Bach's Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas
By ERNEST MOSS Bach's six unaccompanied sonatas for violin are some of the must perfect pieces of music ever composed. Consider, first of all, the man's task. He had to deal with an instrument which by reason of the brilliance of its tone, its quick responsiveness and its resources for delicate inflection, could stand unchallenged in a rapid melodic line even by the human voice. Not only that, but the melodic line could be indefinitely modified and varied by different methods of bowing, plain, slurred and staccato.
But the violin has much greater possibili
ties than this. Unlike the wind instruments and the human voice, because of the number of its strings it can sustain more than one melodic line at a time; it is capable of a limited polyphony. At the same time, in distinction from the piano and other instruments which produce sounds of a transient nature, it can sustain its chords.
Self-Sufficient Ciiven these resources, which it must be admitted are considerable, Bach set out to show what wonderfully self-sufficient music could he written for the solo violin, if its more usual function of playing in concert with other instruments were entirely dispensed with.
With inexhaustible variety the six sonatas explore possibilities (almost inconceivable to those who do not know the works) and reduce them to a marvellous orderliness.
Not, however, always, the orderliness of an easily seized regular rhythmic scheme. The slow movement of the Italian Concerto for clavichord is an everlasting testimony to Bach's greatness in rhapsody (a generally unrecognised aspect of his genius). And in these sonatas his rhapsodic movements are equally enchanting.
As a lesson in contrasts one need only look at the first movement of the 'first sonata, with its long chords, swift runs and trills, and then at the last movement of the same sonata which, except for its few chords at the end of each section, is entirely made up of uninterrupted notes of identical length, and yet preserves its intensity throughout by an unswerving, almost fierce, grasp of the harmonies of sounds in sequence.
One of the unforgettable impressions which a good performance of the sonatas makes is of a "magical sonority, smothering the formal qualities of the music." " Smothering " is not the right word, for the formal qualities of the music are not lost; but the brilliance of the general sonority surrounds them like a halo, so that one's whole being seems immersed in, but not choked by, sound. Never is the firmness of outline softened by the sonority, but made more glowing, as in the hard and plangent fugue of the sonata in C'.
More Interest Needed
Considering that there is so little work written for the violin which does not depend on the support of the pianist or orchestra, it is astounding that virtuoso violinists should give such scant attention to these works of Bach.
Perhaps they are afraid of music which makes faults so patent, where, say, Paganini would make a better show and conceal them better.
It must be remembered, too, that Bach's sonatas are " a terrific challenge to the modern tightly-stretched bow." All the same it is time for these violinists who give public recitals to wake up and turn to the stuff written for them; which makes all the demands on his skill which an executant could want; which is the purest music.