JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
BORN: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany)
DIED: July 28, 1750. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)
COMPOSED/PREMIERED: Between 1717-21 in Anhalt-Cöthen or ca. 1730 in Leipzig; we lack information about its early performance history
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1945. Yehudi Menuhin was soloist and Pierre Monteux led. MOST RECENT—October 2009. Itzhak Perlman was soloist and leader
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, strings and basso continuo (harpsichord, cello, and double bass)
DURATION: About 19 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 (where Johann Sebastian was born), so our 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 remained 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 an abundance of surpassing masterpieces, including eight sonatas for violin and harpsichord, six works for unaccompanied violin (three called sonatas, three partitas), and frequent obbligato roles in his cantatas and Passions. The violin appears as a soloist in four of his Brandenburg concertos as well as in his A minor Concerto for Flute, Violin, and Harpsichord (BWV 1044, the authenticity of which is partly suspect) and in a pair each of solo concertos and double concertos. Musicologists suppose that the list was longer than that, but those are the only concertos with violin to have survived. Of the solo concertos, the one in A minor, BWV 1041, is known as “No. 1” and the one in E major, BWV 1042, is called “No. 2”—not that we have any idea about their true chronology.
Orchestral music was rarely a focus of Bach’s work. From 1717-23 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—and opinions are divided about the dating of many pieces traditionally assigned to that period—stand with one foot still planted in the realm of chamber music.
In 1723 Bach moved to Leipzig, where his time was largely given over to composing and directing sacred music. But from 1729 through 1741 (with two years’ sabbatical during the span of 1737-39) 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 weeks to play music for their own pleasure and for the delectation of members of the public who cared to drop by. In cold months, the group gathered on Friday evenings from 8 to 10 at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house, in Leipzig’s Catherinenstrasse; during the summer, the concerts took place on Wednesday afternoons, generally at the café near the Grimmische Tor. Among similar organizations in Germany the Leipzig group was renowned. Wrote Johann Heinrich Zedler, in his 1739 Grosses Universal Lexicon, a Collegium Musicum was “a gathering of certain musical connoisseurs who, for the benefit of their own exercise in both vocal and instrumental music and under the guidance of a certain director, get together on particular days and in particular locations and perform musical pieces. Such Collegia are to be found in various places. In Leipzig, the Bachian Collegium Musicum is more famous than all others.”
We lack details about the repertory the Collegium performed, but it seems logical to imagine that it included concertos emanating out of Italy, by such composers as Torelli, Vivaldi, and Albinoni, as well as up-to-date concertos and orchestral suites by such German masters as Georg Philipp Telemann. And surely they played Bach, who, being the most practical of musicians, must have dipped into his own back-catalogue of compositions when crafting “new” pieces for the Collegium to explore, refashioning them into versions that spotlighted the Collegium’s specific forces.
Musicologists 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 at best, and recent thought promulgated by the eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff favors the possibility that they actually originated in Leipzig around 1730—especially the A minor Concerto. It remains a toss-up whether the E major Concerto should be dated to Bach’s Cöthen or Leipzig years; certainly its extroverted spirit has much in common with the brilliance of the Brandenburg concertos, which Bach assembled while at Cöthen. In any case, at some point during his Collegium Musicum years Bach transformed both of the violin concertos into harpsichord concertos, turning the A minor Violin Concerto into his G minor Harpsichord Concerto (BWV 1058) and the E major Violin Concerto into his D major Harpsichord Concerto (BWV 1054). The work played at these concerts continues to be heard to this day in both versions, as a concerto for violin and as a concerto for harpsichord. Both are accepted as authentic Bachian settings, but there is little question that, no matter when it was written, the violin version came first.
THE MUSIC Bach’s admiration for the newfangled Italian style bursts from the pages of the E major Violin Concerto, particularly in the opening movement, which is structured in a da capo form that served countless Italian opera arias of the time. Identical material that serves to open and close this Allegro movement is separated by a contrasting center section in the relative minor key of C-sharp minor. In wending back to the opening material Bach breaks the momentum by inserting a few adagio bars, which cry out for elaboration from the soloist. The rising triad of the movement’s staunch opening chords has a Vivaldian cast, but Bach, who had counterpoint coursing through his veins, instinctively spots imitative possibilities even in this motif. So it is that when the solo violin makes its first entrance, playing precisely this figure, the orchestra follows with the same motif in a close game of musical follow-the-leader.
Bach returns to the relative minor key for the concerto’s middle movement (Adagio). The orchestra enunciates an ostinato (i.e. repeating) passage, which Bach treats freely in its repetitions to allow it to conform to the rhapsodic violin line he provides above it.
In the first movement of this extroverted concerto Bach had employed something resembling the ritornello style that was beloved to contemporary Italian composers of concertos. Essentially, this refers to an orchestral passage that resurfaces in the course of the movement as, literally, a “little return.” Sometimes it appears in its entirety, sometimes only as an allusion; but even in the latter case it plays a unifying role in the movement. The triple-meter third movement (Allegro assai) also involves the recurrence of such musical material, but here Bach is doctrinaire about bringing back the sixteen-measure passage unchanged and in its entirety. It therefore alternates in perfect balance with the violin’s solo sections, which are also sixteen measures long (except its last foray, which covers thirty-two bars), and this yields a structure that is perhaps more French than Italian, specifically suggesting a French rondeau. Its pattern is so unvarying that one could easily dance to it. The violin’s solo sections escalate in virtuosity, reaching a brilliant pitch by the time of the thirty-two measure solo flight.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback.
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Ave
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