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8.554614 - BACH, J.S.: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Vol. 1
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Vol.1, BWV 1014-1017

 

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 at Eisenach, where his father was employed as a town musician and as a member of the court orchestra, the youngest of six children of a family that was part of an extended musical dynasty. After the death of his parents, he moved at the age of ten to Ohrdruf, to the house of his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, organist there at the Michaeliskirche. His schooling in Ohrdruf continued until 1700, when he moved to the Michaelisschule at Luneburg some two hundred miles away. Two years later he began his professional career with employment at the court in Weimar, followed very shortly by appointment as organist at Arnstadt, where his family had connections. In 1707 some dissatisfaction with the conditions and musical possibilities at Arnstadt led him to enter the necessary test for appointment as organist at Muhlhausen, where he married his first wife, his second cousin Maria Barbara. The following year he was appointed court organist at Weimar, where, as in 1703, he also served as a violinist or viola player in the court orchestra. In 1714 he was appointed Konzertmeister, but his relationship with his employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, was uneasy, partly through his collaboration in the musical activities of the co-regent of Weimar, Duke Ernst August. In 1716 Bach was passed over for the position of Kapellmeister, which he might have expected on the death of the existing incumbent, and this led him to look elsewhere. His association with Duke Ernst August provided a way out, when employment as Court Kapellmeister to the Duke's new brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen was offered on relatively generous terms. Duke Wilhelm Ernst was unwilling to release him from his duties at Weimar, showing his displeasure finally by imprisoning Bach for a month, before dismissing him from his service.

 

The court at Cothen offered all that Bach could have wished. Prince Leopold was young and an enthusiastic musical amateur and the Pietist persuasions of the court meant that there was no call for church music. Instead Bach could devoted himself primarily to secular music for the court orchestra and its members in a fruitful series of concertos, sonatas and suites. The period was a happy one for Bach, marred only by the sudden death of his wife in 1720, while he was at Carlsbad in the company of the Prince. The following year he married again. His new wife, Anna Magdalena, was the youngest daughter of the court trumpeter at Weissenfels and employed as a court singer at Cothen. Prince Leopold's marriage in the same year to a woman whom Bach described as 'amusica', however, made life at court much less satisfactory .In December 1722 Bach applied for the position of Cantor in Leipzig, where he moved the following spring, exchanging his position at a princely court for the duties of organist and choirmaster, soon to be varied by additional work with another collegium musicum, the ensemble established by Telemann at Leipzig University. Bach remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life, at first providing the church cantatas necessary for his primary employment, then re-arranging earlier concertos for the collegium musicum and consolidating the very considerable body of work that he had already written.

 

The six Sonatas for Violin and Cembalo, BWV 1014-1019, must be dated to the years at Cothen. Bach's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, harpsichordist to Frederick the Great at Potsdam, and then Cantor at the Hamburg Johanneum, described them in 1774 as 'among the best compositions of my dear departed father' and went on to say how well they sounded and what pleasure they still gave him, although written some fifty years before. In particular he praised the fine slow movements that could not be written even in his own time in such a singable style. Carl Philipp Emanuel refers to these sonatas as trios, an accurate description of their general three-part contrapuntal texture, with the upper parts given to the violin and the right hand of the keyboard-player, while the left hand takes the bass. The sonatas, which have their counterpart in the organ sonatas, the sonatas for viola da gamba and cembalo and for flute and keyboard, are distinct from those written essentially for solo instrument and continuo, with a melody and bass, the latter with figuring for the addition of the necessary chords. There is occasional figuring in the present works, suggesting a possible elaboration of the right hand part on the keyboard. In the absence of autograph versions, these works rely on a series of manuscript copies by later musicians, including Bach's Leipzig pupil, colleague and later son-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnikol.

 

The general pattern of the sonatas is that of the sonata da chiesa, the church sonata, an alternation of slow - fast - slow - fast. The Sonata in B minor, BWV 1014, allows the upper register of the keyboard a fuller texture in a descending figure that answers the bass, soon joined by the sustained opening note of the violin, descending in more rapid figuration and later taking over the keyboard chordal writing. The following Allegro allows the violin to offer a subject, against a figured bass, before the entry of its imitation in the upper register of the keyboard and then in the lower. The music is impelled forward by the contrapuntal energy the theme inspires, the basis of what follows. The D major Andante weaves a fine contrapuntal texture between the three parts, while the final Allegro contrasts two elements, the initial semiquavers of the harpsichord with the forthright theme stated by the violin, to be echoed by each voice in turn.

 

The Sonata in A major, BWV 1015, has the three voices entering in apparent canon in a movement that lacks any tempo direction. Once again the violin offers a fugal theme in the second movement, accompanied by figured chords before the entry of the second voice, followed by an entry in the bass register. As it proceeds this Allegro gives the violin at times an accompanying role, leading to a passage of rapid arpeggios, after which the original entries return in order. There follows a fine F sharp minor canon between the two upper voices, against the steady pattern of the third. The final Presto again allows the violin to state the subject, accompanied by figured chords, before the entry of the second and third voices.

 

There is a fuller keyboard texture in the opening Adagio of the Sonata in E major, BWV 1016, with its fine-spun violin aria. It is the upper register of the harpsichord that introduces the theme of the following Allegro, to be imitated at the dominant by the violin. The C sharp minor Adagio ma non tanto entrusts the violin with triplet figuration in a melody later passed to the harpsichord, accompanied by violin chords, the whole set over a transposing chaconne bass. The violin introduces the theme of the final Allegro, answered by the harpsichord, which has provided spare accompaniment to the opening subject. The rhythm of the movement is varied by the introduction of triplet figuration in the violin part, later taken over by the harpsichord but finally superseded by the original metre.

 

The Sonata in C minor, BWV 1017, opens with a very singable Siciliano. The following Allegro introduces the theme in the upper register of the harpsichord, with entries following from the violin and in the bass. The contrapuntal energy is in contrast with the lilting E flat major Adagio, a movement that again matches Carl Philipp Emanuel's praise. The harpsichord introduces the fugal theme of the last movement, followed by the violin, weaving from this material music of impelling energy.

 

Keith Anderson


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