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Saariaho + Bach

Notes by Kaija Saariaho 

Frises (Friezes) was born of violinist Richard Schmoucler’s request, who told me his idea of combining different works around Bach’s second partita for solo violin, particularly in relation to the last part, the Chaconne. He asked me to compose a piece to be performed after Bach’s Chaconne and start it with the note that ends the movement, the D.

My piece, which I wrote in 2011, has four parts. I focused in each of them on the idea of one historical ostinato variation form, using as starting-point carillon, passacaglia, ground bass, and chaconne. There are four variations around a theme, a harmonic process, or other musical parameter.

To expand the ideas and possibilities of the instrument, I added an electronic dimension to the work. According to its character, each part has a different processing. In general, and in accordance with the score, prepared sound materials are set off by the musician during the piece. These materials are completed by real-time transformations of the violin sounds.

My aim in composing this piece was to create a rich work for violin with four very different and independent parts. The first part, Frise jaune (Yellow Frieze), is a prelude, a flexible improvisation around a constant D, colored by harmonics and the electronic part consisting of bell sounds. This part is also inspired by the idea of carillon, a continuous melodic variation.

The second part, Frise de fleurs (Frieze of Flowers), is based on a harmony created on a ground bass. Sequences of successive chords are gradually enriched before opening to achieve a more free and lyrical development.

The third part, Pavage (Paving), is inspired by transformations of a source material by a mathematical process where a frieze is a filling of a line or a band by a geometric figure without holes or overflow, as in paving. But I do not work in the sense of perfect symmetry – as with the cobblestones of a patterned ground – rather to create continual metamorphosis, in the sprit of some M. C. Escher’s images, though less consistently.

The last part, Frise grise (Gray Frieze), is like a strange procession, solemn, fragile, but at the same time resolved. The idea of passacaglia is here realized with slow triplets, the constant accompaniment of the left hand pizzicati on three strings, while the melody is evolving on the fourth, which is not part of the accompaniment. The thematic material evolves, descending slowly from E, the highest string, to G, the lowest. The music finally reaches the initial D, double-stopped, restoring us to the beginning.

The titles are inspired by the mathematical ideas mentioned above but also by Odilon Redon’s painted friezes, which I saw recently in an exhibition dedicated to his work – especially the Yellow Frieze, Frieze of Flowers, and Gray Frieze. 

Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Notes by Paul Griffiths

Bach may still have been fresh from school, and in his first job, as a violinist at the ducal court in Weimar, when he set about writing a set of six solo pieces for violin, possibly for himself to perform. (We have the word of his son Carl Phillip Emanuel – though much later, of course – that he played the instrument “cleanly and penetratingly.”) He was at Weimar for only a few months, during which he turned eighteen, before he was off to a better position, but the stay was long enough for him to learn from a senior musician, Johann Paul von Westhoff, who had published a dozen partitas for solo violin twenty years before.

No doubt Bach fiddled over the years with what he had written, before making a fair copy in 1720, when he was at Cothen. This manuscript survives, complete with its title page, on which we can read his inscription: “Sei Solo,” then “Violino senza Basso accompagnato,” then, with the tantalizing suggestion that there could have been more, “Libro Primo,” followed by a signature and date. The six solos were published in 1802, but it was not until Joseph Joachim took them up, several decades later, that they entered the concert repertory.

Unlike the six solo pieces for cello, which Bach almost certainly also brought to final form during his time at Cothen, the violin solos include sonatas in alternation with partitas. Both have a basic scheme of four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast, those of the partitas being dances of the usual kind, moving to the dominant in their first halves and then balancingly back to the tonic. To these the D minor work makes an immense addition.

Its first two dances start with a hiccough: the same note off the beat and on. Virtually monophonic, a wandering line, the allemande moves through scale patterns that are reinterpreted in triple time in the courante. They are reinterpreted again in the grave sarabande, and once more in the gigue, which is lively, but seems to know there is more to come, as indeed there is.

The rhythm now heaving into view is once more that of the sarabande: slow, heavy, triple. But this is a dance also of another kind, on a repeating four-bar theme that descends from D to A, ready to make a rising cadence back to D: the inexorably circling, purposefully driving bass of the chaconne. Sixty-four times it comes, on through a mid- dle section in the major (variations 34-52), all the time supporting counterpoint that implies up to seven simultaneous lines, until finally the voices spiral into the keynote. Brahms (one of several composers to adapt the work, in his case for piano left hand) had this to say: “If I were to imagine that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” Playing for around a quarter of an hour, the movement provides a momentous finale.