Many Bach’s organ or harpsichord compositions have been handed down to us in collections. Some of these collections are manuscripts compiled by students, others are written by Bach himself and others are collections published by him in print.
Among the published collections we find:
the Partitas and the Goldberg Variations, for harpsichord;
the third part of the Clavier-Übung, the Schüblerchorales and the canonic variations, for organ;
the Art of Fugue, whose printing project was in progress when Bach died. This last great cycle was published after his death by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg.
Bach builds the internal logic of the cycles he published with extreme care: the clear intention is that the various compositions are not a simple anthology of pieces but that the entire collection becomes a unitary work of art. We will try to see how this happens by looking closely at the Partitas BWV 825-830.
Bach composed three series of harpsichord suites: the English Suites, the French Suites and the Partitas.
According to Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, the name “English” derives from the fact that they were commissioned from Bach by an English gentleman. The mysterious person, if he ever existed, has never been identified.
The original name could also have been Suites avec Preludes: each of the six Suites is in fact preceded by a large Prelude. Although quite similar we did not know if the six suites were born together. Probably the first in A major was already composed in the Weimar years and it could also be that Bach, urged to deliver a collection of six suites (six was the typical number of this genre of anthologies), sought compositions in his wardrobe to satisfy a commission.
The cycle does not seem to have such a stringent unitary planning.
The name French Suite derives, according to Forkel, from the French-style trends, but even for this collection the name was not given by Bach. We find the autograph of these pages among the compositions written in the notebook of Anna Maddalena, the young wife, married by Bach in second marriage. Someone has come to say that these suites were a wedding gift.
Certainly their grouping into a cycle of six is testified by many copies made by the students. Of the six suites, three are in the minor key and three in the major key.
The cycle of Partitas has a much more studied internal organization and every detail seems to be planned. The six Partitas were the first of J.S. Bach’s harpsichord works to be printed. The individual partitas were printed one per year between 1726 and 1730, and later published in a single volume with the emblematic title of Clavier-Übung, op. 1 in 1731. The title Clavier-Übung, (literally “keyboard exercise”), recalls a similar title that had been used by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as cantor of St Thomas in Leipzig. Bach had taken up his post there in 1723 but, alongside the undisputed authority that he had won in the field of sacred music, he may well also have sought to secure his position as a keyboard virtuoso before a larger audience. Following in the footsteps of Georg Friederich Händel, who had published his Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (1720) only five years earlier, Bach too decided to dedicate his first printed volume of works to a fashionable genre, this being the suite: a collection of dances of contrasting character in the same key, preceded by a prelude. The six Partitas, which are ‘Suites avec Préludes’ to all intents and purposes, represent Bach’s last and most mature thoughts in this genre.
The success of the sale of the separately published matches convinced Bach to republish them in 1731, as a complete collection.
The variety and character of a “compendium”
In every section of the collection the desire to build a sort of compendium prevails: that is to say, to represent all the possibilities with which the same musical genre can be represented.
The six Partitas all begin with a Prelude, but the six opening pieces are carefully differentiated, first of all in their titles: : Praeludium, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Ouverture, Praeambulum, Toccata.
As proof of this search for variety, even from the title, it can be observed how the first version of the III and VI Partita, preserved manuscript in the Notebook of Anna Maddalena Bach, carries for the two opening movements the generic title of Prelude, from Bach changed in the printed version with the words Fantasia and Toccata.
Also for each dance Bach composed pieces always in a different style, almost to the point of exhausting all the possible types for each form. For example, each of the six Allemande is different in the use of small ornamental notes:
the Allemande of Partita I is very traditional, with figures in sixteenth notes;
only apparently similar is the Allemande of Partita II: the tempo here is in fact “Alla Breve“ (note that the use of “Alla Breve“ in this case does not mean for Bach “twice as fast”, but rather “only two main accents per measure instead of four“).
In Allemande of Partita III Bach introduces thirty-second and dotted rhythms;
in Partita IV a much richer trend of syncopes and irregular groups;
in the Allemande of Partita V the ornamental notes are a series of sixteenth triplets.
In the VI and final Partita the rhythmic complication reaches its peak, so much so that it is easy to fall into the interpretative mistake of slowing down the piece too much, losing the pulse of the quarter notes, typical of this dance.
Already of the French Suites Bach had used the Italian type Corrente, a lighter and faster movement, alongside the Courante in French style – a dance that was actually not too fast and with a rhythmic richness given by the alternation of groups of two and three notes.
In the Partitas the Courantes of the II and IV are in French style while the remaining ones take the Italian tradition more as a model. Among these four Italian-style currents, each one uses a different notation:
Partita I in 3/4 (but with triplets that make it look like 9/8);
Partita III in 3/4 but with sixteenth notes;
Partita V in 3/8 with continuous sixteenth note;
Partita VI in 3/8 with the presence of thirty-second and many rhythms in syncope.
For each type of dance, present in the cycle, we find the same desire for variety and exemplification of all the different possibility.
The extreme example is the last Gigue, which concludes the collection. This is presented as a Giga in binary time, a very rare meter in the musical repertoire and which Bach perhaps knew through the models of Johann Jakob Froberger.
Numbers and keys
The complete collection includes 41 tracks.
If we give numerical value to the letters (A = 1; B = 2, C = 3, etc), the number 41 represents the sum of the letters J S B A C H. Like the number 14 (B A C H), 41 also returns several times in Bach’s last works (for example in the Art of Fugue and in the last chorale composed on the deathbed), becoming a sort of hidden signature of the composer.
It is interesting to note that the second part of the Clavier-Übung, published in 1735, with the Italian Concerto and the French Ouverture, contains 14 pieces.
The keys of the Partitas are as follows: B flat major, C minor, A minor, D major, G major, E minor. Three major and three minor. The starting points are found by going up a second and, in the next step, going down a third, going up a fourth and going down a fifth, and finally going up a sixth.
In the second part of the Clavier-Übung Bach the progression continues: the Italian Concerto is in F major. The French overture in B minor. In fact, the B natural completes all the notes used by the ancient Gregorian notation: Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, G, A, B flat and B natural.
Along with the Partitas III and VI, also an early version of the French Ouverture existed in the Notebook of Anna Maddalena. This was in C minor: the transposition into B minor is certainly to give a cyclical sense to the collection.
The mathematical and speculative character is certainly not perceived at the first listening to these dances: their elegance seems to recall the frivolous world of the European courts of the time, more than the geometric logic that pervades them. Quite a few so-called “gallantry” pieces are included in every Partita: they are often unusual pieces or rarely present in Bach’s harpsichord music (pieces such as Capriccio, Burlesca, Scherzo). In this perfect fusion of reason and beauty lies the greatness of this collection.
Three other works with the title Clavier-Übung followed the Partitas in the following years: the second part in 1735, containing the Italian Concerto and the French Ouverture; the third part in 1739, for organ; the fourth part in 1741, with the so-called Goldberg Variations.
With this kaleidoscope of works for keyboard instruments, Bach erected a veritable monument to his art. He thus anticipated the words written in his obituary: at his death he was in fact mourned as “the greatest organist and harpsichordist ever known”.
But a careful look could have defined him as well “the greatest architect in music of all time»…