Born into a family of renowned Québécois musicians, Geneviève Soly was eight years old when she realised that she was going to be a performer. This revelation came while she was listening to an LP [...]
J.S. Bach: The Complete sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and a melodic instrument, Vol.1
They spoke about it
This is the first of three volumes presenting the complete Bach Sonatas for Obbligato Harpsichord and a Melodic Instrument: Six sonatas with violin, three with viola da gamba and two with flute. The originality of this approach resides in the fact that the sonatas are not compiled by instrumentation, while the performers — except for the harpsichordist — also vary with each volume.
The Trio Sonata
The trio sonata was the most popular form of chamber music in the high baroque era, with more than 8,000 works written at that time! With only two original works, Bach’s output in this genre is practically non-existent, and his trio writing is completely atypical: He uses the texture to highlight the virtuosity of the organist (the six trio sonatas for organ), or the many possibilities of the obbligato clavier (the eleven sonatas in this collection). In fact, the eleven sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and a melodic instrument offer a glimpse at the repertoire of classical and romantic sonatas (for piano and violin, for example): We witness the end of a great musical tradition and the genesis of a new form. Putting aside the normal accompaniment role of the harpsichord (continuo, thorough-bass or figured-bass), Bach brings the instrument to the forefront in a melodic capacity: The right hand plays a fully notated upper-part (as opposed to a continuo where the right hand has a chordal role, notated in figures), hence the name “obbligato harpsichord” or “concertante harpsichord.”
However, the most innovative aspect of these works (45 movements in all) is that Bach did not limit himself to surpassing a form in creating a new one, but also outdid himself in rich inventions, often leaving behind formal trio writing to create pieces for which there are simply no models. This astonishing structural variety is only equaled by the copious personal musical expressions, deep and intimate, particularly in the slow movements.
Sonata V in G major for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin (BWV 1019)
Most of Bach’s sonatas, indeed all those with violin date back to the Köthen period (1717-1723). The genesis of the one in G major is, however, rather more complex. Bach reworked it in Leipzig around 1730 by adding a movement for violin and continuo, bringing to six the number of these movements. This specific sonata is an exception since it originally had five movements, with a predominance for the allegros. Yet a later version (around 1749: A source notes, “He composed this trio just before the end.”) returned to the symmetry of five movements (the first and last are fast, the second and fourth are slow, and a harpsichord solo, marked Allegro, acts as central movement). Here, Bach recomposed the last three movements which where not in any of the previous versions. It is this final rendering — included on this recording — which one hears most often. Following the sonata, we have added the 4th and 3rd movements from the first Köthen version (Adagio in B minor and the Cantabile in G major)
1. Allegro: This is a two voice concertante fugue with an ABA structure. The violin concerts with the right hand of the harpsichord, the bass being harmonic. This type of writing contrasts with the other fugal allegros which are all in three voices. In the first five bars of the B section, Bach figured the bass of the harpsichord, returning it to its traditional role of accompaniment.
2. Largo (in the relative of E minor): This short page of 21 bars contains some French style rhythms, reminiscent of orchestral overtures. An innovative composition without previous models, Bach added a third voice to the harpsichord part to transform it into a four voice piece.
3. Allegro (Cembalo solo, in the relative of E minor): An energetic piece in two sections, AABB.
4. Adagio (in the dominant of the relative, B minor): This rigorous trio is a mournful piece that develops around a syncopated chromatic motif. It ends on the dominant of G major, preparing the last movement.
5. Allegro: This energetic concerted trio in ABA form is reminiscent of a gigue.
Adagio B minor (BWV 1019b)
This short 18 bar piece is at once sorrowful (chromatic motif of three eights, extended intervals) and serene (the motif of four sixteenths linked in four.)
Cantabile, ma un poco Adagio in G major (BWV 1019a)
This piece is an arrangement of Cantata BWV 120’s aria “Heil und Segen.” Bach gave the original soprano part to the right hand of the harpsichord. When the violin is alone, without the voice (in the first twelve bars for example), the harpsichord returns to its role of accompaniment.
Sonata IV in C minor for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin (BWV 1017)
1. Largo: This sicilienne is the only stylised dance of the collection. It is constructed in two repeated segments: AABB. It is not a typical trio since the keyboard part could be called a “melodic accompaniment” (or an elaborate continuo), with arpeggiated chords in sixteens and an harmonic bass built on heights. The violin’s theme is similar to the aria “Erbarme dich” from the Saint Matthew Passion. Here, the traditional demands of poly-phony and trio composition give way to an accompanied cantabile melody.
2. Allegro: This is a true three voice fugue: the bass is given as much contrapuntal activity as the upper voices. The long theme is first revealed in the harpsichord part.
3. Adagio (in the relative of E-flat major): This harpsichord part is a “melodic accompaniment.” The movement contains several peculiarities: The use of nuances (p and f) in the violin in blocks of four bars at a time. Here, we have chosen to coordinate the harpsichord to the violin’s dynamics (in terms of the upper 8-ft for the piano indications.)
The use of three different rhythms for each voice. We have chosen to harmonize the dotted rhythms of the violin to the triplets of the harpsichord, and to retain the opposition of the two-against-three pattern between the upper parts and the bass.
The structure of the piece rests on a four bar rhythmic ostinato in the bass (as in the dynamics). The movement does not use any melodic theme: The violin part seems more harmonic than melodic, while the intervals are extended. The piece ends in a four bar recitative transition which leads to the dominant of the last movement.
4. Allegro: This fugal movement with a robust rhythm is constructed in two parts (AABB). In the second part, interesting rhythms are obtained by articulating by three the groups of sixteenths climbing in scales during two bars (59-60, 85-86 and 104-105 on the violin, plus 73-74 and 98-99 on the harpsichord.)
Sonatas for Obbligato Harpsichord and Viola de gamba
These sonatas are traditionally attributed to the Köthen period, but this is highly improbable, as clearly demonstrated by Laurence Dreyfus in his excellent edition (Peters, 1985). Stylistic and source analyses seem rather to point a compositional period occuring during the Leipzig years, from 1735. Indeed, several elements suggest that they were written for the gamba player who participated in the second performance of the Saint Matthew Passion, around 1740. Dreyfus also points out that the sonata BWV 1028 requires a large, eight string viola da gamba, as in the passion’s solos. This theory is confirmed through several details, such as the type of paper and ink used, as well as the calligraphy of one of the rare existing autographs.
The works may have been written for Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) who lived in Leipzig in 1743. He was the son of gamba player Christian Ferdinand Abel (1683-1737), friend and colleague of J.S. Bach in Köthen. Dreyfus also brings attention to the fact that Bach composed suites for unaccompanied cello and sonatas for viola da gamba: while the suite is an old idiom and the cello a new instrument, conversely, the sonata is a new genre and the viola da gamba an old instrument.
Sonata III in G minor for Obbligato Harpsichord and Viola da Gamba (BWV 1029)
This sonata is in three movements (fast-slow-fast), in accordance with Adolph Sheibe’s description (1745) in Sonate auf Concertenart (sonatas in concerto style.)
1. Allegro: This movement brings together a few elements of the Italian concerto style. The Vivaldi-like theme announces a ritornello similar to several used in the Brandenburg Concertos. The first “orchestral ritornello” is accompanied by the continuo. Upon the entrance of the harpsichord’s theme, the writing becomes more typical of a polyphonic trio. The clearly orchestral complexion of the piece (note the unisons in two and even three voices near the end) has led to opting for register changes, although this is not idiomatic of harpsichord playing within a movement.
2. Adagio: In two parts (AABB), this unusual piece blends the lyricism of the Italian adagio — with its abundant ornamentation, fully written out by Bach — with the French style sarabande, characterized by its elegant ornamentation (appoggiature, coulés de tierces and pincés.)
Bach reserves the lyricism of the adagio for the viola da gamba in the first part, then transfers it to the harpsichord in the second half. Inversely, the sarabande’s melodic line belongs to the keyboard in the first half, then goes to the viola da gamba in the second part. The atmosphere thus created underscores the grandiloquence of the rhetoric. Certain passages (bars 25 to 29 for example) remind some of the choral works from the Clavier-Übung.
3. Allegro: This bright and robust fugal trio combines strength (the repeated notes of the theme) and sprightliness (the sixteenth note triplets). A very lyrical melody, marked cantabile, makes its appearance in the viola da gamba part (bar 19), with a “melodic accompaniment” in the harpsichord (reminiscent of the largo of the sonata in C minor for violin); later, it is transfered to the harpsichord (bar 24) with, again, a similar accompaniment from the viola da gamba.
© Geneviève Soly