Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Symposium 105 - Bach’s Solo Voices

Sunday, 10 February 2013 @ 5:00pm
Monday, 11 February 2013 @ 7:00pm

Bach's Solo Voices


  • Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007

    Menuet I – Menuet II


    Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Flute Partita in A Minor, BWV 1013

    Bourée angloise



  • Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004: Chaconne

  • Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012

    Gavotte I – Gavotte II



Program Notes

    "Bach's Solo Voices"
    Thoughts on the Program by James Roe

    “All music comes down to singing and dancing.”
                                       — Albert Fuller


    In all of human artistic expression, there is nothing quite like the opening arpeggios of Bach’s first suite for solo cello. They seem to arise from the most ancient part of our shared humanity. Can there be a time when this music did not exist? And who could have brought it into existence? The utter economy of means heightens its expressive power. One instrument, the cello, is held with the legs and embraced by the arms, urged to speak by an arched bow held with the utmost delicacy. Its utterance consists of the most basic building blocks of human music making, instantly recognizable across all cultures and times. 

    Those first bars say something personal to every listener; something so elemental that even the body responds: shoulders relax as the day’s tension releases into a wellspring of musical empathy, a glance might be shared with another listener, and a hand may involuntarily move to the heart. This music has been called upon to act as the repository of our deepest emotions.  At the ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of 9/11, Yo Yo Ma played Bach solo cello suites. In the face of unspeakable loss, Bach reached out to us through the page, through the notes in the air, and offered comfort.

    Those first bars take on a cultural significance not unlike certain lines of Shakespeare. “What is past is prologue.” “To be or not to be.” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  It is difficult to imagine that such music would fall from public consciousness for centuries after it was written.  And who would imagine that the story of their modern rediscovery would begin in Barcelona?

    Café Tost, Barcelona

    In 1890, the 13-year old cellist Pablo Casals landed a gig playing in a trio at Café Tost in Barcelona.  Their repertoire consisted of waltzes, marches, and transcriptions of popular melodies. The young Casals was always looking for new material, and often rummaged through the music stores that were once on and around La Rambla. On a side street called Calle Ancha, he entered an old shop and among the bins of sheet music, made a discovery that would change his life and eventually bring long-forgotten music of Bach to an international audience.

    Casals wrote about the experience in his memoirs:

    “I began browsing through a bundle of musical scores. Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age.  They were unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach—for the cello only!

    I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo.  What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody—not even my teachers—had ever mentioned them to me.  I forgot our reason for being in the shop.  All I could do was stare at the pages and caress them. I hurried home, clutching my treasure as if it were the crown jewels.

    I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years … and I would be twenty-five before I had the courage to play one of the suites in public at a concert.”

    The suites were not entirely unknown, but had fallen into a quiet corner of music history. Casals’ performances and recordings of these works gave them a new life in the 20th Century. The period instrument movement has deepened our experience of these works, giving voice to the rhetoric and affective meanings of Bach’s musical vernacular.

    Suite, Partita, Chaconne

    During the Baroque era, a Suite referred to a multi-movement instrumental piece consisting of dances presented in a standardized order.  The dances originated in France, where they were an integral part of social and even political life of the court. German composers generally retained the French titles. The characteristics of each dance were part of the shared culture of the time, allowing composers to demonstrate creativity within a variety of established styles. The working 18th-century musician would even be expected to improvise these dances.  Composed suites, like those we will hear this evening, were idealized versions of spontaneous music making.

    The standard movements of a Baroque Suite are: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. (See below.) The composer may begin the suite with a Prelude.  Not a dance form, the rhapsodic Prelude sets the stage for the dances to come.  Between the Sarabande and Gigue, the composer could choose from a set of optional dances referred to as Galanteries.

    The Partita originated in 16th-century Italy as a set of instrumental variations, often on well-known tunes. By the time of Bach, it was an alternative title for a Suite, though a Partita may have a looser organization of movements.

    The Chaconne also has its origins in dance and improvisation.  Its roots trace back to the late 1500s, when it entered Spanish culture through the indigenous music of the colonized New World. Cervantes (1547-1616) refers to the Chaconne in Don Quixote, and it appears in works by other writers of that era. By the early 17th Century, the Chaconne had become Spain’s most popular dance. It then migrated to Italy and eventually made its way around Europe. The early chaconne was performed at a brisk tempo with a repeating bass line, called an ostinato, over which variations were improvised. When composers wrote Chaconnes, they would often showcase a performer’s virtuosity. The trancelike effect created by the ostinato heightened the experience of the listener. The Chaconne from Bach’s second partita for unaccompanied violin is a work of dazzling compositional ingenuity that makes extraordinary demands on the dexterity, stamina, and creativity of the performer.

    The Movements of a Baroque Suite

    PRELUDE (optional, but common)

    • Originally the Prelude was improvised, later it came to be composed and published with the suite.
    • Rhythm and meter are subservient to the composer and performer’s flights of fancy.


    • Literally translates from French as the word 'German'.
    • A stately, serious dance in duple meter of moderate tempo.
    • A line of couples with paired hands extended forward, would parade back and forth the length of the room, walking three steps, then balancing on one foot.


    • A lively, courtship dance in triple meter.
    • There are two types: the Italian Corrente was faster than the French Courante. (What this might suggest about courtship rituals in those countries is beyond the scope of tonight’s program.)
    • In his cello suites, Bach wrote Italian Correntes, but gave them the French title.
    • Steps involved running and hopping. The dancers moved from side to side in a zigzag fashion that combined fixed with improvised patterns. A general air of gaiety prevailed.


    • A slow, stately triple meter dance, the Sarabande is the expressive heart of a Baroque Suite.
    • Originated in 16th-century Latin America as a sung-accompaniment to dance. The earliest reference to the zarabanda appeared in a poem by Fernando Guzmán Mexía, in a manuscript from Panama dated 1539. It was brought to Spain and its popularity was rivaled only by the Chaconne. It appeared in Italy by the early 17th Century as part of the repertory of the Spanish five-course guitar.
    • J.S. Bach composed more sarabandes than any other dance form.

    GALANTERIES (At the discretion of the composer)

    • Light in character, these optional dances offer a contrast to the preceding sarabande.
    • Possible galanteries include: Minuet, Bouree, Polonaise, and Gavotte.


    • A lively, rustic dance with running triplets.
    • The meter can be triple or duple.

    A Solo for Flute

    Whereas Bach played the violin and cello, he did not play the flute, and at the time he wrote the piece known as the Partita in A Minor (likely the early 1720s), there were few precedents. The original manuscript is lost, and the earliest known version from about 1722, is in the hand of a scribe who worked with Bach at that time. It is titled in French Solo p[our une] flûte traversière par J. S. Bach, and it is thought to have been written for a Frenchman living in Dresden named Pierre Buffardin, who Bach met in 1717. The title Partita was added when the work was first published in 1917.

    Bach’s Solo Voices

    Bach’s works for unaccompanied flute, violin, and cello are remarkable for thir ability draw multiple voices from a single instrument. In the way a line drawn by Henri Matisse can give the perception of volume, gravity, and space, so a single melodic line of Bach creates the perception of harmony and polyphony. Bach enlists our help in this musical illusion. He counts on the logic of our ears to experience what we expect, which may be more than what is actually there.

    Listening to these suites of dances while sitting, as opposed to dancing, is another way Bach plays with our expectations.  There is an implicit physicality in dance music, which we experience even if we do not know the steps of the Sarabande or Gavotte.  Hearing it triggers something in the memory of the body.  We can remember the pleasures of dancing, of interacting with others while moving with poise—or abandon—in public. The performers’ interaction with their instruments becomes a kind of dance in and of itself. At Helicon, we are fortunate to be in such close proximity to the action.

    On the morning after this weekend's blizzard, I took a walk in Riverside Park, listening to Bach’s cello suites through headphones. How perfectly the stillness of the snow-covered world suited this music. Removing the headphones, I was struck by the quietness of the city on that cold, still morning. In our modern world, silence is the rarest of pleasures. If that silence is to be broken, I can think of nothing better than the music of Bach.