On-line Book Review


Dimension 23.5 x 16.5 x 0.5 cm
TITLE Triumph des Geistes über die Materie. Mutmaßungen über Johann Sebastian Bachs 'Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato' (BWV 1001-1006) mit einem Seitenblick auf die '6 Suites a Violoncello Solo' (BWV 1007-1012) von Dominik Sackmann 
PUBL. DETAILS Stuttgart: Carus-Verlag. 2008. 63pp. paperback, 17.50 euros
ISBN 978-3-89948-109-9 (3-89948-109-7)
TO ORDER Carus-Verlag GmbH & Co KG. Sielminger Str. 51, D-70771, LE-Echterdingen,  Germany 
DESCRIPTION A guide on Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin with a cursory reference to his Cello Suites
WORKS COVERED BWV 1001-1006, 1007-1012
READERSHIP General readership, Bach enthusiasts, violinists (and cellists), musicologists
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION A digest of the most relevant past and recent writings on Bach’s Violin Solos and Cello Suites with numerous references to further literature on the subject

or a booklet numbering just 63 pages, one that could easily be dismissed as the Societas Bach Internationalis’ perfunctory gesture towards its members and friends, Triumph des Geistes über die Materie exceeds all expectations. Although the publication is written primarily for the enthusiast and practicing musician, the musicologist is sure to discover the odd nugget of interest in it.

Amazingly for its conciseness, the book contains just about everything one would want to read about Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin—from a structural analysis and uncertainties in the work’s dating and origin to the place of the Solos in the broader context of baroque violin music and the role of the violin in Bach’s life. Its publication was prompted by the comparatively sparse literature, most of which was published in the form of individual studies that are less readily available due to their non-mainstream distribution channels. The situation has resulted in many a professional violinist accepting and promulgating one-sided and often superficial perceptions about the work. Triumph des Geistes über die Materie therefore sums up the most pertinent research on the subject. It is also commendably up-to-date. Opposing views, where both sides offer equally strong and valid arguments, are handled in a neutral manner, while misconceptions, blunders and instances of ‘poor scholarship’ are singled out with a word of caution.

I. Bachs Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato
1. Aufbau und zyklische Gestalt der Sei Solo
2. Taktmengen als Ordnungshilfen
3. Die Quellen der Sei Solo
4. Aspekte der Rezeption im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert
5. Von der autographen Quelle zur klanglichen Wiedergabe
6. Ansatze zur Datierung der Sei Solo
II. Bachs Sei Solo in der Geschichte der Violinmusik
1. Virtuose Vortragskunst
2. Die Rolle des Violinspiels in Bachs erster Lebenshälfte (bis 1717)
3. Das Violinspiel in Bachs Unterrichtstätigkeit
4. Die Rolle der Violine wahrend Bachs Zeit als Kapellmeister in Köthen (1717-1723)
III. Bachs 6 Suites a Violoncello Solo
1. Ein junges Instrument: das Violoncello
2. Violoncello (da spalla) — Violoncello piccolo — Viola pomposa
3. Partia und Sonata für Violino — Suite für Violoncello

Readers ought not to be disappointed by the lack of bibliography, as the impressive reference apparatus generously compensates for its absence. As Sackmann chooses not to delve into any of the issues at length, he provides useful signposts to more exhaustive accounts found elsewhere: for example, his chapter on the sources of the Violin Solos is limited to those that are historically most relevant, but footnotes direct us to both the largely out-of-date but still authoritative NBA KB VI/1 (1958) and Fanselau’s Mehrstimmigkeit in J. S. Bachs Werken für Melodieinstrumente ohne Begleitung (2000), which presents the most comprehensive overview of sources to date (p.16). Sackmann does, however, make some noteworthy points on sources not ordinarily discussed elsewhere, such as the lost Dresden manuscript that once bore the shelfmark 1/R-1; he is possibly the only scholar to point out the ‘hair-raising’ (haarsträubend) ungrammaticality of the title of Bach’s autograph fair copy of 1720 (p.49) which was taken over by the Dresden copyist. The issue of ungrammaticality in the copied titles has yielded some constructive clues in the latest (forthcoming) research on the transmission of the Bach’s Solos.

The chapter on the reception of the Solos is a bonus; usually this is the portion one is obliged to piece together from various scattered references. However, the discussion of the role of the violinist Johann Peter Salomon in the transmission of the work, which is in many ways fairly meticulous, stops with the speculations of Hubert Unverricht: there is no mention of the references to Salomon and the Solos in the letters of Samuel Wesley. But, in fairness to Sackmann, who does not claim his book to be anything more than a digest, the omission, rather than being intentional, may have more to do with the absence of these fairly important references from well-respected titles such as Bach-Dokumente.

The third part of the book (pp. 51-62), devoted to the Cello Suites, deserves special mention, as it lends a fresh angle to the research on the Solos which, due to its uniqueness, may be missed by a less careful reader. It builds on the previous parts’ postulation that Bach wrote the Violin Solos for himself and seeks to answer the question: for whom then did he write the Cello Suites? According to Sackmann, recent past holds no records of musicians playing both the violin and cello equally well and publically performing on both instruments, but investigations into the history and development of the violoncello show that the early instrument, held in arm or shoulder position, would not have necessitated an entirely idiosyncratic playing technique. Therefore, Bach could well have written the Cello Suites for himself, which in turn strengthens the hypothesis that he wrote the Violin Solos for himself. While some of of Sackmann’s postulations seem to hinge a fair degree on speculation, he only takes his conclusions as far as evidence permits which, in turn, makes for a plausible argument.

On the whole, this little publication makes for a gratifying read and rightfully deserves to be described as a triumph of quality over quantity.

Published online on 29 June 2009