Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita Number 3 in E Major, BWV 1001

This piece dates from 1720 and is found in a collection of three sonatas and partitas that Bach composed for solo violin. Supposedly these pieces contain some of the most difficult passages ever written.

I have only heard one recording of them, which I originally checked out of my college dorm’s library in 1975–one by Nathan Milstein. His recording has been labeled by some as patrician and elegant, but he makes them sound so gosh-darned easy. I find them so pure and full of a kind of rationalist light and clarity that I’ve never wanted to hear another recording of them.

The Partita Number 3 in E Major is actually my favorite, though I have already written about the “Chaconne” above and in another entry, which comes from the Partita Number 2 in D Minor. Partitas were solo works composed along the lines of a suite, which contains several movements based on dance forms. Partita Number 3 starts out with a wonderfully upbeat prelude, which Bach recycled from his own “Simphonia” to Cantata Number 29. The second movement is a very soulful and moving meditation, called “Loure.” A gavotte and rondo comprise the third movement, which lifts the spirit again. The last four movements, two menuets, a bourree, and a jig, for the most part continue in the same upbeat vein, though with a reserved dignity.

I discovered this piece through some patrician prigs who lived in my dorm. Here’s how it happened. At the end of the fall semester of 1975, I put in for a room transfer within the French House, the dorm where I lived. My end room, located next to the entrance and stairwell was just too noisy. My request was granted and in January, I moved into a much quieter room a few doors down from the lounge.

Another student moved in to the room next to me. On his door, he had posted a little hand-written name tag. It said: Tim W-S*. After getting settled, I went over to greet him. He was a tall, thin guy, with close cropped hair and a large forehead. He told me he was a composition major in the school of music. So, jokingly, I asked him if he was related to a famous composer with the same last name as his. “As a matter of fact, I am.” When I asked how he had gotten interested in composition, he told me that his father had written music for television. When I asked what pieces, he said “The theme from The Flintstones.” I used to religiously watch that program every Friday night as a kid, and can still sing the words to it.

Tim had a bit of an aristocratic air to him, and didn’t seem interested in mixing with the others at the French House. I used to see him almost every time the phone rang, however. Our rooms were connected by a very small phone box and we shared the phone. When the phone rang, one of us would get it. If it were for the other, we’d knock on the inside of the door on the opposite side and pass the phone through the hole to the other.

After a month or two, Tim started dating a girl, who eventually moved into his room. They had a few annoying habits, which the phone box played a part in, and which sometimes made me long for my old room. First, the girlfriend used to love a piece by Bach, which I have already written about, his Chaconne. She used to put on an album, which I think was a guitar transcription by Segovia, and play it incessantly. Sometimes she would leave her side of the phone box open and the little channel would amplify the music as is passed into my room.

Their second annoying habit was, well, downright gross. Almost every night, they ordered in pizza from Dominos. On the first night, the aroma that drifted through the phone box was pleasant. They might have even offered me a slice. Over the weeks, however, the aroma coming through the box started to change. It clearly communicated the fact that they rarely cleaned their room. It had the rank pong of old, moldering pizza cartons and unwashed laundry. I used to dread when the phone rang, for when the door popped open, the stench that blew through would almost make me retch.

My memory of how this was resolved is a bit vague. I think Tim and his girlfriend eventually moved out. On the other side of them lived our French resident assistant, Jean-Marc. One day he told me that his room had an infestation of cockroaches. When the couple had moved, maybe the vermin had migrated to JM’s room in search of food. Fortunately, the cement wall between their room and mine acted as a barrier. Ah, the fond memories of those college days.

Still, they had impeccable taste in music and another piece that I do remember welcoming when it wafted through the phone box, was today’s piece, Bach’s Partita Number 3 in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin.

Once I had been bitten by Milstein’s recording, I had a bit of a dilemma. You could only find them on a three-disk set issued by Deutsche Grammophon. At 10 bucks a disk in 1975 for a DG recording, that put the set right out of my price range. About nine years later, however, I stumbled across a little record store in Lafayette, Louisiana that had given up on trying to sell classical records. To clean out their stock, they were selling off all classical LPs at over 50% off. And there, in the Bach bin, was the set of Milstein, which I snapped up. I pulled it out in the 1990s to listen to it and noticed a number of pops. Shortly thereafter, I found a set on cassettes at a garage sales for about 10 cents a tape. For a while, I had a clean set, and could enjoy them again. But since then, cassette tapes gave rise to CDs, which in turn gave way to online mp3s, and I keep getting tired of having to pay again and again to listen to something I paid for once already.

I tried looking Up Tim on the Internet today with Google. There’s no trace of anyone by that name. Worse, when I looked up who actually wrote the theme song for “The Flinstones” it was the music director for Hanna-Barbera, a one Hoyt Curtin. Wikipedia says he only had one son, whose name was not Tim. So not only was Tim a pig, he was a liar as well.

Hoyt Curtin Biography

Bud the CDs or download MP3s of Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

J.S. Bach Chaconne from 2nd Violin Partita BWV 1004

Someday soon, I expect to see the following ad for a concert at the Kennedy Center: “Internationally renowned violinist, Komiko Kim, joins the National Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D. This marks Kim’s American debut and her first performance since being born last month.

Nowadays, promoters and agents seem obsessed with finding younger and younger prodigies. I suspect the blame lies with tiger moms and helicopter parents. Most of us want our kids to be outshine others and so enroll them in music and sports programs almost as soon as they learn to walk. Every parent dreams of siring a Mozart. Prodigies who make it big do sell tickets and draw crowds. Even music teachers buy into that myth. But something is lost when box office receipts becomes one’s sole motivation for doing something. If you think that something is not worth doing unless you become famous doing it, then why do it at all? I knew a teenager who once gave up swimming because her coach said she had started too late and would never be an Olympic medalist. And thinking that to be a successful writer I would have to set my goal on becoming the next James Joyce kept me from trying my hand at other types of writing.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I lived in the French House at Indiana University in 1975, several of my dorm mates were majoring in performance (violin, piano, and voice), and despite being in their late teens and early twenties they had set their sights on making it big. One of these was a Brit named Harry (not his real name), who lived a few doors down the hall from me. He was one of the few unabashedly straight males in our dorm and had little use for the campy crowd with which I hung out. He was rail thin, always seemed to be wearing gray flannel slacks, and atop his slender frame sat a large round head with angular cheekbones, closely shorn hair, and a bulging forehead. He looked a bit like a taffy apple and was arrogant as sin.

Harry  had learned, like many Brits living in the former colonies, that by simply turning on a British accent, he could reduce most Americans into fawning toadies. Me included. Once he bragged that as a girl, his mother, having been born in Dorset, England, had known Thomas Hardy and used to accompany the writer on long walks. Harry’s father once showed up looking the perfect English country gentleman–driving a Jaguar and wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.

Harry was majoring in violin and loved played the part of the sneering, temperamental artist. He treated most people with either disdain, condescension, or derision. Most of the time, he kept his door closed, and you could hear him practicing away frantically. He would emerge from time to time on weekends to join in the local soccer game in our little meadow where many foreign males would congregate. (Back then, few Americans played the sport.)

Growing up in Indiana, I had no idea about how strongly accents in England mark one’s social class. Until college, the only English accent I had ever heard belonged to Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which of course started out as cockney. (I hadn’t become a fan of Monty Python yet.) One day I bumped into Harry in the hall and said something like “‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello!” He looked at me and said, “It’s funny how all Americans, when they try to imitate a British accent, do cockney, which is lower class.” I also had a run in with Harry once, which caused him to dismiss me completely. One day, I walked by his door and noticed he had completely busted up his bow and taped it to the door. I knocked on his door, and when he appeared, I told him that I thought that was a really wasteful thing to do. He gave me another withering look and said, “Bows wear out. It wasn’t a great bow anyway.” Since then, I’ve learned that a great bow can cost as much as a good violin. So maybe his was expendable. He still was an asshole.

At the end of the semester, he invited everyone to his end of the year recital. He had chosen to play the Bach Chaconne from the 2nd Violin Partita. This piece ranks as one of the most intricate, soulful and passionate piece Bach wrote and it has been transcribed by a number of composers and performers for other instruments. Segovia did a version transcribed by Busoni, and I have a great version of it played by the violinist, Nathan Milstein (and today’s Youtube is a performance by that great master).

The Chaconne must put incredible demands on the violinist. Bach uses double stops quite extensively, in which produces chords and manages to create fugal patterns with bowing that alternates rapidly between the strings so that each string ends up playing a different melody.

Harry acquitted himself very well technically during this performance. It was one of the most soul-less performances I have ever seen. True, he managed to play every note flawlessly, but he literally attacked his violin with an intensity that showed that he hated the piece. His body language said “I am going to show you who’s boss.” But there was no love there, no respect for the emotions that Bach put into this piece.

I don’t know whatever happened to Harry. There don’t seem to be any Harrys among the current crop of world-famous virtuoso violinists. What astounds me is that the current set of mostly Asian female violinists–some of who are in their teens–manage to be technically brilliant and play with great emotional depth. I know from my own experience that at that age I had the emotionally nuanced range of a flat worm, so I don’t know where these kids get it. Of course, when you are a kid, the few emotions you do have run very deep, but how they are able to express a wide range is a mystery. I wonder if Harry ever softened his heart.

Great recording by Milstein of the Partitas and Sonatas

J.S. Bach Chaconne from 2nd Violin Partita BWV 1004

Someday soon, I expect to see the following ad for a concert at the Kennedy Center: “Internationally renowned violinist, Komiko Kim, joins the National Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D. This marks Kim’s American debut and her first performance since being born last month.

Nowadays, promoters and agents seem obsessed with finding younger and younger prodigies. I suspect the blame lies with tiger moms and helicopter parents. Most of us want our kids to be outshine others and so enroll them in music and sports programs almost as soon as they learn to walk. Every parent dreams of siring a Mozart. Prodigies who make it big do sell tickets and draw crowds. Even music teachers buy into that myth. But something is lost when box office receipts becomes one’s sole motivation for doing something. If you think that something is not worth doing unless you become famous doing it, then why do it at all? I knew a teenager who once gave up swimming because her coach said she had started too late and would never be an Olympic medalist. And thinking that to be a successful writer I would have to set my goal on becoming the next James Joyce kept me from trying my hand at other types of writing.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I lived in the French House at Indiana University in the early 1970s, several of my dorm mates were majoring in performance (violin, piano, and voice) and though in their late teens and early twenties had set their sights on making it big. One of these was a Brit named Harry (not his real name), who lived a few doors down the hall from me. He was one of the few unabashedly straight males in our dorm and had little use for the campy crowd with which I hung out. He was rail thin, always seemed to be wearing gray flannel slacks, and atop his slender frame sat a large round head with angular cheekbones, closely shorn hair, and a bulging forehead. He looked a bit like a taffy apple and was arrogant as sin.

Harry  had learned, like many Brits living in the former colonies, that by simply turning on a British accent, he could reduce most Americans into fawning toadies. Me included. Once he bragged that as a girl, his mother, having been born in Dorset, England, had known Thomas Hardy and used to accompany the writer on long walks. Harry’s father once showed up looking the perfect English country gentleman–driving a Jaguar and wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.

Harry was majoring in violin and loved played the part of the sneering, temperamental artist. He treated most people with either disdain, condescension, or derision. Most of the time, he kept his door closed, and you could hear him practicing away frantically. He would emerge from time to time on weekends to join in the local soccer game in our little meadow where many foreign males would congregate. (Back then, few Americans played the sport.)

Growing up in Indiana, I had no idea about how strongly accents in England mark one’s social class. Until college, the only English accent I had ever heard belonged to Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which of course started out as cockney. (I hadn’t become a fan of Monty Python yet.) One day I bumped into Harry in the hall and said something like “‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello!” He looked at me and said, “It’s funny how all Americans, when they try to imitate a British accent, do cockney, which is lower class.” I also had a run in with Harry once, which caused him to dismiss me completely. One day, I walked by his door and noticed he had completely busted up his bow and taped it to the door. I knocked on his door, and when he appeared, I told him that I thought that was a really wasteful thing to do. He gave me another withering look and said, “Bows wear out. It wasn’t a great bow anyway.” Since then, I’ve learned that a great bow can cost as much as a good violin. So maybe his was expendable. He still was an asshole.

At the end of the semester, he invited everyone to his end of the year recital. He had chosen to play the Bach Chaconne from the 2nd Violin Partita. This piece ranks as one of the most intricate, soulful and passionate piece Bach wrote and it has been transcribed by a number of composers and performers for other instruments. Segovia did a version transcribed by Busoni, and I have a great version of it played by the violinist, Nathan Milstein.

The Chaconne must put incredible demands on the violinist. Bach uses double stops quite extensively, in which produces chords and manages to create fugal patterns with bowing that alternates rapidly between the strings so that each string ends up playing a different melody.

Harry acquitted himself very well technically during this performance. It was one of the most soul-less performances I have ever seen. True, he managed to play every note flawlessly, but he literally attacked his violin with an intensity that showed that he hated the piece. His body language said “I am going to show you who’s boss.” But there was no love there, no respect for the emotions that Bach put into this piece.

I don’t know whatever happened to Harry. There don’t seem to be any Harrys among the current crop of world-famous virtuoso violinists. What astounds me is that the current set of mostly Asian female violinists–some of who are in their teens–manage to be technically brilliant and play with great emotional depth. I know from my own experience that at that age I had the emotionally nuanced range of a flat worm, so I don’t know where these kids get it. Of course, when you are a kid, the few emotions you do have run very deep, but how they are able to express a wide range is a mystery. I wonder if Harry ever softened his heart.

Great recording by Milstein of the Partitas and Sonatas

%d bloggers like this: