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8.554783 - BACH, J.S.: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Vol. 2
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Vol.2, BWV 1018-1019

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 at Eisenach, the youngest of six children of a family that was part of an extended musical dynasty. After the death of his parents, he moved in 1695 to Ohrdruf, where his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, was organist at the Michaeliskirche. His schooling in Ohrdruf continued until 1700, when he moved to the Michaelisschule at Lüneburg some two hundred miles away. Two years later he began his professional career as a musician at the court in Weimar, followed very shortly by appointment as organist at Arnstadt. In 1707 some dissatisfaction with the conditions and musical possibilities there led him to move to a similar position at Mühlhausen, where he married his first wife, his second cousin Maria Barbara. The following year he was appointed court organist at Weimar, where 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-Cöthen, was offered on relatively generous terms. Duke Wilhelm Ernst showed his final displeasure by imprisoning Bach for a month, before dismissing him from his service.

The court at Cöthen 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 Cöthen. 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 he applied for the position of Cantor in Leipzig, where he moved the following spring. He thus exchanged 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.

The six Sonatas for Violin and Cembalo, BWV 1014-1019, must be dated to the years at Cöthen. Bach's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, representative of a newer style, in 1774 described these trios, as he calls them, 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. The word trio is 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 figures indicating the necessary chords to be added. 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 and fast movements, except in the case of Sonata No.6, which may be compiled from other works. The fifth of the set, the Sonata in F minor, BWV 1018, unusually allows the harpsichord a three-voice contrapuntal texture, leaving the violin to make its own comments. In the second movement the violin states the theme, accompanied by an active bass part with chordal figuring. The second and third voices duly enter, providing the material from which the movement is derived. In the C minor Adagio violin chords accompany the more elaborate antiphonal figuration of the harpsichord. To this the final triple metre Vivace gives the ascending chromatic subject first to the violin, imitated in turn by the two lower parts on the harpsichord, a theme that is the source of the impetus that drives the movement forward.

Questions have been raised about the Sonata in G major, BWV 1019, for which the surviving sources give varied versions. In the principal sources, including the copy made by Altnikol, the movements are as given in tracks [5] to [9]. Alternative versions of the third and fifth movements, tracks [10] and [12], are found in a manuscript copy by three different writers, which includes the keyboard part of the last three movements in Bach's own hand, the only part of these works that can be thus identified, seemingly written in old age, while the incomplete violin part is by a younger and surer hand. The alternative fourth movement, track [11], also appears in a copy once in the possession of Frederick the Great's sister, Princess Anna Amalie of Prussia, and an eighteenth century Danish source. The other alternative third movement, track [13], is found in these last two sources.

In the opening Allegro of the last sonata two subjects are heard simultaneously, the rapid semiquavers of the violin against the steadier rhythm of the upper harpsichord line, before rôles are reversed. In the E minor Largo the violin announces the subject, over the steady rhythm of the bass, followed by the second voice. The B major chord that ends the movement leads to an E minor Allegro for solo harpsichord. This is followed by a B minor Adagio in which the three parts are interwoven, in the manner of a three-part invention. The last movement returns to the original key of G major in a lively 6/8 Allegro characterized by contrapuntal imitation and the occasional conjunction of the two upper parts.

The alternative movements include an E minor third movement in 3/8 for keyboard solo, devised in a two voice texture in which the upper part is accompanied by the lower. The fourth movement is replaced by a B minor Adagio that has a repeated chromatic descending bass line against which the upper voices weave their pattern. The alternative fifth movement has the title Violino solo e Basso l’accompagnato. It lacks a violin part in the single surviving source, but appears in fuller form as a Tempo di Gavotta in Partita No.6 in the first part of Bach's Clavierübung. The other proposed version of the third movement is a G major movement, marked Cantabile, ma un poco Adagio. It starts with an embellished violin aria over a figured bass, developed, with the entry of the second voice, with the expected contrapuntal mastery and ending with a return to the opening dozen bars.

Keith Anderson


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