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The Six Partitas

(BWV 825830)

The Six Partitas (BWV 825830) were the first of a series of works for keyboard
instruments that Bach published under the general title of Clavier-bung (Keyboard
Practice). With them Bach effectively engraved his name in the long and proud tradition of
German composers. J.N. Forkel describes its 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.
Bachs contemporaries such as J. Mattheson (1731), J.C. Gottsched (1732) and L.C. Mitzler
(1738) seem to agree with Forkel, particularly on the second pointthe extreme technical
demands. It was the time when keyboardsin particular the clavichord, spinet and
harpsichordhad 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 Bachs
virtuosic writing off-putting. Whether the technical demands were due to Bachs
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 1717German defeating a
Frenchman, which became a legend long after his deathwas 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 (16601722), a man of high calibre as a composer of keyboard
works, was also significant; as will be shown, Kuhnaus legacy was an important aspiration
for composing the Six Partitas.

Initially Bachs 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 Bachs determination is clearly reflected in the content and
character of this work, as we shall see below.

The origin of Clavier-bung 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-Cthen 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. Bhm (Lneburg), 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.

Bachs partitas were modelled on Kuhnaus Neue Clavier-bung; 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-bungen, in 1689 and
1692 respectively, each containing seven partitas. They were some of the best-known
keyboard works at the time in Germany. Bachs 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 Bachs sets as if his intention was to update
Kuhnaus 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.
Kuhnaus scheme was a simple one, based on ascending scale: the first set explores major
keys only (CDEFGAB-flat), while the second uses minor keys only
(cdefgab). Bachs key-scheme (B-flatcaDGe) 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: Bachs scheme is, in fact, a sophisticated
sequence based on gradually expanding upward and downward intervalsviz. 2nd up, 3rd
down, 4th up, 5th down, 6th upwhich, 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-bungen 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: allemandecourantesarabandegigue. 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
galanteriesoptional dancesthat 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 Bachs 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 works
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, Bachs 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.

Partitas, BWV 825830, are a set of six harpsichord suites written by Johann Sebastian
Bach, published from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-bung I, and the first of his works to be
published under his direction. They were, however, among the last of his keyboard suites to
be composed, the others being the six English Suites, BWV 806-811 and the six French
Suites, BWV 812-817.

Autograph manuscript (1725) of Allegro for solo harpsichord from first version of Bach's sixth
sonata for obbligato harpsichord and violin, BWV 1019a, later incorporated as Corrente in sixth
partita, BWV 830.

The six partitas for keyboard are the last set of suites that Bach composed and the most
technically demanding of the three. They were composed between 1725 and 1730 or 1731. As
with the French and English Suites, the autograph manuscript of the Partitas is no longer

In keeping with a nineteenth-century naming tradition that labelled Bach's first set of
Suites English and the second French, the Partitas are sometimes referred to as
the German Suites.[1] This title, however, is a publishing convenience; there is nothing
particularly German about the Partitas. In comparison with the two earlier sets of suites, the
Partitas are by far the most free-ranging in terms of structure. Unlike the English Suites, for
example, wherein each opens with a strict prelude, the Partitas feature a number of different
opening styles including an ornamental Overture and a Toccata.

Although each of the Partitas was published separately under the name Clavier-
bung (Keyboard Practice), they were subsequently collected into a single volume in 1731,
with the same name, which Bach himself chose to label his Opus 1. [2] Unlike the earlier sets of
suites, Bach originally intended to publish seven Partitas, advertising in the Spring of 1730
upon the publication of the fifth Partita that the promised collected volume would contain two
more such pieces. The plan was then revised to include a total of eight works: six Partitas in
Part I (1731) and two larger works in Part II (1735).

The keys of the six Partitas (B-flat major, C minor, A minor, D major, G major, E minor) seem
to be an irregular sequence, but in fact they form a sequence of intervals going up and then
down by increasing amounts: a second up (B-flat to C), a third down (C to A), a fourth up (A
to D), a fifth down (D to G), and finally a sixth up (G to E). [3] The key sequence continues
into Clavier-bung II (1735) with two larger works: the Italian Concerto, a seventh down (E
to F), and the French Overture, an augmented fourth up (F to B-natural). Thus this sequence
of customary tonalities for 18th-century keyboard compositions is complete, extending from
the first letter of his name (Bach's "home" key, B-flat, in German is B) to the last letter of his
name (B-natural in German is H).