What to Listen for in the Bach Sonata for Solo Violin in G Minor, Adagio

Are the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin related to his Cello Suites, and the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara?


The Sonata for Solo Violin in G minor by Johann Sebastian Bach is the first in a set of incredible pieces. Bach inscribed “for Violin alone, without Bass accompaniment”. This made it clear this was not going to be just your average Trio Sonata.

As I wrote in my last post about Heinrich Franz Ignatz Biber Bach was always outdoing everyone, but did you know that the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin revolutionized violin playing (again), and the death of his first wife Maria Barbara Bach was probably the inspiration?

Who was Maria Barbara Bach?

Maria Barbara Bach and J.S. Bach grew up together as they were second cousins. They didn’t grow close until years later when they both worked at a church together – J.S. being the church organist. They were married (at the time, it wasn’t unusual for second cousins to do this) when Maria Barbara was only 23, and they had seven children together, three of whom died in infancy (unfortunately also not unusual for the time).  

What happened to Maria Barbara Bach?

Johann had to go to Carslbad to be with his employer Prince Leopold for a few months. He said goodbye to her in late May of 1720. Maria Barbara was in perfect health at the time. Soon after he left she fell gravely ill, died rather quickly, and was buried on July 7th. Getting word to Carlsbad would have taken longer than it took for Bach to get back. When he did return, Bach was greeted with the horrible news that his wife was not only dead, but already buried.

Did Bach write these pieces and the Cello Suites together?

Unfortunately, there are no original autograph copies for either of these works, but the date on the solo violin pieces is 1720, and most scholars agree that the Bach Cello Suites were written around 1720 because they did a meticulous comparative analysis.  My belief is that he wrote them together, and also for Maria Barbara. Here is why:

The first movements of both sets of works are in G, minor and major respectively suggesting a connection. Even more telling are the nature of these two movements. The opening movement of the cello suite is serene and flowing – much like Bach himself, and the “flowing” motif very often suggests an impression of a river – or in German, a “Bach”. The opening movement of the violin sonatas and partitas is a very clear lament. I think that these movements are meant to represent Johann and Maria Barbara. The lament is a musical acknowledgment of his great and sudden loss.

Why are these pieces important?

The Bach Sonatas and Partitas and the Cello Suites are the standard for all other solo works. You simply can’t have a conversation about any solo instrumental works of any genre of music without at least thinking about these pieces.

3 Things to listen for

  1. Bach uses the Adagio as an introduction for the G minor Sonata, and also for the entire set. It should sound improvised, even though all the notes and rhythms are there. People think that Bach was imitating his own improvisatory organ playing.
  2. The movement is divided into three clear parts with long notes acting as pauses. Listen for what happens harmonically after each pause as Bach “ups the ante” on the changes of chords. This happens both in frequency and dissonance as he continues towards the end, creating great tension along the way.
  3. If you compare the Biber Passacaglia and this movement of Bach, you can see how Bach was already going to an entirely different technical and musical level that Biber had only 50 years prior. 

Tips on performing

A lot of the same kind of techniques for the Biber Passacaglia are employed here, but like I said above the Bach is just on another level. While this piece is much shorter than the Passacaglia, it requires much more finesse especially in the left hand to make these chords sound good. You have to work on the transitions between each chord many times until they are in tune, and smoothly done. I give this one 4 stars for difficulty.

Any comments?

Let me know what you think of this piece, my theory about it, and my performance below. If you have played this before, chime in to give us all more tips on how to play it. I know I could use some more!

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