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Program Notes

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The three sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) have complicated genealogies. During his Leipzig years (most likely in the period 1736–41), Bach recast all of them from pre-existing pieces, probably arranging them for one or the other of the well-known gambists Carl Friedrich Abel or Ludwig Christian Hesse. The viola da gamba was an essential instrument in Bach’s day, a largish bowed viol with six or seven strings and a fretted fingerboard, balanced upright somewhat in the mode of a cello. Indeed, modern cellists and violists can comfortably assume Bach’s gamba repertory even though their instruments are constructed on rather different principles from the gamba. (This performance features cello and another modern instrument, the piano).

The predominant texture of the sonatas for gamba and keyboard is that of the trio sonata, with the keyboard instrument assuming a solo line in the right hand to play as an equal partner to the gamba, and the left hand handling the bass line. As sure as musicologists are that the G minor Sonata (the third of the set) is a transcription, they are not certain precisely what it is a transcription of. At least the first and third movements use recurring (ritornello) episodes with fugal counterpoint, characteristics that point to the likelihood that Bach originally wrote at least those movements for an “orchestral” concerto grosso or a concerto spotlighting who-knows-what instrument. The middle movement, with its graceful dignity and slow, triple-time meter, could also have found a place in a concerto, showing some similarity of process and spirit to the analogous movements of the Fifth and Sixth Brandenburg Concertos.

Bach was acclaimed as one of the supreme keyboard virtuosos of his time, but he was also a highly skilled violinist. He supplied violinists with a string of surpassing masterpieces, including eight sonatas for violin and keyboard (surely a harpsichord in Bach’s day), six works for unaccompanied violin (three called sonatas, three partitas), and prominent obbligato roles in his cantatas and passions. The violin serves as a soloist in four of his Brandenburg Concertos and in a pair each of solo concertos and double concertos.

His sonatas for violin and keyboard fall into two varieties. Two of them, BWV 1021 and 1023, are typical in their externals of what late-Baroque listeners would have expected of a violin sonata; the violinist is clearly the soloist, and the keyboard player participates in a continuo group that plays mostly a harmonic—and only incidentally a melodic—role. The other six, however, were revolutionary in the way they employed the two instruments. In those six works, BWV 1014–19, the keyboard instrument plays an obbligato role as an equal melodic partner to the violin while also fulfilling its traditional role as accompanist (possibly alone, possibly assisted by other instruments). The composer’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel referred to these pieces as “harpsichord trios,” and the earliest source for the set titles them “Six sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and solo violin, with the bass accompanied by a viola da gamba if you like.”

It is sometimes said that these six pieces are effectively trio sonatas in which the violin and the keyboard’s right-hand part serve as the joint “melody soloists” while the left hand provides the accompaniment. Some of the movements do indeed behave in that way, but the description is too limiting to characterize the set in its entirety. Over and over in his career, Bach demonstrated his fondness for being encyclopedic, for exploring some fundamental conception in all its ramifications—which invariably turned out to range farther than anyone else could have imagined. In these six sonatas the music is sometimes distributed in a trio-sonata mode, but elsewhere it is cast in a strictly contrapuntal texture of three or even four parts, in an alternation of textures that resembles a concerto, or as what may resemble an aria with an accompaniment that sounds as if it is a keyboard reduction from a piece originally conceived with orchestra.

The chronology of these works is elusive, although they probably date from the composer’s years at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, where he served as Capellmeister from December 1717 until May 1723, at which point he moved to Leipzig for the remainder of his career. Since the original manuscripts have gone missing, these pieces come down only in copies that appear to post-date their composition by several years. The earliest extant source is a copy of the keyboard part written out mostly by Johann Heinrich Bach (the composer’s nephew) and completed by Johann Sebastian himself, and that manuscript dates from 1725, two years into Bach’s residence at Leipzig.

The E major Violin Sonata (BWV 1016), the third of the six, begins with a magnificent Adagio, which is dignified, expressive, and proudly balanced in its phrases; one could easily imagine it orchestrated to become the opening sinfonia of a cantata. The second movement is an Allegro whose principal theme does not offer much opportunity for development. The tune is charming, resembling a folk song or perhaps a children’s ditty, and the movement (cast in the trio sonata mold) displays a character of unusual innocence, a least for Bach. The third movement (Adagio ma non tanto—an unusual marking for Bach) enfolds no shortage of subtle beauty; it is a chaconne with a repeating four-measure bass line that is treated with uncharacteristic freedom, allowed to move freely into exotic keys while maintaining its fundamental mood and slow pacing. The bustling finale brings the work to an end with breathtaking interweaving of counterpoint.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.