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Religious Symbolism in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Violin Sonatas and Partitas

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Bach is known for being a devout Lutheran. We often see people talking about the overt religious symbolism in his vocal works. Who is to strip that level of instrumental music? This paper’s purpose is to act as one interpretation of what Bach might have been thinking about when writing his six violin sonatas and partitas.

Johann Sebastian Bach, ‘the fifth evangelist’, is well known for writing music that reflects his beliefs as a devout Lutheran. As Bach himself wrote, “the sole aim and reason of all music, should be nothing other than God’s Glory and pleasant recreations. Where this is not kept in mind there can be no true music, but only an infernal scraping and bawling”. There has been countless research done on Bach’s sacred vocal music uncovering religious symbolism between the text and the music itself. But surely, this symbolism is not limited to Bach’s vocal music alone. For as Bach believed that all music is meant to glorify the Lord, his instrumental music, too, must have religious symbols reflecting his Lutheran beliefs. Indeed, evidence proves this must be so as Bach’s Little Organ Book’s dedication reads: “Dem Höchsten Gott allein zu Ehren/ Dem Nächsten, draus sich zu belehren” (“Inscribed in honor of the Lord Most High/ And that my neighbor may be taught thereby”). The aim of this paper, therefore, is to analyze Bach’s instrumental music, in particular, his Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato (Six Solos for Violin Without Bass Accompaniment), and uncover the religious symbolism inherent in its structure.

Here is why I am led to believe that there is religious symbolism in this collection of works: He was a devout Lutheran. Luther said that “God has preached the Gospel through music” and also that music is next to theology. Probably go back and find a source talking about why Bach became devout Lutheran.

Bach’s Six Solos for Violin without Bass Accompaniment is a curious collection of works. For starters there has been much debate about the original title itself for the collection, “Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato” and whether Bach intentionally wrote it in grammatically incorrect Italian (to be grammatically correct, sei solo should be changed to read sei soli). Clearly Bach was not incompetent in Italian, that much is evident in his manuscripts where he uses grammatically correct plural forms in his instrumentation such as violini and voci so a lack of understanding of the Italian language is not to blame. Then Bach must have been intentional in his wording, sei solo (properly translated means you are alone). He also places the phrase sei solo apart from the rest of the title so as to distinguish it from the rest of the title. The question is why does he do so?

Some argue that Sei Solo is meant to pay homage to his first wife’s death, Maria Barbara Bach, which occurred in the same year the Sei Solo was completed. This may be plausible but in line with Bach’s own words, the You in ‘You are alone’ might be more likely referring to Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, God is extolled for His ‘alone-ness’ or His uniqueness. For He “alone made heaven and earth”, He “alone” is “Most high over all”, and He “alone is Lord”. This strain is kept throughout the New Testament describing Christ. The “only begotten Son” of God, Jesus is alone in his crucifixion forsaken by man and by God–bearing the sins of humanity as the “one mediator between God and men”. It is also noteworthy that Bach often penned “Soli Deo gloria” (to God alone be glory) at the bottom of his scores. Herein, the intentional word play of Sei solo (the number sei or six a perfect number used to exemplify the perfection of God and His works) referring to the perfect sinless Lamb of Lambs, Jesus Christ, seems highly likely. If indeed, Bach titled this collection with this intention then consequently the six works (three sonatas and three partitas, perhaps hinting at the trinity) must follow the passion narrative of Jesus Christ. In this way, the remainder of this paper interprets religious symbolism in the Sei Solo following Christ’s narrative.

How everything connects across If it is assumed that the Sei Solo follows the gospel, then it comes as no surprise that the holistic structure of the collection is chiastic. The respective keys of the six solos (g-b-a-d-C-E) are presented chiastically: G-B is a M3, B-A is a m7, A-D is a P4 (the midpoint), D-C is a m7, and C-E is a M3. At first glance, the viewer might be bewildered by the complexity of the chiasm–after all, the simplest way to create a chiastic structure would simply be to reverse the order of the pitches at the midpoint (ex: g-b-a-A-B-G). However, if mapped out on a staff one notices that the pitches g-b-a-d-C-E are not merely a shuffled hexachord. Instead, a pattern is evident: the second half of the structure is the transposition of the retrograde inversion.

This is intriguing because in context, this shape due to inversion could be considered the backbone of the Gospel narrative: the Most High becomes a lowly servant to raise the lowly to glory. Another noteworthy feature of the overarching structure is that the keys g minor and E Major are harmonic antitheses of each other (when looking at the circle of fifths). Not only that, but g and E are also respectively the lowest and highest strings on the violin. This contrast of two extremes is often used in the Bible: for example, Jesus refers to Himself as “alpha and omega, the first and the last” in Revelations and Romans 8:38 uses the juxtaposition of “neither death nor life. . . neither the present nor the future” to express the impossibility of being separated from God’s love. The juxtaposition of two antitheses, therefore, is used to connote completeness and by using this juxtaposition Bach may possibly have been addressing the totality of God’s grace and love – following the Gospel narrative. The overarching architecture of the Sei Solo leaves no doubt that Bach had religious intent when composing the collection. Herein, this paper will turn to the individual works comprising the Sei Solo in order to get a better understanding of what this intent may have been.

Ciaccona Symbolism

Since Joseph Joachim’s revival of the Sei Solo, the Cicaccona has lent itself as a prime candidate for countless reinterpretations and analyses. Its complex structure has been a constant source of confusion for scholars because of just how close it is to following the Golden Ratio. Indeed, if the Ciaccona were to be split into its three parts (33 four measure ostinato statements in d, 19 ostinato statements in D, and ending with 12 ostinato statements in d) it comes frustratingly near the Golden Ratio – the second and third sections in line with the Ratio but the first section two ostinato statements longer than needed to fit the proportion. Some believe this to be sufficient enough to explain the Ciaccona’s structure whereas others argue that the Ciaccona’s structure is best understood by excluding the opening eight measures of the piece, or the first two ostinatos, which would yield the structure of 31-19-12.

Again this explanation hardly seems sufficient as it does not answer why the opening thematic phrase should be excluded and not the two recurrences (with slight variation) of the opening material that conclude the first and last sections. This paper argues that Bach was not roughly approximating when he wrote this monumental work. If the study of Bach’s number symbolism is to be believed, Bach was very meticulous with his compositions – going so far as to write the number “84” (the number of measures of the piece and a product of two ‘holy’ numbers 7 and 12) at the conclusion of the Patrem movement of his b minor Mass. Therefore, it is probably not a coincidence that the Ciaccona’s structure can be interpreted exactly without the need for manipulation of numbers like so.

This perfect symmetry of the Ciaccona thus forms a chiastic structure: the crux of the cross being the two statements of the eight measure theme beginning at m. 125. This in and of itself, of course, is merely then a reference to Christ and not to the passion narrative. If however, the Ciaccona is taken into context of the entire d minor partita, one begins to catch a glimpse at what Bach may perhaps have intended its niche in the collection to be. Partita No. 2, the fourth work of the Sei Solo, inherently emphasizes the number four (alongside the number five). Its first and last movements, the Allemanda and the Ciaccona, both emphasize the number 256 (or 4^4). The Allemanda, on one hand, is primarily comprised of sixteenth notes which divide each quarter note into four. Therefore its two halves of sixteen measures each (4*4), when both repeats are taken, cumulatively amount to 256 beats. The Ciaccona, on the other hand, is comprised of 64 (4*4*4) statements of a 4 measure ostinato – concluding the partita with an expansive 256 measures.

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