Understanding Bach's sonatas

March 6, 2008 at 07:09 AM · As far as I know, a composition is supposed to hold a thematical relation between its different movements, but in practise it is often difficult to distinctly perceive it. For example, I can't figure out the relation between the movements of Bach's sonata number one. If I did not know it, I would not be able to tell it from the other sonatas, except for the tonal relation. Or in others words, I would think that any fugue would fit in any sonata as well. Can you give me the hints to get the track?

Replies (23)

March 6, 2008 at 12:26 PM · Rick, if you haven't already read it, you might find Jaap Schroder's book on Bach's Sonatas and Partitas a very interesting and helpful piece of work.

March 6, 2008 at 12:50 PM · As well as Jaap's recording of them which is the best I have found for my taste. What a great question, I wish I had done better in Schenkerian Analysis to be able to give you an answer. The key might be in the rhythm though.

March 6, 2008 at 02:00 PM · Thanks for the suggestion, but I can't read a whole book right now. What about some nutshell points? My question is not just about Bach's, I would like to get a general idea of how to look through a sonata.

March 6, 2008 at 02:31 PM · Are you talking about Bach's sonatas for unaccompanied violin or his sonatas for violin and keyboard?

March 6, 2008 at 04:07 PM · See if you can get ahold of "Morimur." It's an (recorded) exploration of the relationship between the d-minor sonata and Cantata No. 4, but the program notes go into much more detail on Bach's beliefs in numerology (called "gematria").

If I remember correctly, according to one scholar described in the program notes, the entire

cycle of solo sonatas relates to the life of Jesus.

I'd dig it out but I'm not sure where my recording is right now (baby keeps pulling all the CDs down and I've given up putting them back in any kind of order).

March 6, 2008 at 05:45 PM · I'm interested, Rick. Why can't you read a book right now?

March 6, 2008 at 05:56 PM · Hmm, you can read a book in bed before you go to sleep (where I read the Jaap Schroder book) or on the subway when going into work/study etc, or at lunchtime over your sandwich, or instead of browsing on here... Always time to do something if you put your mind to it!

March 7, 2008 at 12:35 AM · Rosalind you've pushed this book on other threads and I'm intrigued. Where can I find it?

March 7, 2008 at 12:58 AM · As I understand it, the movements are each a take on a different Baroque dance style. However, when I play them I usually think of a diffferent scenario for each one depending on the key, my mood of the moment (or when I first p-layed it), sometimes I think of a cance, sometiimes of a funeral -- deepends.

March 7, 2008 at 03:14 AM · Andy - I think it is the partitas rather than the sonatas that are based on baroque dance movements. The sonatas are based on the sonata di chiesa form, if memory serves. Joel Lester wrote an excellent book on the S&Ps that explains all this in goo detail.

March 7, 2008 at 05:10 AM · I can't read this particular book because I have some hundred books to be read (sigh). Hey, I thought this stuff about Jesus and the sonatas sounds interesting. Anyone else heard about it?

March 7, 2008 at 06:08 AM · We listened to the Morimur recording in a class at school. It's interesting (and beautiful), no doubt, but personally I am a little skeptical...It was a pretty common ground bass, after all.

Below's a link to more reading ... (i bet you could read this in under 10 minutes..)


March 7, 2008 at 06:58 AM · Re: the original Q., I think you can see some big similarities between the opening of the Gm and the fugue subject, which makes it more fitting than the other fugues would be. I'm sure there's lots more than that. What you find in Bach wouldn't be similarities in themes or melodies as much as in less glaringly obvious things. One thing about them that seems to not be too widely known is that in Partita 1, the doubles are literally doubles for the movements before them. You can play them as duets, which I've never heard on a recording.

March 7, 2008 at 06:34 AM · Hi Marina

I picked my copy up from an online supermarket book website in Britain, but I notice Amazon USA has it too:


However, as you can see it is mega expensive there! If you go to the British Amazon site they've got it on special offer right now and I'm sure even with postage/exchange costs to USA it might work out cheaper!


It has set off so many questions and ideas in my head, especially since I got a baroque bow last year (not to mention Johannes, my new old violin who sounds great in Bach!) My teacher started making me think about authentic performance in interpretation and this book has certainly helped.

March 7, 2008 at 03:16 PM · Not as expensive as I thought, I bought the used version of it oh well. Thanks for the suggestion.

Can't wait to find a buddy to play the doubles with!!!!!!!!

March 7, 2008 at 03:23 PM · >As far as I know, a composition is supposed to hold a thematical relation between its different movements, but in practise it is often difficult to distinctly perceive it.

Why, that's because this notion, I'm sorry, is helplessly over-generalizing. I wouldn't expect a baroque suite or church-sonata (which is what Bach wrote vor solo violin, three each) to have any cyclical theme, soggietto, or even mini-motive. In a Buxtehude toccata, well. In the Franck symphony and the Brahms sonatas, of course. But that's a totally different concept of a sonata as a whole.

In the partitas, the concept of the lute or keyboard suite as established by Froberger gives a solid framework; in the sonatas, the church sonata does the same. Some of the sonata movements are dances as well, e. g. the Siciliano in Sonata I. Besides the general model and the tonal relation, there is little to look for, let alone "behind the notes". I am deeply sceptical of any numerology, and of Helga Thoene's ideals about the pieces as well. The framework of the music is quite conventional. It is the way Bach used and filled it which makes the pieces as remarkable as they are. Look for phrasing, for rhythm, for tempo relations, and have a good look (or listen) at other works of the same type, especially Italian church sonatas and Freench or Frobergian keyboard suites. But don't start counting notes.



March 7, 2008 at 04:03 PM · Oops, sounds like we will have another controverse here... Who gives more?

March 7, 2008 at 05:07 PM · I find the expression "supposed to" problematic when applied to a creative field such as composition. Certainly good (and great) music is usually always coherent and has consistency.

March 8, 2008 at 01:14 PM · So perhaps you could explain to us something about the thematic coherence and consistence between the movements.

March 8, 2008 at 08:22 PM · While it seems daunting to consider any whole movement from any of those three Sonatas, and before diving into any in-depth harmonic anlysis I think it can be a good idea to look for simple notions of pitch architecture. For example, if you look at the first movement of Sonata no.3 in C Major, the pitch material of the opening bar is staggering simple: the simple oscillation of a tone rising and falling. The same idea continues into the second bar with a second voice added on a static pitch. In bar 3 voice 2 remains static, the oscillation idea continues etc. A thematic idea of staticness in the pitch material has been established. The Adagio is a truly inspiring model of composition with its controlled step by step evolution. One definition of coherence in composition could be the disciplined and restricted use of a cellular idea, exploring all the possibilities before moving onto the next idea, which i think is the case with the Adagio. If you flip over to the fugue of the same Sonata the pitch material is also quite static; it may appear a little convoluted, but really it's just turning (and inverting) around the same limited pitch range for a span of four bars.

If you look at the first Sonata the motivic architecture seems to be governed by a falling idea; this applies also to the Siciliano (the first three notes which ascend are just an arpeggiated triad, then the motion is all downwards). Same for the presto, starts off with a two octave descent. In Sonata no.2 there's a motivic cell on the third beat which is picked up to start off the fugue subject.

March 17, 2008 at 09:22 AM · One of my famous violin teachers wrote a Doctoral Thesis maintaining that the Chacconne represented.... the stations of the cross.

March 17, 2008 at 09:36 AM · > One of my famous violin teachers wrote a Doctoral Thesis maintaining that the Chacconne represented.... the stations of the cross.

How so? Or were there more stations than I was aware of? Last time I counted, there were fourteen. (And last time I looked it up, Bach was Lutheran.)



March 17, 2008 at 03:13 PM · Then the question is: did Bach ever give any clue to conclude that his sonatas were depicting Jesus's life, or people just used their imagination to make some story ??

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