In 1726, Bach had announced in a Leipzig newspaper the publication of a large Suite with Prelude. This Suite was followed by others published separately until all six of them appeared in 1731 as a collection in a single volume. Bach himself engraved and printed his Partitas at his own cost, marking them as Opus 1. The title reads, “Clavier-Übung, Consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Menuets and Other Gallantries Composed for the Pleasurable Diversion of Music Lovers.” The fact that Bach marked the Partitas as Opus1 does not mean that it was his first composition, but simply that it was the first work he had published. “Clavier-Übung,” (“Keyboard Exercises”) would be expanded in time to include three more volumes. The second book contains an Italian Concerto and a French Overture, the third book contains works of for organ, and the fourth book includes the Goldberg Variations. The “Clavier-Übung” collection represents the most popular musical forms, genres and styles of keyboard music of that time. The Partitas represent the Gallant Style, which means, predominantly, French; the Italian Concerto represents the Grand Italian Style, Tutti-Soli-Ritornellos; the French Suite is an expanded model, a blend of Partita and Orchestral Suite; and the Goldberg Variation are a highly contrapuntal German experiment.
In composing “Clavier-Übung,” Bach was following the example of his immediate predecessor in the cantorship of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau. Kuhnau published his own collection of Partitas entitled “Clavier-Übung,” consisting of two volumes with seven Partitas in each. Bach composed three sets of Suites, the earliest being the six English Suites. They are filled with imitative counterpoint and are somewhat archaic in style. Bach also composed six French Suites, which were written in the Gallant style (without Preludes), and finally, six Partitas. In the Partitas, Bach found a supreme style. There is a perfect balance of traditional dance movements, gallant melodies, harmonic foundation and a ‘new’ sophisticated keyboard texture. His treatment of movements is inventive and innovative. Every opening movement traditionally called Preludia is original in form, substance and name. Bach gave a new, original opening to every Partita – Praeludium, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Overture, Praeambulum and Toccata. Allemandes, Courantes and Sarabandes retain their titles but are treated with great diversity. Allemandes range widely from simple and traditional in the third and fifth Partitas to the ‘grandest’ of them all in the fourth Partita. In Courantes he artfully explores all the possible combinations of three time. Sarabandes range from austere simplicity in the fourth Partita to an elaborate richness of Baroque rhetoric in the sixth Partita. The closing movements are Gigues, with the exception of the second Partita which ends with the Capriccio also receiving a special treatment. They range from the joyful and playful Gigue in the first Partita with its hands crossing inspired by Rameau, to a highly dramatic and expressive ending of the sixth Partita written in double dotted rhythm full of chromatic tension and immense energy.
As a true son of his age, Bach was very much aware of different levels and layers of meaning possible in music. He was a master of numerology – the meanings of numbers and their permutations, the numerological values of letters and names, the symbolism of intervals and intonation, the number of bars and pulsations in the construction of musical forms were all known to him. This is a fascinating topic. In connection with the Partitas there are two aspects that could be pointed out. First is the meaning of the number six. All of Bach’s collections of Suites, Partitas, Sonatas and Concertos are set in groups of six. Six English Suites, six French Suites, six Partitas, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, six Brandenburg Concertos, and three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin. Why? There are two plausible reasons for that. Seven is a number of fullness and perfection. Bach, indeed, was a truly humble man. Composing music was an act of worship and offering. At the end of his most important works he always put three letters, instead of his signature –S.D.G. – Soli Deo Gloria (To The Glory of God). And S.D.G. became his ‘true’ signature. Perhaps Bach felt that composing sets of seven works would be immodest on his part. There is another explanation for the number six – six Days of Creation, six Days of work and on the seventh Day, rest.
The second point is the harmonic design and structure of the Partitas. The first Partita, Prima, is in B Flat; the second partita, Seconda, is in C, which is two (seconda) up from B Flat; the third is in A, three down from C; the forth Partita is in D, four up from A; the fifth Partita is in G, five down from D; and the sixth Partita is in E, six up from G. Within this structure, harmonic design works like a pendulum with B(ach) at the center. If we were to continue this logic, the swing of pendulum would unavoidably come to F – it would be seven (septima) down from E. The second book of “Clavier-Ubung” opens with the Italian Concerto, which is written in F Major. The book of “Clavier-Ubung”, which contains the Goldberg Variations, is a bridge – a connection of sorts to his later ‘final’ works – to the enigmatic beauty and mystery of Music Offering, to the infinite possibilities of Art of Fugue and to the absolute perfection of the Credo from the B-Minor Mass.
Bach was working with different musical forms, style and genres. He had an extraordinary ability to integrate and utilize different traditions, diverse ideologies and styles. He was a Master of Synthesis – a Great Unifier. One can easily recognize the source of influences in his music – French Gallant Style, Italian Concerto Grosso Style, German strict counterpoint. In his works, these different traditions have been renewed, transformed and have found their most clear, eloquent and powerful expression. One can look upon Bach’s music in its totality as one of the true miracles of nature – as a manifestation of Grace – and simply feel grateful and reassured that he was.
The 15 Two Parts Inventions came from the “Clavier-Buchlein’ (“Clavier-Book”) for Wilhelm Freidman Bach. The pedagogic purpose of these creations is very clear. Bach’s general tile opens with the words ‘Candid Instructions.’ He addresses his works to ‘lovers of music and to those eager for instructions.’ Inventions, therefore, serve a dual purpose: they help to learn how to ‘invent,’ compose and work with basic musical material, and they help to learn how to develop a singing ‘cantabile’ manner of performance. These pieces are studied by children at very early age. As a rule, they are the very first works of Bach to which young pianists are exposed.