Double is a French term for a technique of variation where a movement—typically from a dance suite (called the simple)—is followed by a single variation (called the double). The two movements share the same harmonic progression, and the rhythmic values of the double are often halved. This Double, from Bach’s Violin Partita in B Minor (BWV 1002), is paired with the Sarabande that precedes it.
For the most part Bach generally avoided variation forms, though the times he did employ them resulted in some of his most celebrated compositions, such as the Goldberg Variations, Passacaglia in C Minor, and Chaconne in D Minor, etc. There are others, to be sure, but sectional and continuous variations account for only a small percentage of Bach’s output. The doubles from the first Partita, apart from being transcendent and sublime pieces in their own right, are especially valuable because they illustrate a second interpretation of the same harmonic material. An analogy might be made to a classical poet composing two poems, both of the same length and about the same subject or theme, but in two contrasting metres. Musically, being able to compare a simple with its double can illuminate both pieces, and reveal ways in which Bach went about solving particular musical problems (i.e. not just contrapuntal and voice-leading issues, but the restrictions inherent in writing for solo instruments, etc.).
Consider the restrictions involved with this piece: it’s for a solo instrument, it needs to be essentially melodic, and it must also express a sense of harmonic progression (i.e. provide forward “motion”), but there aren’t any harmonic intervals (i.e. no multi-stops). Too many triadic outlines and there’s little sense of melody. Too many scalar passages and there’s little sense of harmony. Making things even more challenging is the fact that rhythmically, Bach chose a continuous stream of eighth notes; with no variety of rhythm it means that contrasts can only be achieved through the dimension of pitch. Combine all of that with the harmonic and voice-leading conventions of Bach’s time, and it makes for a very small compositional nutshell. But despite all of this (and like Hamlet), Bach could still “count himself king of infinite space.”
Partita I in B Minor for Solo Violin by J.S. Bach, mm. 1-8.
The large leaps are the first clue about the texture: The D on b. 2 of m. 2 seems to be picked up again on b. 3, then continues stepwise through C-sharp to B on the downbeat of m. 3. Similarly, the higher E on b. 2 of m. 3 continues through D, then C-sharp through B on b. 3, leading to A-sharp on the downbeat of m. 4. There is a clear stepwise descent from D in m. 5 b. 1 to A in m. 6 b. 1.
There are triadic figures that very clearly express the harmony, such as m. 1 b. 1, m. 2 b. 2, and m. 4 b. 1, etc. But figures such as those on b. 2 and 3 of m. 5 are less clear. It turns out that the B on b. 2 of m. 5 is a re-articulated suspension from the previous beat, and the same goes for the A on the following beat. It’s worth noting that when you only have three notes per beat and no harmonic intervals at your disposal, expressing suspensions in that manner is a risky business—but it makes for one of the many contrasts Bach was able to achieve through pitch and interval alone.
I should state at the beginning that there are several, equally valid ways to interpret the individual voices. The version below is rendered in two voices, but an argument can be made for three in places. For example, in m. 1, the first pitch (B) could be considered the lowest voice, followed by D as a middle voice, then F-sharp as the highest voice; both the B and D are prolonged through the next beat (as iv4/3), etc. The same with m. 5, b. 1—the F-sharp could be considered an inner voice, but for the scope of this post I’ve rendered similar figures as belonging to the same voice:
An interesting situation arises in mm. 3-4. In m. 3 the lower voice progresses from E to E-sharp; an applied chord that tonicizes the arrival to F-sharp (the dominant). However in the score, the downbeat of m. 4 is an A-sharp. The E-sharp does resolve to F-sharp, but as Bach was wont to do, he reaches over the upper voice and displaces it an octave higher; in the expanded version I placed parentheses around the lower F-sharp to indicate it is an implied tone. This lower F-sharp also helps to explain the A-sharp to G in the following beat. Usually, melodic augmented 2nds are avoided, though they sometimes appear in a texture such as this where there might not be enough space to both avoid them and still arrive at the next desired pitch. But with the F-sharp resolved in its obligatory register, the G that follows is just an upper-neighbor, while the A-sharp above it is prolonged through beats 2 and 3.
Also, in m. 6, the low A is prolonged across beats 1 and 2, then is displaced by the A-sharp on b. 3 (though it is in a different register). The voice-leading there is an echo of the lower voice in m. 3—the E, to E-sharp, then to F-sharp—but with octave displacement.
Taking things further, this rhythmic reduction verticalizes the chord tones:
Now, compare that reduction to the first eight measures of the score to the Sarabande that precedes it, and notice how similar they are:
I’ve listened to many performances of the Suites, Partitas, and Sonatas on as many different instruments. While a great deal of attention goes into the more physically challenging pieces (and rightly so), I’m often struck by some of the opportunities that are missed with pieces such as this Double. It’s understandable to think that there is less here than there is in the Chaconne, but exploring what lies beneath a line like this only informs the Chaconne, and all the others as well.