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 [...]
They spoke about it
The Trio Sonata According to Bach
The four works by Johann Sebastian Bach on this recording are the first in a cycle of six “sonatas” usually referred to as being “for obbligato harpsichord and violin” (BWV 1014–1019). In truth, however, they are essentially trio sonatas, a genre that was to the Baroque period what the string quartet would be to the Classical—a crucible for formal and stylistic experimentation.
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.
Archangelo Corelli (1653–1713) dedicated four opuses to the trio sonata, the first published in 1681 and each containing 12 sonatas. In them, he overlaid a form of four contrasting movements: slow-fast-slow-fast. The sonatas in Opuses 1 and 3 are designated da chiesa (church sonatas), while Opuses 2 and 4 are da camara (chamber sonatas). Two features distinguish the chamber sonata from the church sonata: the former is composed essentially of dances, and the continuo is realized by the harpsichord, while in the latter, the movements are generally abstract, often fugal, and the continuo is realized by the organ.
J.S. 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. Because of this particular approach to the “trio,” Bach is sometimes credited with paving the way for the two-part sonata, in which the keyboard plays an equally important role as the solo instrument. Bach wrote at least 11 sonatas in this manner (if there were others, they have been lost): six sonatas for violin (BWV 1014–1019), three sonatas for viola da gamba (BWV 1027–1029), and two sonatas 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).
At Cöthen, as J.S. Bach would later confide, he was in the service of a “generous prince who not only loved music, he understood it.” Because the prince was also a Pietist, sacred music was limited to its most simple forms, and during Bach’s tenure there, his primary function was to compose all manner of music for the court—a court at which the violin held a particularly prominent place. It was during this period—a time when he could give free rein to both his imagination and the musical resources at his disposition—that he composed many of his instrumental masterworks.
The four 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. For instance, the opening “Largo” of the fourth sonata (BWV 1017) is none other than the famous aria “Erbarme dich” (have mercy) for alto and solo violin in the St. Matthew Passion, sung after Peter denies Jesus for the third time.
In the fast movements, Bach outdoes even Corelli in his predilection for imitative counterpoint. In this respect, the second sonata (BWV 1015) may represent the high point of the cycle, with fugal or canonic passages occurring in every movement, including the slow ones. In the introductory “Andante” (marked “Dolce” in one copy), the first two measures are in canon; the following “Allegro” is entirely fugal; from beginning to end, the “Andante con poco” lays a strict canon in unison between the violin and the right hand of the harpsichord over a sixteenth-note bass line; and the final “Presto” features multiple canonic entries at the half-measure.
Some 50 years after their composition, these “trios” for harpsichord and violin were still regarded as being “among the best compositions my father produced” by the most famous of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Today, many see this cycle as a turning point in the history of chamber music, with Bach bringing the trio sonata to a point of completion while simultaneously paving the way toward the future: the sonata for soloist and keyboard.
© Guy Marchand, 2004
Traduction: Peter Christensen