Bach : Clavier-übung 1 (engl)

The Partitas BWV 825–830 



/ bestehend in / Præludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden, Giguen, / Menuetten, und anderen Galanterien ; / Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertiget / von / Johann Sebastian Bach / Hochfürstl: Sächsisch Weisenfelsischen würcklichen Capellmeistern / und / Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis. / OPUS 1 / In Verlegung des Autoris / 1731.


Clavir-Übung / comprised of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets and other galanteries, to entertain enthusiasts of Johann Sebastian Bach... Opus I, published by the composer in 1731.


Essay by Martin Gester 


This is part of the presentation of the recording made in July 2013 at the Cité de la Musique et de la Danse de Strasbourg for LIGIA. The full text included in the CD booklet then presents each Partita separately, then suggests an analysis track that opens up unusual horizons, and offers a key to reading the Clavier-Übung in general, and the Clavier-übung I in particular.


To read the entire article (click)



In the Tradition of a Genre

When J.S. Bach undertook composition of the first part of Clavierübung (« keyboard practice »), he had just been appointed in the spring of 1723 to the position of Cantor at Saint Thomas’s and Director Musices in Leipzig. There, he would find himself extremely active: in addition to composing cantatas for Sunday and passions, as well as teaching at Thomasschule, he completed the “French” Suites (circa 1725) which followed on from an impressive collection of “English” Suites for the harpsichord (c. 1723), Suites, Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, solo cello and solo flute, and the Six “Trios for Keyboard and Violin,” now called “Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin.” Right in the middle of such intense activity, Bach embarked upon his “great work,” his “Opus 1,” in the sphere of keyboard music and the genre of the French-styled suite, going by the Italian term of partita.


As a matter of fact, Bach was preceded by his reputation as a virtuoso and unrivaled improviser on the organ and harpsichord. He had just completed the distinguished educational works of Inventions & Sinfonias comprising two and three parts (1720-23), and the first part of the Well- Tempered Clavier (1722). His activity was focused on all areas of composition and teaching, in keeping with the example set by his illustrious colleagues, Johann Kuhnau, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Mattheson, Christoph Graupner and Georg Friedrich Handel, who had issued various publications for an ever-growing, enlightened public of enthusiasts. In spite of this, Bach owed it to himself both to illustrate his art, which had attained the highest degree of maturity in a genre enjoying particular favour at that time, the Overture in the French Style, known as a suite or partita; and to publish his works. To this end, he could rely on an extensive network of acquaintances and colleagues in Dresden, Halle, Lüneburg, Brunswick, Nuremberg and Augsburg, helped along by his new, most enviable position in Leipzig.


Both of the terms “partita” and the one used for the collection, “Clavierübung,” were employed by Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, in his two collections published in Leipzig in 1689 and 1692, making the work Bach had commenced into a kind of tribute. As such, Bach could also have published one of his previous collections of “English” and “French” suites, both of which were accomplished in their genre. However, he was fully aware of the progress which had been made since having composed the substantial collection of masterpieces represented by the Leipzig cantatas, the St. John Passion, followed by the St. Matthew Passion, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, cello and flute, Sonatas for keyboard and violin, and the chorales and great Preludes and Fugues for organ. Only a new composition would be capable of illustrating a style currently enjoying all the privileges of the world of music. This genre would be best demonstrated by something in line with the latest development in his art. The new publication distinguished itself for its totally new aspiration to reach out to the public at large (in the dedication, there was neither mention of a prince, nor a patron, but only “enthusiasts,” i.e., the cultivated public). It would reveal the stylistic progress made over the space of a generation and the stature of the new Cantor who was at the peak of his art.


“The Work Made a Great Impression”

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. Our young players today would profit by the study of them, so brilliant, agreeable, expressive, and original are they.” (Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, J.N. Forkel, Leipzig 1802).

Forkel added that unlike most Baroque suites, these have withstood the passage of time. More than any others, the Partitas – along with the Italian Concerto and the Goldberg Variations – have remained in the pianist’s repertoire before the Baroque revival. This is the sign that they go far beyond the “galant” style, which is referred to by the title, and the realm of the harpsichord.


In the “English” Suites, Bach illustrated an “imported” model such as is to be found in Couperin’s works, especially in The Nations, Sonatas and Suites, with which he was acquainted. Apart from the first “English” Suite in A major and its French-styled prelude, undoubtedly composed to the model of the Suites by Dieupart long before, the five others are evocative of the same pattern, as follows. They go by the name of Prelude, a sinfonia and the allegro movement of an Italian-style concerto (much longer than any prelude in the Partitas) and are in five different keys, followed by a suite of French-style dances, virtually interchangeable aside from their keys, and substantial contrapuntal elaboration, particularly in the gigues. The “French” Suites were the response to this smorgasbord of juxtaposed styles, being of reduced size without preludes but in which there is an equal share of French and Italian styles to be found in the varied dances, fulfilling more than ever the ideal of “goûts réunis” or the fusion of styles. The result was an array of more varied characters and styles, which became further personalized with each suite, in keeping with a principle of constantly evolving variety which found its crowning glory in the Partitas.


Far from being just another collection, the Partitas constitute the apex of the genre; a summit. They are much more than an assortment of dances, styles and various genres, and leave the inherited models far behind them. They set to music Bach’s preoccupation which comes through in an entire series of masterpieces (cited above), and is central to the four volumes of the Clavierübung: within a chosen genre, to create a proficient synthesis of experience, styles and inherited genres in a work which conforms to the style, as well as being original and novel at the same time, all set within a perfectly mastered coherent whole.


The six Partitas were published, separately to start with, in 1726 (the 1st), 1727 (2nd and 3rd), 1724 (4th) and 1730 (5th and 6th). Partitas 3 and 6 had already appeared in a primitive form in the Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena in 1725. They all featured in a 1731 collection entitled as above. It seems they met with great success and were reprinted three times.


Order & Varietas

Whilst the six Partitas are highly diverse, they fall into a well thought-out structure.

Although two of them had existed before the collection was assembled, it appears that a plan had been conceived from the start with an obvious order but whose meaning has not been revealed to us. Overall, the cycle proceeds from the simple to the complex. The order of keys sets out an expanding series: B flat major – C minor – A minor – D major – G major – E minor, which in Clavierübung II would be complemented by the two missing keys of the German scale: F and B minor (h in German) - the French Overture would be transposed from its original key of C minor for this purpose. Moreover, one cannot say whether the content of the second volume had already been planned when the first one was published).


Each partita finds coherence with a compositional style and emotional or symbolic register dominating in relation to the chosen key. Depending on criteria which derive as much from the affect

1 The composer was not in any way restricted by a particular context and was absolutely free to choose the key and make it the ideal framework for his thinking. The tradition has lost much of the sense of the characteristics of modes and keys. Equalising temperament is not the only cause. Above all, it has been down to the evolution of style and musical language (amongst others, key-related modes and the twelve-tone technique have broken down structure, along with tonal attraction and the “ethos” of keys which reflected as much, if not more, culture and symbolism than musical acoustics, resulting in different actions on the part of both the composer and the performer who was supposed to identify them.) as the style, a structure of contrasting pairs emerges: I & II (the most French and innocent / the most Italian and serious), III & IV (in the popular / court style), V & VI (virtuosity and badinage / lamento and gravity). At the same time, structuring into two parts places the French-styled Overture at the beginning of Partita IV, like the Goldberg Variations. Furthermore, the expansion shaping the series of keys can also be found in the dimensions: the collections thus formed are of increasing dimensions, and Partita VI reached beyond the scope of what is commonly called a “French Suite,” both in its dimensions and complexity as for its emotional content.


The six Partitas are introduced by a prelude using a different name and style of writing (without there necessarily being an exact relationship between the title and content, simply due to a systematic approach to the variety: “Præambulum” at the beginning of Partita V and “Fantasia” for Partita III could equally be replaced by “Toccata” and “Invention,” to refer to similar works by the composer). Each Partita is comprised of seven movements, except for Partita II which has six, so as to create forty-one movements (a symbolic number for J.S. Bach). All of them consist of the four usual dances: allemande (they are all in the same movement of the “allemande grave”); courante (three of Italian style in 3/4 or 3/8 timing going by the name of “corrente,” two of French style in 3/2 timing); sarabande and gigue. Only Partita II ends with a Capriccio. Moreover, all of the dances in this partita, which promises to be Italian-styled with its Sinfonia and finale, have exclusively French names: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Rondeaux. However, the compositional approach is more violinistic (Italian-style) than luthé − lute-influenced − (French-style); and its final Capriccio, a concertante fugue is written in the typical Italian meter of 2/4.

This is a sort of figure of enjambment recurring across the dances and partitas, frequently repeated, and the expression of the desire to fuse styles at all levels. Each term encompasses music which is more complex than the title would seem to proclaim. From the French-style Overture in Partita IV, with its fugue-concerto and the Italian-styled Sinfonia in Partita II (dotted notes of this sort are not the French style!) through to the double fugues in the gigues, the courantes or corrente – all set to different rhythms – the Gigue in “archaic” style complicated by diminutions in E, the Sarabande in Partita VI with the superlative ornamentation, or the Allemande in Partita IV in the manner of the violinistic aria sprinkled with the luthé style, there is absolutely no systematism. Also, the compositional techniques, just like the styles and denominations, co-exist, melding into a multifaceted polyphony (a polyphony not only of voices but of styles, techniques, rhythms, genres and affects). The a-foregoing cannot really be expressed in words but is thrilling to discover with every turn of the page. We shall come back to this later for each work.


Intermedio: Sophisticated Music; and Dance!

It is customary to say: “In the Partitas, dance is only an excuse...” It is typical of our epoch to believe this. This is to accuse Bach of a vice which has rather more to do with the limitations of those who perform his work, brought about by a mismatch of cultures... Forkel in his time had already pointed out the following:

“The particular nature of Bachian harmony and melody was also combined with very extensive and diversified use of rhythm... More than those of any other period, composers of Bach's time found no difficulty in this, for they acquired facility in the management of rhythm in the “Suite,” which at the time held the place of our “Sonatas...” whose rhythm is their distinguishing characteristic. Composers of Bach’s day, therefore, were compelled to use a great variety of measures and rhythms (which for the most part are now unknown). Moreover, skillful treatment was necessary in order that each dance might exhibit its own distinctive character and rhythm. Bach far exceeded his predecessors and contemporaries in this branch of the art. He experimented with every kind of rhythmic characteristic in order to give as much variety and color to each of his pieces as possible.”


The loss of ability to combine sophisticated music with the dance characters was later entrenched, as styles changed and diversified. This was first and foremost caused by the gradual compartmentalization of genres. However, it is said that Chopin, the custodian “mutatis mutandis” of this tradition dating back to Couperin and Telemann, had a unique gift to bridge dance, song, expression and, on occasion, bravura, much to the admiration of his peers.


Nowadays, a musician’s training is rooted in quite different foundations from those of the

musician of old. Their “moulding” is grounded in such diverse repertoires (if not grounded in a type of music theory unsuitable for everything by seeking to suit everything) that this huge eclecticism, relying on a profusion of standardized directives in the score (dynamics, touch, phrasing), results in a sort of leveling, of versatile “non-structuring,” lending itself well to anything. (When such directions are lacking, this is often the reason why the type of musician “who works from the score” hastens to write a plethora of them in.) Even the “Baroque” schools of today have built on these revised foundations for the purposes of style purification, in treatises, and on the rhythmical concept of the prima prattica (in which the North of Europe traditionally excels) more than experiment with what Baroque art shares with later eras – which are often deemed to be impure – particularly court dances, their dynamics, various speeds and codified flexibility. Today, we see renewed interest in Baroque dance. However, when there is a genuine interaction, it is generally in “ballroom” dances and much less in sophisticated music, such as Bach’s or that of opera composers such as the lamenti carried along by a sarabande or passacaglia movement (« Lascia ch’io pianga », the death of Dido).


On reading books about the harpsichord (for example, Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena, Wilhelm Friedemann or the young Mozart, et al.), we find that most of the musician’s basic training was derived from dances, and that the rhythmical and structural concept was underpinned by “rhythmic characteristics.” (This is as natural as it is for us to speak with emphasis, using the sounds and music of a language, or even “an accent from somewhere”). We also find that all music, whether it is vocal or instrumental, religious or secular, simple or sophisticated, was based on these varied and ever present principles.


For Bach, dance was not an occasional ornament. It was an essential structuring and symbolic component. This applied to his century in general and to composers such as Lalande, Rameau, Handel and Corelli (even in the Concerti da chiesa, where the dance characteristics are not mentioned). Dance was ubiquitous, even in the passions (cf. the sarabande movement in the finale of the St. John Passion). All the more so, as it is the French-styled suite, Bach approaches it with as much respect for that model as he does the Italian concerto or the instrumental sonata. Far from eluding characteristics, he accepts and transcends them. In other words, he keeps to their form, function and overall style (including the dance characteristics), and brings them face to face with an entire realm of heritage, acquired experience, invention and expression, which transcends the work from its heart outwards.

In this way, the Sarabande in A minor, within the partita “in the popular style,” is mischievously disguised as a polonaise (both having compatible rhythmic features). It is the competition between the two superimposed characteristics which makes it so exciting. The apparently Italian-styled aria in the Sarabande in D major (Partita IV) and particularly the one in E (Partita VI) with extreme ornamentation, are effectively underpinned by the dance movements. The clash between the dramatic movements and rhythmical structure glorifies the expression which is both intense and noble. Following the same principle, desperate lamenti rang out over the entire Baroque era, set to the rhythms of the sarabande or passacaglia. Today they are generally pared down to extremely slow, static movements, without the tension between twisting despair and aristocratic “flair” which gives it all a tragic dignity.

Dance movements are integral to the music which sought not so much to contrast tempi as “rhythmic characteristics,” to the degree that there was often a series of movements in practically the same tempo but with a contrasting meter, movement or compositional technique. Furthermore, the internal tension created by the rhythmic characteristics lends quite a different feeling of tempo. There is sometimes more energy than speed, or vice versa. This means that a tempo cannot be analyzed without it being done relative to the movement. Here is a classic example: the restraint of a deep second beat following a lifted first beat – the standard today is a downbeat – was shared with almost all moderate and slow ternary dances, including the sarabande, passacaglia, the moderate minuet, polonaise, the Italian courante when it is restrained as in Partitas I and III, the English gaillarde... and all related music. This resistance creates momentum leading towards the first beat of the next bar which absorbs the momentum and is suspended before the following second beat, and so on. Accordingly, the rhythm becomes more complex, enriched, and is not drawn into the regular flow which longs for speed. This principle can also be observed, mutatis mutandis, in many dances of oral tradition, including, for instance, in the sophisticated art of the Argentine Tango.



Georg Muffat compared the tempo in French and Italian music, placing music by Lully, the first Couperin, and Corelli side by side. He noticed that Italian music was both faster in the allegro movements and more lingering in the slow movements. More than any other kind of music, French or French-styled music of that time was structured by dance and versified declamation (as applied in the recitative of opera or cantata, and which even influences the melody sung). French music was made up of a great variety of “movements,” and found its internal tension in the resistance contrasting the recited word, the dance step, and the instrumental gesture which imitated them and moreover disrupted or held back the flow at times with extreme ornamentation (cf. Couperin’s gavottes and gigues). In a torrent, these are the stones and obstacles which create energy and interest by disturbing the flow.

It is the rhythm and energy of the actor speaking (whose speed is not multiplied by three or four) and of the dancer dancing, which are blended together by French music, not the vigorous pace of a machine slickly moving forward at every speed imaginable. Speed was an ideal pursued by the Nineteenth Century “School of Fingering.” This latter aimed to equip the performer with the ability to play streams of notes of quite a different speed and kind with the greatest of ease. However, this school was so intoxicated by speed that it even managed to compare Bachian heritage with fingering exercises to be played “with ease,” or even adagios and fugues to be played smoothly with devotion, in which ornamentation was a never-ending melody. This still applies today...


It is these considerations as understood in the context of the world of Bach the organist, choirmaster and composer, who was as interested in adapting texts to music as he was in putting together various ensembles for a wide range of venues and audiences, which must guide our approach to the keyboard and the difficulties in recreating music which devolve upon the performer. His gift was to bring together the many types of resistance caused by the interweaving of counterpoint, text, dance moves, and various instrumental styles into the same melting pot. Lots of movements evoke one cantata’s melody here, another orchestra overture there, or mimic their style or manner. And the experience of the organist who plays “with gravity” and that of the Kapellmeister beating time for the orchestra does not disappear into thin air when he composes or plays a Partita. Bach composed a kind of music which far exceeded the instrumental medium, whilst accounting for it and being conversant in all the styles which made up his tremendous experience as a composer, musician, educator and preacher – using his musical techniques within the community. Therein resides his virtuosity.



Bach’s music is not limited to one dimension or another. “His music was created with the distance of synthesis”6: it cannot be narrowed down in regard to structural concepts or handling of counterpoint, styles or dances, the art of rhetoric, or the science of harmony. Harmony, if it must thus be named, is in this instance the absolute mastery of all these parameters: constraints of order and expressiveness; counterpoint or melody and dance characteristics; public expectations and rigorous reflection interact in continuously reinvented combinations without any one of these strictures ever casting out or making us neglect the others. They are all important, from the dance to the ornamentation, elaborate in the extreme and composed with outstanding precision.



As a man of his time, Bach was at one with the thinking of his contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, who took the concept of universality to its peak: his “best of all possible worlds” contains “as great variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order.” However, this order is constantly changing and any isolated substance or action is at one with the principle of the universe. As counterpoint was traditionally the ideal symbol for representing the cosmic order, Bach tended to mingle the new ideal of bringing melody, harmony and dance together with the harmony of spheres, connecting horizontality and verticality, past and present, “natural” humanity and cosmos (God, order) within a higher harmony. “Everything comes from the One; everything is in the One,” he seemed to be saying. This is all the more evident in a cycle such as the Partitas, conceived as a major work to unite known knowledge in the field; the first step up in the Clavierübung, following on from previous attempts – which were nonetheless most accomplished works – towards The Art of Fugue, a complex and recapitulative work based on a single subject. From this perspective, every creation – in this case, every partita and the entire cycle – was both a specific and general creation, confined to one field and genre, bearing faraway, universal and symbolic overtones.

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