What is a... Partita?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Partita?
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‘Partita' is one of those terms that history has knocked about a bit. The root word is apparently the Italian ‘parte’, meaning a ‘part’ or ‘section’. As variation form began to define itself in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it came to signify one of a sequence of variations on a theme, or more likely a ground bass.

Thus, via a kind of terminological back-flip, the plural ‘parti’ or ‘partite’ evolved into a catch-all term for a set of variations. 

It was in 17th-century Germany, it seems, that the trouble began.

When Johann Jacob Froberger published his collection of various kinds of piece (some variations, some looser multiple forms) as Diverse curiose e rare partite musicale in 1696, you can understand how a buyer, or user, might conclude that ‘partite’ were any kind of instrumental piece made up of connected sections or movements, and that the singular must – surely? – be ‘partita’.

So a word which, according to the Collins Italian Dictionary means ‘lot’, ‘consignment’, ‘entry’, ‘item’ or ‘game’, had by Bach’s time evolved into a home-grown German term for something more or less akin to suite: a collection of contrasting movements of dance character.

As with most evolutionary processes, there were short-lived offshoots – eg ‘partia’ or ‘parthia’, apparently encompassing the broadly same meaning.

By the time Bach came to compose his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, a line of demarcation seems to have emerged between partita-suites and sonatas: the latter may have movements in contrasting (though related) keys, the partita remains faithful to the home tonality throughout.

The six partitas for harpsichord Bach published as volume one of his monumental Clavier-Übung (‘Keyboard Studies’), along with the titanic Chaconne from the Second Partita for violin, suggest that, far from finding the key-restriction limiting, Bach could let his technique and imagination soar in partita form.

The range – from the intimate, exquisite B flat Partita (No. 1) to the intricate and intense concluding E minor (No. 6) – is impressive even by Bach’s standards. Strange, then, that so few composers have been inclined subsequently to invoke this portentous title.

Walton’s Partita for Orchestra is, as its composer said, an ‘entertainment’ and more sonata than suite.

A striking, lonely exception is Lutosawski’s Partita for violin and piano (later orchestra) – magnificent and strangely moving.

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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