The crowning achievement of J S Bach's instrumental writing, the set of solo Sonatas and Partitas are the ultimate test of musicianship and technique for the violinist. Composed in 1720 at Cothen, the set alternates Italian sonatas and French suites or partitas.
Bach's complete knowledge and mastery of the instrument allowed him to make full use of the violin's expressive range. For example, by asking the violinist to play on multiple strings at once, or play arpeggiated chords rapidly, Bach creates such complex harmonies that it's sometimes difficult to believe only one instrument is playing!
Like the other sonatas, Sonata No. 1 alternates slow and fast movements. Opening with a rhapsodic Adagio, it's most famous for the complex and fiendishly difficult Fuga that follows immediately after. Indeed such is the polyphonic density of this fugue that Bach later arranged it for organ (BWV539). A serene Siciliana and quickilver Presto bring perhaps the most traditional sonata of the set to a conclusion.
One of the greatest composers in history, Johann Sebastian Bach (father of C.P.E, J. C. and W. F. Bach) was by far the most significant member of the Bach dynasty of musicians.
He outshone his forebears and contemporaries, but did not always receive the respect he deserved in his own lifetime. After a brief engagement as a violinist in the court of Weimar, Bach became organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In June 1707 he moved to St. Blasius, Mühlhausen, and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 he was appointed court organist in Weimar where he composed most of his works for organ. In 1717, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold at Cöthen, but was refused permission to leave Weimar. The Duke only allowed Bach to go after holding him prisoner for nearly a month.
While at Weimar, Bach wrote his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as several suites, sonatas and keyboard works, including several, such as the Inventions and Book I of the 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-tempered Clavier). In 1720 Maria Barbara died, and the next year Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Bach resigned the post in Weimar in 1723 to become cantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig where he was responsible for music in the four main churches of the city. Here he wrote the Magnificat and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, as well as a large quantity of other church music. In Leipzig he eventually took charge of the University “Collegium Musicum” and occupied himself with the collection and publication of many of his earlier compositions.
Over the years that followed, Bach’s interest in composing church music declined somewhat, and he took to writing more keyboard music and cantatas. As his eyesight began to fail, he underwent operations to try and correct the problem, and these may have weakened him in his old age. He died at age 65, having fathered a total of 20 children with his two wives. Despite widespread neglect for almost a century after his death, Bach is now regarded as one of the greatest of all composers and is still an inexhaustible source of inspiration for musicians. Bach’s compositions are catalogued by means of the prefix BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) and a numbering system which is generally accepted for convenience of reference.