fill in his new publication, as he included another non-dance movement, called Air in the final Partita, a tuneful piece in two voices, with elaborated petite reprise, which provides (as does the corresponding movement in Partita 4) a breathing space between the figural complexities of the corrente and the sheer emotional power of the sarabande, the most complex and powerful that Bach ever composed. This work, the greatest of all Bach’s sarabandes, mixes French passion and grandeur with Italian drama and virtuosity. It begins with a dotted upbeat and increases in harmonic and melodic complexity as it proceeds.

The Tempo di Gavotta, co-opted, like the corrente, from the Sonata, BWV 1019a, where it appears as a violin/harpsichord duo, pits dotted rhythms against flowing triplets, raising the issue of whether these differing note values should be in some way assimilated. In this performance the more complicated solution has been chosen: the rhythms remain distinct, and the dotted figures are sharpened, maximizing the contrast with the flowing triplets. We might expect the juxtaposition between this movement, with its gigue-like compound rhythm, and the actual gigue that follows to be analogous to the relationship we find in Partita 4 between the menuet and gigue (where the prevailing triplet rhythm of the first is continued in the second, albeit at a quicker tempo). However, in the gigue to the final Partita, Bach takes us back to the very origins of the French suite itself, supplying a seemingly archaic dance in the mold of the old common-time gigues of Froberger; a “pure” and by then obsolete form which Bach had last employed in the finale of the first French Suite in D minor (in which context it had already appeared as archaic). The only feature this gigue shares with the gavotte that precedes it is the ambiguous question of how to accommodate the simultaneous and often opposing prevailing rhythms (in the gavotte, dotted notes against triplets; here dotted notes against flowing eighth-notes); in this case between the subject and countersubject, a textual puzzle that allows for several different possible solutions. The one adopted in this performance is, again, to sharpen the dotted notes of the subject, while playing the notes of the countersubject as written. This emphasizes the rough edges and maximizes the contrast, fully exploiting the considerable dissonances that abound.

Bach had previously concluded his first major set of harpsichord suites (the EnglishSuites) with a contrapuntally complex and thematically uncompromisingItalian-style gigue, which exploited the use of invertible counterpoint. The finale of Partita 6 has no real precedent among Bach’s works. It harks back to the very dawn of the keyboard suite, while transcending time in a display of contrapuntal wizardry that places it far beyond the ambitions of any other composer, past or contemporary.Bach is not content to simply mix together the hallmarks of different national schools in order to create this new music. He also unites the new with the oldby ending his most up-to-date set of works with the most archaic and yet modern piece to be found within the six Partitas, which, like the set, transcends time.

©Peter Watchorn

Back to Bach Notes & Translations