Brief notes on Sonatas and Partitas without Bass for Solo Violin by J. S. Bach

We find Johann Sebastian Bach in the year 1720 as Kapellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. A musician in early mid-career and much better known as an organist than as a composer, Bach busied himself during his six-year sojourn in Cöthen with writing some of his most important instrumental music (rather than the religious vocal compositions his work demanded in such profusion in other postings), while still performing the customary duties of a musical director in a secular court—playing, rehearsing, performing, and conducting—showing leadership as the head musician of the town. This period he spent in a relatively small town (centuries later to become a part of Communist East Germany, the town today with a population of approximately 30,000, its only claim to fame being it’s “Bach-rabilia”), must have allowed him a good balance of family life and work, and within the latter, the flexibility to write without the regular necessity to write for church services.

We know little of the history of the compositions said to be from this period, such as the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas as well as the Cello Suites. We can well assume that they were first performed in Cöthen, most likely at court, by one of the court musicians. It is also possible though, that in the case of the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Bach himself gave their first presentation, even though he may have played these works on a keyboard instead. That he was a good violinist is a known fact and is prominently documented by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. However, the richness and the fullness of their harmonies could, for their maximum effect, be much more successfully and easily executed on a keyboard rather than on a violin.

There is absolutely no record of the context in which the solo violin works were written, nor in what order they were composed, and modern thoughts on whether and how they were performed in the Cöthen years are mere speculation. In fact, while we believe them to have been composed in Cöthen, there is some reason to believe that Bach had already prepared these works while still in his previous post, in Weimar, and that 1720 was the year when he brought them together into a standard collection of six works. Unlike the Cello Suites, the manuscript autograph of these pieces, from Bach’s own hand, does exist–beautiful and elegant as well as meticulous–and it reminds this writer of yet another example of divinely inspired art whose glories seemingly transcend the capacities of any mere mortal soul, Caravaggio’s great painting in which the angel is guiding and dictating St. Matthew.

One wonders where Bach’s inspiration came from and how he must have felt after having completed such a brilliant output. These pieces are monumental achievements. They are masterpieces of composition, of course, but beside Bach’s brilliant innovations, they have a remarkable impact on each player and listener. At first hearing, the listener could be completely taken by the timelessness, the apparent contemporaneous feel, of each of these works, and in practicing them, one loses oneself in the passing of time. From a compositional perspective, the mastery of counterpoint and thematic writing has not lost its mystery; the perfection of the compositional techniques employed has superseded the passage of time. From all perspectives, these works are considered to be a pinnacle of compositional achievement. This is music that presents each listener and performer with an intense experience that cannot be replicated; requiring complete abandonment to the music and the workings of a mind so transcendent.

These compositions place huge organizational demands on a player, who is required to execute a multitude of voices, lines, melodies, counterpoint, and within all that convey the music’s character and impressions. At first, Bach’s individual line is simple, but then, when presented in multiple voices, complexities emerge, and it becomes the greatest of challenges to simultaneously render differing lines while retaining their underlying simplicity. A performer is required to carefully consider the organization of the left and right hands, remembering to pristinely present both the interlocking of musical lines as well as their independence from each other. The lines’ simultaneous independence and dependence of and with each other is at the core of these works. As a performer strives to simplify and organize the lines, that player’s ears and fingers are sharpened and trained, in the mental quest to present relationships between notes, lines, voices and sections that can be both coherent and/or in contrast with each other. Given the richness of Bach’s harmony as well as its purity, the greatest intonation accuracy is demanded, and anything less is blatantly distracting. The smoothness of the melodic line requires mastery of right hand technique, and complete control of its execution. This music requires more than just the possession of high-end technical skills; it demands a player’s coordination its many elements simultaneously, while handling them with both flair and seeming ease. And on top of all that, such technical virtuosity must largely be secondary to artistic priorities.

These pieces also present numerous interpretive challenges to a player. The main question is that of style. A Romantic reading of these works once predominated, with rubato, with wide vibrato, and “meaty” chordal executions a major element of many player’s interpretations. Some of the earliest extant recordings of the complete set are performed in this fashion. Since the renewed popularity and influence of Early Music presentation, the trend is perhaps moving in the direction of performances more in keeping with what we understand been the prevailing style during Bach’s lifetime. Some players go so far as to perform on instruments resembling those of the Baroque era, while others use only the Baroque bow while performing on “modern” instruments, or to use gut strings but with a “regular” or “modern” tuning. There are also those who make no visible modifications to their equipment, while still leaning in the direction of sound and interpretation that are closer to period instrument presentations, handling the instrument “as if” playing a period violin. There is no single “right” way to playing this music–conviction is the key. There is also a question of what to prioritize, what elements of this capacious music to bring to the fore (these choices being both technical and artistic, clearly). Because of the music’s many elements, its multiplicity of lines, plus demanding harmony and rhythms, a player must prioritize a particular element at certain times. For each performer, there are many decisions that must be made, both in planning and in “real-time,” during actual performance. These are issues to which do not lend themselves to one teachable “correct” answer or another, but they certainly need to be recognized and learned and internalized by each individual player. In the end, each performer must make well-informed choices. In truth, it seems to this performer that it is most important to honestly place this music in the context of a player’s life.

At the end of the day, these are some of the most beautiful pieces ever written. They are works that must be played with passion and not fear, that can be felt with hopefulness and not disappointment and hatred, and with adoration and respect. They are to be revered and played with a sense of love for their mysteries and glories, and not because a certain correctness is required. This is music that invokes compassion and has the capacity to reach the deepest and the most inner core of the each person’s soul. It is music that responds to each player’s individuality, reflecting that person’s inner life in ways that strikes a chord of recognition with another person, allowing both the player and listener the musical means for heightened self-examination. In this sense, each interpretation, in its elements that extend beyond learned aesthetics and academic presentation, is stemming from life itself, which is to say that every performance of these works will always be different, emphases and colorings and “meanings” constantly changing. This is indeed living music, that walks in concert with life’s movements.

When encountering such life-altering achievement, people often speak of “divine” inspiration, as though the work was a direct product of godly instruction. Still, this is music of human dimension. Bach was given to normal emotions, as we are aware of his frustrations in some career situations, and knowing of his huge family, we may imagine the demands such a home life placed on the man. He wrote the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin in a town of no particularly great claim, and they have been played ever since by very human musicians for “normal” listeners. Yet amidst all this normalcy is the humbling beauty of this music, a gift we gratefully accept.


©Midori Goto, 2017

Midori’s Winter Season Greetings

In respect for and in solidarity with those wishing for and needing solace, my friend Charles Danziger, and I have created the following greeting — Midori




A Message from Midori

The war in Ukraine is causing the loss of precious, innocent lives, and stealing the energies and the potential of those who remain and those who have fled the country, all for reasons and goals that cannot withstand the trials of decency and conscience.

Such acts are neither justifiable nor forgivable.

I stand in concert with my friends and colleagues in the international community in condemning this extreme act of human greed, aggression, and destruction, and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the people of Ukraine in their time of trial.

Midori to Receive Kennedy Center Honor in Recognition of Lifetime Artistic Achievement

Midori has been chosen as a recipient of the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors. The other honorees are Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks and Dick Van Dyke.

“The Kennedy Center Honors serves as a moment to celebrate the remarkable artists who have spent their lives elevating the cultural history of our nation and world,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein. “With an international presence for over 35 years, violinist Midori combines graceful precision and expression for performances building connections between art and the human experience”

Acknowledging the honor from the United States’s National Cultural Center, Midori said, “Artists have a singular responsibility, through our work and deeds, to echo and mirror our society and serve its needs. As a new chapter of life is about to begin for all of us, I especially feel the current moment’s necessities and opportunities to explore a spring of new and preserved energies and discoveries, to play my part in seeking various avenues and forms of creativity and recovery. From an early age, I have been gifted with extraordinary experiences. I consider them to be my treasure and fortune that I might now draw upon. I wish to accomplish much going forward. My plans are to be making music again, in both pioneering and traditional ways, to sing out and to stir what lies within us, to describe mysteries, of the heart and of the mind. So, in the spirit of peace and connectivity through this country and the world, I am thrilled to be a recipient of one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, as we, together, reach toward renewed expression of the dreams and hopes that unify us all.”

The 2020 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, traditionally held in December, was postponed until May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter said, “2020 has shined a bright light on the impact of how art and culture speaks to our collective human experience. It can meet us at any moment—and sustain us during the most challenging days. Each of the 43rd Kennedy Center Honorees and their work continues to speak to American culture and our national fortitude. We are thrilled to be able to fete these cultural icons in a time where the world and the nation needs the arts more than ever.”

For an article announcing this year’s awards, Midori told The New York Times that the pandemic had given her a renewed sense of appreciation for performing in front of an audience: “It made me realize how precious the moments of being able to do things live are.”

The Honors recipients are confirmed by the Executive Committee of the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees in recognition of their contributions to American culture through the performing arts. An Honoree medallion ceremony for the Honorees and a limited audience will be hosted by the Kennedy Center during the week of May 17–22. The Honors Gala will be recorded for broadcast in the United States on CBS television as a two-hour primetime special on June 6, 9 p.m. ET.

A Greeting from Midori

Dear Friends,

We are at the end of an incredibly challenging year. In 2020 there have been so many tragic losses – of lives, of the stuff of life. Through the pandemic’s ravages, so many careers, businesses and institutions have been threatened or badly damaged. I do not know of anyone who has not somehow been affected by all of this. Beyond this year’s immediate health crisis, we continued to face violent greed and brutality, injustices and inequalities, as well as all manner of natural disasters.

Under these conditions, can we have hope for our future, for this world our children will inherit? Can we truly make sense of what has happened and can we learn from it?

In the face of all of this, I find reason for some optimism. I never forget that throughout history, humans have demonstrated resilience as well as destructiveness. We find reserves of moral strength within ourselves. We retain the capacity for coming together, in powerful, regenerative ways.

I believe that it is such togetherness, and our love and respect for others, which will help us override the world’s current crises. In my own case, in recent months I did experience some positiveness, and that kept me from losing faith in this life and world. It was certainly frustrating to be mostly limited to online connections with the people in my life — but through that, real warmth did come through from time to time, and I have never been more encouraged.

I hope that we will start a period of recovery in 2021. Along the way, I hope that we will have learned from all we have been through, leading to increasing mutual understanding and care. I look forward to a world which offers the possibility of people making meaningful connections among each other.


For an animated Season’s Greeting from Midori, please click here



Dear Friends,

I hope the uncertain situation we are living under has not impacted us in only negative ways. While I find the current circumstances to be challenging, I am doing my best to protect myself and others, to be as productive as possible, and to participate consciously in my community.

Much of our attention is inevitably drawn to the repercussions of COVID; yet there are other events, both positive and negative, taking place in the world, including circumstances that cry out for our attention such as the long-term effects of global warming, for example, and the historical and more recent inequalities in communities that hinder progress and cast a shadow over our achievements.

In the last few months, my style of living, like that of so many others, has been forced to change drastically–or at least has been put on hold–which has given me many moments for reflection and re-evaluation. I have also had the time to tackle – and in some cases complete – projects that in my pre-pandemic life precluded my attention. I hope some of the fruits of this period will be ready to bloom once the pandemic, or the worst effects of the pandemic, are behind us.

Let us keep alive the determination to work towards our future. We must persevere to find meaning in the new norm and in the recent past. In the midst of all this, I am thankful for those who  give of themselves tirelessly to keep us safe, remind us that the time we have lost has been neither wasted nor unmeaningful, and appeal to us all to play our parts in shaping the world to come.



Dear Friends,

In this time of great uncertainty and continuing unnerving news, I write to you from New York, where I have been sheltering-in-place for close to a month.

We are confronted daily by insurmountable news that assaults our psyches and corrodes our confidence in the world and in ourselves. Our thoughts go out to the medical personnel who, along with the heavily afflicted, are the warriors of this pandemic. We want them to know that we care and are concerned for their wellbeing, as we are about the many who have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. Our sympathy goes out to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives to this virus.

It is indeed a very strange feeling to be trapped and confronted by an invisible enemy. As I advocate good essential habits of Staying Put, Washing Hands Thoroughly, and Social Distancing, I also wonder how sane I can continue to be, my lifestyle having changed so drastically and so suddenly, without much time to prepare psychologically or physically.

Nevertheless, I keep on practicing and playing music at home. For one day, we will surely enter a period of recovery. And at that time — whether for a child, an elderly or a bereaved person, for someone feeling neglected, lonely or despondent – or for someone who has recovered from the virus — I want to be ready, when they are, to play for them music forged in the souls of fellow human beings, music that has survived the tests of past historical atrocities.


January 2019

Dear Friends,
2018 was a year marked by transition. My move back to the East Coast, and to join the faculty at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, took place in early summer and, after almost 15 years in California, it turned out to be much more impacting than I had expected. The weather takes quite a bit of adjusting to and living in the Center City District of Philadelphia without a car presents its challenges and requires a different energy from living in Los Angeles. I am still getting used to the new set up and new rhythm, but am none-the-less enjoying the process of getting to know a new city.
Throughout last year, I enjoyed returning to cities, venues, and orchestras I knew to work with long-time colleagues as well as new ones. After 35+ years of touring, I am now comfortable almost everywhere, making new discoveries as well as rekindling old memories and relationships. In 2018, I also performed in several countries for the first time:  Paraguay, Estonia, Ukraine, and Ecuador.
A particularly meaningful trip last year was my visit with my USC students during our spring break to Sri Lanka, where we engaged ourselves in learning, teaching, giving-to-community, and performing inside and outside Colombo. The trip was our second out-of-LA venture, following a visit to Ensenada, Mexico, and its environs in 2017.
In the New Year, I look forward to a new project with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in which we perform “almost” all French repertoire. New projects always bring surprises, and with these surprises, joy.
I wish you all a new year filled with musical inspiration.