Thomas Bowes - Some thoughts on Sei Solo


Johann Sebastian Bach’s habit of binding together an opus with a modest or slightly cryptic title is characteristic of him. ‘The Little Organ Book’, ‘The Musical Offering’, ‘The Art of Fugue’ are all slightly ludicrous names for such overwhelmingly consummate works. ‘Sei Solo’, the title he inscribes on the title page of the 1720 manuscript of these works for violin is probably no different so we should assume he set great store by his use of words. Had he wished to say Six Solos, he would of course have written ‘Sei Soli’, so we must presume he is punning on the Italian ‘Sei’ and its dual meaning as both the word for the number 6, and as the second person of the verb to be. (Try putting ‘Sei Solo’ into any translate application and out will come most likely ‘be alone’ or ‘you are alone’.) Was he deliberately trying to look a bit careless in his use of Italian? Again a mark of underplaying himself, as if to say, ‘if you don’t understand that this is a joke you won’t understand what I’m giving you…’. This is the key to what the music is about. Six ‘Alones’ forming together a larger super-work as a meditation on that least sociable state of the human condition.


In 1720 Sebastian was a successful man of thirty-five, employed by Prince Leopold of the tiny Principality of Anhalt-Cöthen, as his Kappelmeister. One has the impression of a man being on the verge of the crown of his career. Married to the enigmatic Maria Barbara, he and his family are thriving with four children aged between five and twelve and Sebastian is happy and on more than friendly terms with his employer. Indeed, looking back during the twenty-seven years of his subsequent troubled time in Leipzig he confesses that at Cöthen he had enjoyed the best conditions for writing and the happiest of times. The Prince, being a Calvinist – a doctrine that had no place for anything more than very basic music during worship – required secular and especially instrumental music. And it was when he was living and working in this out-of-the-way principality that Sebastian wrote great amounts of the famed keyboard, instrumental and orchestral music.


But 1720 is also significant for a tragedy in the life of Sebastian and his family. We know that he accompanied the Prince on a journey to Carlsbad that summer and whilst the Prince delayed his homecoming, Maria Barbara sickens and dies. Sebastian arrives back at his house so soon after the event that no word has reached him and he literally crosses his threshold to discover his wife is dead and already buried. Even at a time when sudden death was such a frequent visitor to family life, (Sebastian and Maria had already buried two children) we must presume this to be a catastrophic blow. But it seems that whatever projects Sebastian had started using single unaccompanied stringed instruments, this event brought them into sharp focus. (Sebastian also calls the violin solos ‘Book 1’ – so we might presume that the ‘cello Suites were conceived as Book 2, another ‘Sei Solo’, though in their case no manuscript survives to tell us.) We can never really know what happened in the household of this suddenly bereaved family. But if we take the music of these Sonatas and Partitas as our guide, then a deep crisis must have taken place in the heart and soul of their composer.


The scheme is this: the first four works are in minor keys, the last two in the major; the six works are divided into two alternating forms – the Sonatas deriving from the ancient form of Sonata da Chiesa and the Partitas doing homage to the form of the French Suite. The Sonatas each conform to an identical pattern – a slow and quasi-improvised opening movement followed by an extended fugue. A relaxed and contemplative movement follows – in a related key – and the whole Sonata is rounded off with a fast movement back in the key of the opening two movements. As strictly formulaic as the Sonatas are, so the Partitas are not. Each of these takes delight in using the form of the French Suite in a free and unusual way. The B minor has a ‘Double’ for each movement – a sort of ghost of the music just heard but conforming exactly to the harmonic structure of that movement – and the D minor appends a vast Chaconne to the four previous movements, whilst the E major achieves a rare lightness with the use of a brilliant Prelude followed by a collection of French dances.


The great paradox of Bach’s music is as manifest in these works as in all his output. Music that meets the ear as governed by a system that even we feel we can grasp as long as we listen, and yet one that seems permanently to be facing away into an infinite and unfathomable space beyond any system. Those of a spiritual bent rejoice in the latter, those uncomfortable with such labels stick with the former. It doesn’t seem to matter.


Religion surrounded and governed so much of Sebastian’s life. He was endlessly tested and irritated by the paraphernalia, squabbles and pettiness that surrounded it, and in fairness he was probably a most difficult man to employ. Yet his music transcends all of these things. If the B minor Mass – a setting in Latin and thereby perhaps a call to a more universal attitude – is his most public avowal of faith, so these works for solo violin might represent a parallel private struggle with the world of the spirit.


For me there is no doubt that what we hear when we listen to this journey of six works is a soul in crisis – Who am I? How do I go on from here? Why has this happened to me? Is there a God? Will life ever mean anything again? – a sort of intimate diary of aloneness, questionings of the soul and wonderings at life and death. In the end he gives us an answer, when after that strangest and most untethered movement of the whole set, the opening Adagio of the C major Sonata, the fugue subject announced is based on the Lutheran hymn tune “Komm heilige Geist”, or, “Come, Holy Spirit”.


This cannot be insignificant. Indeed it is tempting to view the whole opus as a kind of conversation with the world of the spirit. This extraordinary crossing into a new world in the C major Sonata, the Double movements in the B minor Partita, and the central section of the Chaconne, are all striking for their transformation of existing states and material. Striking too that the final Partita is in the lightest and brightest of keys – E major – and that its journey is one of evaporation with movements of increasing brevity and lightness.


It is worth noting that Bach’s works for this single instrument do have some precedents. One must presume that he knew for instance of the Six Suites for solo violin of 1696 by the Dresden composer Johann Paul von Westhoff and of Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia from his ‘Rosary’ Sonatas of 1676 – probably the model and starting point for Bach’s own D minor Chaconne. One can believe too that his own works were themselves an inspiration for Georg Philipp Telemann’s delightful and inventive Twelve Fantasias published in 1735. But after these fantasias, the genre seems to go cold. Fashion in music changed, the Enlightenment and the new Classical style turned away from so much of what underpinned Sebastian’s world view.


We know nothing whatever of recitals of Bach’s solo violin music in his own time. Unless these works were played by Sebastian himself at the time of writing or by other violinists at Cöthen it is possible that he never actually heard them played. His son Carl described his father in old age playing some of them at the keyboard, but this is pretty much the only mention of them until the performances by celebrated virtuosi of the nineteenth century. Even then it was only individual movements that were played in public – most prominently the Chaconne – and indeed this movement became the object of deep fascination for many composers. Brahms held it in the highest regard and made a transcription of it for piano left hand. Busoni made a more virtuosic transcription for piano that grew and altered with countless performances. As far as significant new music for the unaccompanied violin goes, (and if we treat the Paganini Caprices as a rather special case from the world of the Etude or study piece), the next important contribution is not until Eugène Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas of 1923, themselves paying homage in a number of ways to Bach’s opus. Béla Bartók’s tremendous Solo Sonata of 1944 also acknowledges Bach as the father of the idiom. It is difficult to think of a category of composition so dominated by a single 300-year-old opus.


Bach and style


My approach to playing style and historical context has been to acknowledge them but to move away from them when they felt limiting or too fixed. For the most part I have avoided much ornamentation beyond the odd trill but have not ruled out vibrato. Whilst I have learned a great deal, and I am sure not enough, from colleagues and scholars who have tirelessly investigated the period’s playing styles and conventions, I have always given way to what I feel could be a more universal or timeless expression. I have let my instincts and intelligence, such as they are, be my guide. Personally, I feel that this music, which we feel to be great through its universality and timelessness, transcends limitations of epoch and style. Equally it responds poorly to ‘interpretation’ or ‘performance’. It is profoundly private music and the attitude in which these recordings were made was at all times to try and play as if on my own.


Whilst I play on a violin made in 1659 and therefore already an instrument of some age by 1720, it is set up with what are now called ‘modern’ fittings, though I used gut strings for all but the ‘E’.


Whatever one’s tools or approach to style, there remain the practical questions of the polyphonic writing and its execution. These nearly always need a point of compromise. Again I have not been systematic: the most obvious cases of decision are where the bass line carries the subject or leading voice – especially in the fugues – and it has become fashionable always to give way to this by preempting the higher voices. I have found this can lead to too great a sacrifice of the harmony, so I have approached these questions always on a case-by-case basis. I also felt that the epic quality of the larger movements – the fugues and the Chaconne – should be acknowledged and to this end have sometimes quite deliberately sacrificed some neatness and elegance of execution.


These recordings are in many ways the natural outgrowth of the marathon ‘Bach Pilgrimage’ I made across mainland Britain in the summer of 2013. During that May and June I played some fifty concerts up and down the land – from Cornwall to Glasgow, from Norfolk to Yorkshire, mostly in modest churches but not excluding the grandest of cathedrals. I had wanted more than anything else to master these works and to do that I felt I simply had to play them a great deal in public. I hit on a simple formula that would allow me to do this. I knew how parlous is the state of many church buildings and the ever present need to fund-raise for their upkeep, so I decided to get in touch with churches all over Britain and offer the concerts for this purpose.


I felt too that this music would work best in the atmosphere of places of spiritual reverberation rather than the concert hall. The concert hall can be a wonderful place but its default setting tends to be toward the gladiatorial; the outer, rather than the inner. There was an avalanche of positive responses. And so I set off in early summer sunshine in a splendid borrowed car full of the joy that is perhaps every musician’s get-out-of-jail-free card – that of being the gypsy, the wanderer, the Pied Piper. It was an exhausting and invigorating experience; both testing and revealing. In the end however it was the most fundamental affirmation I could imagine of the worth of being a musician. I hoped that this music would work its way into listeners’ hearts and minds and that they would appreciate its rare beauty and pathos; but I was not prepared for the deep penetration and astonishing ‘atmosphere’ that these concerts created amongst audiences – often made up of those who felt they were not at all classical music aficionados. The Bach Pilgrimage is now a firm fixture in my year and as it grows I hope to be able to take this music to as many as will hear it.


I owe my friend and producer Stephen Frost a great deal. Not only did he help galvanise me into turning the Pilgrimage into a reality but it was he who insisted that we record the works. After much casting about for a suitable venue – one that combined the sort of big acoustic we felt was suitable and one with enough access, warmth, quiet and atmosphere – we were thrilled to find that Abbey Road Studio 1 could be ours by going in for a single day at a time. So, over the course of three years we found the six days we needed, returning to the same easily dismantled set-up each time and recording one work on each day. During the rest of the time I often found myself in this very studio to record other things – orchestral film scores and so on – and took great delight in looking at a particular spot on the floor of this exalted room. I would like to thank Arne Akselberg for his brilliant work on the sound and Colette Barber for her patience with booking the project and keeping faith with it over such a long period.


The recording sessions themselves were run in a very unusual way in that I was allowed and indeed encouraged to give complete readings – including all Bach’s repeats – of each work. Much less time was spent on individual movements than is usual. Here’s Stephen’s take on why we did it that way.




Stephen Frost - a producer’s view


Thomas Bowes’ performance of Bach’s solo violin music was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, under studio conditions. In other words, it is not live. The performances are edited, sometimes intensely so. I’d like to explain our approach, why we chose it, and how the recording studio can be the unexpected best friend of musical spontaneity and truthfulness.


For many and various reasons, it has always been notoriously difficult to capture the true essence of a live performance in a studio setting. Some say it is impossible. Perhaps it is. But the method so often employed – the editing together of the best bits, often recorded in the shortest of sections – is, to say the least, not conducive to capturing what is most important. Each brick may be perfect in itself, but that does not build you a beautiful house. It is my experience, however, that the recording studio can be a magical place where those intangible elements of live music-making can be evoked. The easiest and most effective way to achieve this is by the very simple act of playing each movement – and sometimes each complete piece – in its entirety. The opposite is, after all, abnormal. This is not so much a moral argument as a musical one. I have no objection in principle to recording in short sections, I simply find that editing them together doesn’t work. They are homeless orphans, clinging on to each other to keep out the cold.


It is regarded as a self-evident truth that a recorded performance is better off without, as far as possible, any imperfections, not least because it has to survive the ordeal of repeated listening. I would challenge that assumption. First, there are different kinds of flaws in performance: those that, indeed, clearly do enormous damage and break the spell; and then there are those that make the object what it is, like the imperfections in medieval glass. The victorious boxer does not end the fight unscathed. As in life, it is the knocks and bruises that make us what we are. Furthermore, in the edit suite, some mistakes can be turned to one’s advantage. The technical details of this are not important here, but there is a Japanese word for it – kintsukuroi – the art of repairing with gold so that the broken artifact becomes more beautiful for having been broken. In contrast to this, however, the production-line industry of editing classical music has turned its face in the opposite direction and over the years has become increasingly an exercise in airbrushing. But if we remove all the blemishes, freckles and wrinkles, everyone starts to look the same, don’t they? If we are all special, no one is. Let me be clear; I am not advocating the active introduction of errors into the recording of a musical performance. I still spend a great deal of time in the edit suite removing them. Rather, it is about a state of mind, an attitude, a freedom to search for the more important things. In my experience, the iterative approach of hunting down errors by playing smaller and smaller sections sucks out the life from the playing (and the player), often takes up a disproportionate amount of time and is generally less accurate anyway. Put simply, it is not technical precision that kills music, but the pursuit of it.


There are other ways to arouse some kind of magic in the studio that can be even more powerful than just playing whole movements, but hard to put into words; essentially, though, they are about creating an atmosphere where the musician feels safe to do the unsafe thing. When musicians perform live they are constantly putting their souls on the line – walking a tightrope, playing with fire, dancing with angels. It is this kind of derring-do, going-for-broke, that can be so easily discouraged (the reversal, indeed, of courage) by working in a studio environment. The studio does, after all, provide the ultimate safety net. But this is its undoing. If one makes people feel safe to do the merely safe thing then their music-making will reflect this. This is not to say that we should go the other way and make musicians feel frightened or uncomfortable. That, of course, would be much worse. What’s required is a kind of emotional fearlessness, an intuitive trust in the method. If you fall you will be caught, or better still you will fly. Either way, you must jump off the edge.


The world is not perfect. Recording sessions often have short timetables and low budgets, and musicians do not have limitless supplies of energy. Unions have rules, and rightly so. Endless complete takes are all very well, but even if you have the luxury of enough time they can be counter-productive. Takes can get stale through repetition and the players can lose their motivation; their stamina will fall away. Be careful what you wish for.


So, I contradict myself. What can I say? Record some shorter sections then. Treat them as rehearsals (but record them!); talk about the problem instead of trying to just play it until you get lucky; or (and this is sometimes better) have the courage to talk about last night’s TV, or tomorrow’s cricket match, so letting the subconscious solve the problem for you instead; record a short section with the stated intention of addressing one problem in order to solve another unstated one; don’t say “play this passage more spiccato”, say “play this passage like crane-flies dancing across a frozen pond” – because, counter-intuitively, this is more accurate and precise, and more easily interpreted because it has actual meaning and depth. Always add, never subtract – play “more quietly”, not “less loudly”. Focus not on the notes but on the music – the less one thinks about playing wrong notes, the fewer wrong notes one plays. Prepare meticulously, and be prepared to discard your preparation. Hold on to your core beliefs, and when the time is right, go back to complete takes. Tomorrow, find a whole new set of ways to walk the same path. Tomorrow, walk a different path. Contradict yourself.


Studio One in Abbey Road is the largest purpose-built recording space in the world, with a church-like acoustic to match, and in that sense we were half way there to recreating the sense of isolation that Tom and I felt the music needed. Turn the lights down to the level of one candle, stick a solitary violinist in the middle and they will feel quite alone. I kept talkback (where the producer speaks via a loudspeaker to whoever is in the studio) to a minimum, preferring to go out and talk to Tom face to face, or better still leave him with his own thoughts. You can’t pretend to be alone.


What Tom brought to this project was the courage to embrace such an unusual way of working. I am grateful to him for trusting me so much – it is not easy (or at all common) to play, and play, and play, and never listen back to anything that was recorded. Though it can sometimes be useful to do so, I also think it comes with a serious health warning: it can make the player self-conscious and insecure; or even intimidated. In this sense a musician is no different from an actor, who will do their best work when they are not “watching” themselves.


Benjamin Britten once said “the magic of music is everything that is not in the score”. Tom and I have endeavoured to find it. We claim no success whatsoever (and it can only ever be partial at best) but hope and feel that there is some life-affirming value in the mere attempt. Rather like Tom’s Bach pilgrimage itself, the journey is the destination.




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