Bach: Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1041

Johann Sebastian Bach

BORN: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany)

DIED: July 28, 1750. Leipzig

COMPOSED: About 1730, in Leipzig. We know nothing about its early performance history

US PREMIERE: March 31, 1860. In Boston, by soloist Julius Eichberg, with the Mendelssohn Quintette Club

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— March 1932. Paul Kochanski was soloistwith Basil Cameron conducting. MOST RECENT—January 2013. SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was soloist and leader

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, harpsichord, and strings

DURATION: About 15 mins

THE BACKSTORY Johann Sebastian Bach was renowned in his day as a keyboard virtuoso, but he was also a skilled violinist. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had been a professional violinist in Erfurt and in Eisenach, so the composer surely grew up surrounded by the sounds of the violin. It was as a violinist that Johann Sebastian obtained his first professional appointment, at Weimar in 1703, and when he died forty-seven years later he left in his estate a violin built by Stainer—probably the luthier Jacob Stainer, whose instruments remain prized today. Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, responding to a biographical query in 1774, recalled of his father: “From his youth up to fairly old age he played the violin purely and with a penetrating tone and thus kept the orchestra in top form, much better than he could have from the harpsichord. He completely understood the possibilities of all stringed instruments.”

Bach supplied violinists with a series of masterpieces, including eight sonatas for violin and harpsichord, and six works for unaccompanied violin. The violin plays a central role as a soloist in three of his Brandenburg Concertos as well as in his A minor Concerto for Flute, Violin, and Harpsichord, and in a pair each of solo concertos and double concertos.

Orchestral music was rarely a focus of Bach’s work. From 1717 to 1723 he was in charge of secular music for the Court of Cöthen, but the thirteen-member instrumental ensemble available to him there fell short of what we would consider a modern orchestra. As a result, his orchestral pieces of those years—stand with one foot planted in the realm of chamber music.

In 1723 Bach moved to Leipzig, where his time was largely given to composing and directing sacred music. But from 1729 through 1741 he also found time to direct the city’s Collegium Musicum—or, as it became quickly known, the “Bachische” (Bachian) Collegium Musicum. The Collegium was a society of university students, interested amateurs, and a few professional musicians who met most Friday evenings to play music for their own pleasure, as well as for the delectation of anyone who cared to drop by. In cold months, the group gathered at Zimmermann’s coffee-house; during the summer, they moved out of doors, either to the café’s garden or to some site on the outskirts of town. Among similar organizations in Germany, the Leipzig group was renowned. Now Bach had an ongoing need for concerto repertory, and he accordingly dipped into his own back-catalogue of compositions when crafting “new” pieces for the Collegium to explore, sometimes refashioning them into versions that spotlighted the Collegium’s specific forces.

Scholars have traditionally maintained that Bach’s solo-violin concertos were composed in Cöthen and revived for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. The assumption is based on slender evidence, and recent thought favors the possibility that they actually originated in Leipzig around 1730. There is no doubt that Bach’s keyboard arrangements of these pieces date from his Leipzig Collegium Musicum years, when he turned the A minor Violin Concerto into his G minor Harpsichord Concerto, and the E major Violin Concerto into his D major Harpsichord Concerto. The work played in this concert continues to be heard in both versions.

THE MUSIC The A minor Violin Concerto, densely concentrated and contrapuntally involved, betokens purposeful seriousness in its outer movements. But in its central Andante Bach provides a slow movement of greater relaxation, though not without a measure of tension, thanks to the dissonances that pile up. In this work we find that Bach has absorbed the principles of the Italian concertos that wielded such a formative influence on late-Baroque music; but if this concerto’s structural techniques borrow from the example of Vivaldi and his cohorts, Bach’s brilliant interweaving of counterpoint is unmistakably his own. —James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Monica Huggett with Ton Koopman leading the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Erato)