The Six Partitas

(BWV 825–830)

The Six Partitas (BWV 825–830) were the first of a series of works for keyboard instruments that Bach published under the general title of Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice). With them Bach effectively engraved his name in the long and proud tradition of German composers. J.N. Forkel describes it’s the impact which the partitas had in the world in his pioneering biography of Bach (1802):

“This work caused quite a sensation among his contemporaries in the world of music; such splendid keyboard compositions had never previously been seen or heard. Whoever learnt to perform any of these pieces to a high standard could make his fortune in the world”.
Bach’s contemporaries such as J. Mattheson (1731), J.C. Gottsched (1732) and L.C. Mitzler (1738) seem to agree with Forkel, particularly on the second point—the extreme technical demands. It was the time when keyboards—in particular the clavichord, spinet and harpsichord—had become the favourite family instruments among the growing number of middle-class amateur musicians. For them, suites like these were valued highly, except perhaps by some less technically-competent amateurs who might have considered Bach’s virtuosic writing off-putting. Whether the technical demands were due to Bach’s unwillingness to compromise for the sake of art or whether he was deliberately demonstrating his compositional powers, it is difficult to tell. What is certain is that, for Bach, the Six Partitas had a special significance for his career at this particular point in time.

Historical Background

By the time when he was appointed cantor at the St. Thomas Church and the director of music in Leipzig in the spring of 1723, Bach had already established his reputation as a virtuoso keyboard player. The contest with L. Marchand in Dresden in 1717—German defeating a Frenchman, which became a legend long after his death—was still fresh in the minds of many. As a composer, too, he was equally accomplished. That Bach had an extraordinary ability to improvise on the organ was one thing; he also proved that he was able to compose in various styles, from highly complex fugues to “gallant” pieces such as suites. For his job application in Leipzig, Bach presumably wanted to show himself not only as a learned church musician but also as competent teacher as it is likely that he presented to the selection panel a list of educational works that he had recently prepared for his pupils, viz. the Inventions and Sinfonias (1723) and the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). The fact that the previous holder of the post was J. Kuhnau (1660–1722), a man of high calibre as a composer of keyboard works, was also significant; as will be shown, Kuhnau’s legacy was an important aspiration for composing the Six Partitas.

Initially Bach’s musical duties in Leipzig were overwhelming; with the weekly production of cantatas, it would be surprising if he was able to work on anything else at all. But the publication of keyboard pieces was very little to do with his official duties. Nevertheless it was an historical necessity that Bach, with his pride and confidence, should overcome all the obstacles. The sheer weight of Bach’s determination is clearly reflected in the content and character of this work, as we shall see below.

The origin of Clavier-Übung series

It was in the autumn of 1726, that Bach finally came to publish the first partita. Its title-page reads as follows:
Keyboard Practice, consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and other galanteries, composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Actual Capellmeister to His Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen and Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis. Partita I. Published by the Author. 1726.
This was followed by nos. 2 and 3 in 1727, nos. 4 in 1728, nos. 5 and 6 in 1730. In 1731 Bach assembled all the six and republished the collection as “Opus 1”. The manner of publication helped Bach to reduce financial risk, as the earning from the earlier sales could be injected into the future productions.

We now know that Bach used the network of his personal friends as sales agents outside Leipzig: C. Petzold (Dresden), J.G. Ziegler (Halle), G. Böhm (Lüneburg), G.H.L. Schwanenberger (Brunswick), G. Fischer (Nuremberg), and J.M. Roth (Augsburg). They are all well-known figures in their cities, hinting that the main buyers he anticipated were not general ‘music lovers’ but more serious performers, as one can naturally expect from this type of professional network.

Bach’s partitas were modelled on Kuhnau’s Neue Clavier-Übung; from this work Bach took the general title and the name ‘partita’ (or Partie). Without this historical tie, it is difficult to explain why Bach decided to publish this sort of entertainment music at this particular point in time. Kuhnau, in fact, published two sets of Clavier-Übungen, in 1689 and 1692 respectively, each containing seven partitas. They were some of the best-known keyboard works at the time in Germany. Bach’s partitas can, therefore, be seen as his homage to his predecessor, not by nostalgic means but by ‘new compositional challenge’. This is evident in the stylistic contents of Bach’s sets as if his intention was to update Kuhnau’s original contributions. The break with Kuhnau is also apparent in the shape of the collection. Bach wrote only six partitas, and not seven. (In fact, we learn from a newspaper advertisement on 1 May 1730 that Bach hesitated about writing a seventh.) The key scheme of the collection is different; Bach took the idea and developed it from his predecessor. Kuhnau’s scheme was a simple one, based on ascending scale: the first set explores major keys only (C–D–E–F–G–A–B-flat), while the second uses minor keys only (c–d–e–f–g–a–b). Bach’s key-scheme (B-flat–c–a–D–G–e) starts from the point where Kuhnau left off, and mixes major and minor modes quite randomly. Here, yet again, Bach goes one step further than Kuhnau: Bach’s scheme is, in fact, a sophisticated sequence based on gradually expanding upward and downward intervals—viz. 2nd up, 3rd down, 4th up, 5th down, 6th up—which, effectively, forms a hybrid, two-dimensional (or crescendo) shape.

Bach seems to have been satisfied with the initial success of his project and his ambition continued to grow. In the next ten years, this manifested itself in the Clavier-Übungen in four instalments, the most complete studies exploring the art of keyboard instruments that we have seen in the works of German Baroque composers.

Characters and Originality

Just like the suites that he wrote earlier, e.g. English Suites and French Suites, all Six Partitas follow the basic suite scheme: allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue. Within this framework, each set pursues variety in its own way, firstly by placing distinct opening movement, which determines the colour and mood of each suite, and secondly by the ‘galanteries’—optional dances—that are added towards the end of each suite. The variety is often increased further by having non-dance-type pieces, such as rondeau and burlesca, which contribute much to the musical flow and characters in each suite. In partita no. 2, capriccio was chosen in place of the final gigue. Viewed from the musical flow and the overall balance of texture, it functions very effectively, providing a powerful and convincing conclusion to end the set.

Also ingenious is the manner in which Bach treats foreign styles.  This is particularly evident in the way he distinguishes between ‘corrente’ (Italian) and ‘courante’ (French). By taking this stylistic contrast as his fundamental vocabulary, Bach pursues both the character that is inherent in each dance movement and the diversity of contents.

As for Bach’s originality, it is worth pointing out how Bach extends the range of expression in the same type of dance movement. Taking two allemandes from nos. 1 and 4 as example, one can see therein very different qualities: the former featuring power and brilliance and the latter, sophisticated lyricism. The treatment of dance form is another aspect where Bach takes liberties, freely expanding their inherent expressive possibilities. The best examples are sarabandes nos. 3, 5 and 6 which begin with an anacrusis.

The references to ‘music lovers’ and ‘to refresh their spirits’ found in the title-page should not, in fact, be interpreted simply as implying that the work was written for representative amateur musicians. This becomes obvious when we consider both the work’s extraordinary demands of technical agility and the method of its distribution Bach adopted for the published scores. It is thus unlikely that Bach anticipated huge profit from this project, although a recent study by A. Talle shows that the sales were by no means disappointing. What Bach really cared about was not financial gain but the successful public demonstration of both his knowledge of the latest styles and his ability to put this into practice in composition. At a time when Bach was continually receiving various forms of influence from the Dresden court and its musicians, Bach’s message was clear: he was a force to be reckoned with. One may catch a glimpse of him already started speculating about obtaining the title of Royal Court Composer, a title which he eventually received nearly ten years after the initial publication of the first partita.

(c) Yo Tomita 2002
This essay was written for Masaaki Suzuki's recording of this work released in the autumn 2002 from BIS. (BIS-CD-1313/14)