Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
Bach: Complete Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord
They spoke about it
The course of music history is usually thought of in terms of composers and compositions. Yet occasionally it was the invention of a new instrument that triggered a musical sea change: only after the new instrument aroused interest would composers begin to create what would become a completely new repertoire. The early Baroque was such a time, and the trio sonata arose out of the musical revolution touched off in part by the emergence of two new instruments: the harpsichord and the violin family. Works for harpsichord began to abound by the beginning of the 17th century. Some one hundred years later, J. S. Bach’s numerous cycles of preludes and fugues, partitas and various suites would stand out as the irrefutable apogee of this repertoire. With the violin, composers experimented with various combinations before settling on what was to become the dominant chamber music genre of the period—the so-called “trio sonata,” for two violins and basso continuo. However, this “trio” required at least four players because convention dictated that the bass instrument be doubled by a harpsichord to realize the harmony.
Bach, like many of his contemporaries, also took an interest in the trio sonata, composing works that followed the established form as well as striking off in new directions. For instance, he wrote six trio sonatas for solo organ and others for obbligato harpsichord and melodic instrument. In these latter works, the harpsichord part is written out completely and comprises two of the three voices of the “trio,” leaving only two of the four instruments of the original Italian genre. Bach wrote at least 11 sonatas in this manner (if there were others, they have been lost): six for violin (BWV 1014–1019), three for viola da gamba (BWV 1017–1029), and two for flute (BWV 1030 and 1032).
The autograph of the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin has never been found, but several contemporary copies do exist. The one closest to Bach himself, in the hand of his student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, carries the significant title Sechs Trio für Clavier und die Violine (Six trios for keyboard and violin). Exegetes have dated this copy to between 1748 and 1758, though it is generally agreed that it was composed during Bach’s Cöthen period (1717–1723).
The first five sonatas on this recording all follow the Corellian sonata da chiesa model of four contrasting movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. In the slow movements, however, the violin part reveals a tragic lyricism more like Vivaldi than Corelli, which is not to say even more similar to the plaintive arias of Bach’s own cantatas and Passions.
There survive three relatively different versions of the Sonata No. 6 in G Major (BWV 1019). All three go beyond the Corellian convention of four contrasting movements, but many of the five or six movements differ from version to version, along with their order.
In addition to this cycle of “trio” sonatas, there are two other sonatas for violin and harpsichord that are considered almost certainly to be composed by Bach. In these two sonatas the harpsichord has a more conventional accompaniment part, with the violin soaring freely above it. They were found in the course of musicological research and thus exist in one copy each. Both are likely in the hand of Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, and appear to date from the 1730s; however, they may have been composed much earlier, perhaps during the Cöthen period, like the “trio” cycle.
© Guy Marchand
Translation : Peter Christensen