It’s all about the Bass
A single musical voice, the most simple of concepts. A single voice can carry the weight of the world, lull a child to sleep, pierce the soul. There is something about one musical voice that draws us inward, transports us to a different place, a different era, a different level of existence. Composers who choose to write for one voice have their work cut out for them. In my lifetime I have heard the most subliminal and the most banal sounds from this genre.
I was talking to a friend recently and we discussed Bach’s solo violin music. I realized that it had been a long time since I had heard any of the 6 solo sonatas and partitas. This was an error that I quickly remedied, finding an excellent and complete recording by the baroque violinist John Holloway. Deciding on a single recording of the violin sonatas and partitas can be a daunting task, as there is a wealth of treasures within the Bach recording scene. I prefer Bach on baroque strings and baroque mentality, so that cuts through the clatter a little bit and makes the choice slightly less daunting. I am happy with my choice, it is an interesting, introspective recording. Do not listen to this recording if you prefer the overdoness and excessive vibrato that some modern players prescribe to when playing Bach, you will not find this style here.
In writing for solo violin, Bach likely drew inspiration from several composers. Westhof, Biber, and later Vilsmar and Pisendel all wrote significant pieces of work for solo violin around the time Bach was composing his music. Recently I rediscovered Biber’s (the original Biber, not the current pop star) solo passacaglia ca. 1676, definitely worth several listens. Solo music was not regulated to violin alone, many other baroque composers wrote solo music for other instruments, including Telemann.
When I was a freshman at Indiana University, one of the first things my teacher and I worked on were the Telemann fantasies for solo flute. This work was on modern bassoon, but that did not stop my amazing teacher, Kim Walker, from giving me what I consider my first baroque lessons. Part of my work was to separate the bass line from the solo line. This work was not only interesting musically, but also intellectually. This work also laid a wonderful foundation for my later work in baroque music.
If one wants to study a piece of baroque music, whether you have an old or new instrument in hand, one must always begin with the base line. Whether it is a solo piece, or there is accompaniment, the bass is always the place to begin, even when the bass line is not a bass line. The play between solo and bass is where the magic happens. Composers during this era spent countless hours working out exercises between these two voices, the best composers displaying the greatest ability to think creatively between these two pillars, and usually the most work. The next time a piece of music by one of the great Dead White European Males (of the powered wig variety) shows up on your music stand, make sure you have all the parts in front of you, start taking note, and then you can begin to truly appreciate the masters.