J.S. Bach: The Six Partitas

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The Six Partitas BWV 825-30 of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) have long been regarded as one of the most important milestones of the Baroque keyboard repertoire, and exist in many editions.

The latest, edited by Ullrich Scheideler, with fingering added by concert pianist William Youn, and published by Henle (HN 518), replaces the same publisher’s 1979 Rudolf Steglich/Hans-Martin Theopold edition (HN 28), and aims to deliver the latest scholarship in a practical performing edition…

The Six Partitas

Introducing their new edition, Henle tell us,

“Bach’s Six Partitas form what is presumably the most famous and challenging collection of suites in music history. Bach was aware of the weightiness of his cycle as he initially had these multi-movement partitas, composed in Leipzig between 1726 and 1730, published in individual editions. This culminated in their publication in an anthology that proudly sports the opus number “1” in 1731.”

The six works follow a similar template to Bach’s English Suites and French Suites, offering a succession of popular Baroque dance movements pivoting a focus of Allemande – Courante – Sarabande, which appear as expected in all six Partitas.

Unlike the French Suites, these pieces each begins with a form of Prelude, but Bach maximises flexibility and personality, designating different titles for each of the six: Praeludium, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Ouverture, Praeambulum and Toccata.

Diversity is the order of the day in the final dance movements too, which across the cycle include the Menuet, Passepied, Gigue, Burlesca, Scherzo, Rondeau, Capriccio, Aria and Gavotta, making this cycle the most cosmopolitan of his keyboard suites.

As Henle put it,

“Their diversity of forms knows no bounds and the musical texture is infused with the most ingenious counterpoint, but at the same time performers will not miss out on the enjoyment of virtuosic playing in any way.”

In terms of level, the performance of a complete Partita could be expected at Diploma level, while individual movements have a happy habit of appearing in Grade 8 (occasionally earlier for the easiest movements) and first Diploma syllabi, invariably shining brightly as popular choices.

What’s New?

For the new urtext edition, Scheideler has consulted the original editions as well as autograph sources, while also extensively documenting the numerous entries in correction copies from Bach’s immediate circle.

In terms of Bach’s written corrections, these include extensive ornamentation of some movements, three of which are particularly noteworthy, given their own separate publication here as Appendices to the main texts. They are the Sarabande from Partita 1, Courante from Partita 4 and two ornamented versions of the Sarabande from Partita 5.

These are interesting not simply because they offer suggestions for embellishing repeats of these particular movements, but because they deliver prototypes that could equally be applied to the other movements of the Partitas and Bach’s keyboard music in general. They makes an important contribution to our understanding of the performance practices of Bach’s milieu.

Henle describe the inclusion of these embellished versions here as a “milestone”, and I’m inclined to agree.

A simple Preface details the scope of Scheideler’s research and editorial approach. It also offers an ornamentation table. Meanwhile, the extensive critical commentary at the rear of the book takes up 25 pages, split between the English and German versions.

William Youn, who has added fresh fingering throughout the publication, may be known to Pianodao regular readers for his many wonderful recordings on the Sony Classics label.

Playing some of these pieces using his fingering suggestions, I found his ideas to be very welcome and often much-needed problem-solvers. It is a wonderful bonus that Henle have taken to employing some of the world’s greatest players to add fingering in their editions. That said, the new edition is also available without the fingering (HN 1518) for those who prefer a cleaner urtext score.

Speaking of the particular benefits of this new Henle edition, while it surely goes without saying that their house-style presentation and engraving are second to none, it is worth reminding readers with iPads that this edition also now appears in digital format within the Henle Library app.

Further Thoughts

Among the riches of Bach’s keyboard output, the Six Partitas have long seemed to me a particular treasure, so it’s a joy to have this excellent new edition at our disposal.

There have been many excellent editions of these works, but I really cannot imagine a better version of the Six Partitas at present, and I can recommend this one with the fullest confidence.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.