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 [...]
They spoke about it
This is the third 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. This collection was recorded in the autumn of 1995 as part of Montreal’s 9th season of Les Idées heureuses.
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. The three aspects of Bach’s work that made the greatest impact on us are the rigor of his musical construction, the depth of his musical expression and the apparently inexhaustible inventive resources of his genius. Generally speaking, the Bach sonatas are modeled after Corelli’s sonata da chiesa a Tre, in other words, sonatas in four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast), without dance, in which the first movement is in a single strike (one section), the second fugal, the third cantabile in the relative major and the last one, brilliant, in a concerto or fugue style.
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 was living 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, and notes that the suite is an old idiom and the cello a new instrument, and, conversely, the sonata is a new genre and the viola da gamba an old instrument. Unlike the violin sonatas, the three gamba sonatas are isolated works which were never intended to be part of a collection. Here, Bach turns away from convention by treating the viola da gamba in an abstract manner.
The first two Sonatas, BWV 1027 and BWV 1028, adopt the four-movement structure of the sonata da chiesa. Their internal organization, however, is extremely different: while the writing in the G-major Sonata (BWV 1027) is contrapuntal throughout, that of the D-major Sonata (BWV 1028) is pure style galant and essentially homophonic. The earliest source for sonata BWV 1027 is an Leipzig autograph dating from 1735-45. This sonata is, essentially, a later version of the Trio-sonata BWV 1039 for two flutes and continuo of c1725 or of Bach’s Köthen period. The last movement, a fugue, has also been transcribed by Bach for organ (Trio-sonata BWV 1027a).
The source for Sonata BWV 1028 is a manuscript copied after Bach’s death. This particular gamba sonata, for unknown reasons, seems slightly less popular than the other two, yet its writing is extremely varied, fresh and joyful in the opening Allegro, profound in the B-minor Andante, and brilliant in the final Allegro. This last movement, interrestingly, makes a brief foray into concerto-like writing, offering virtuoso passage-work to both harpsichord and gamba. Sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and violin There are seven extant manuscript copies of the six violin sonatas, of which the principal source is the copy made between 1748 and 1758 by Bach’s son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnikol. Bach composed these sonatas in Köthen around 1720, and clearly conceived the ensemble as a single collection. The sonatas which are most similar in both writing and spirit are Sonata I in B minor (BWV 1014) and Sonata III in E major (BWV 1016).
Both sonatas open with a cantabile Adagio in which the violin (especially in BWV 1016) is given melismatic figurations. The writing is no longer trio-sonata style since Bach gives three voices to the harpsichord in and either one or two to the violin in the B-minor Sonata, and pushes the texture to its limit in the E-major Sonata by giving four voices to the harpsichord. In both sonatas, the first Allegro—a fugue in the BWV 1014 and a fugue-style trio in BWV 1016—conveys a sense of intimacy, thanks to a cadid theme with a flowing alla breve rhythm. The third movement of both sonatas, in their respective keys, may seem at first to have little in common.
In the B-minor Sonata, the perfectly harmonious upper voices supplely move in parallel motion. In the C-sharp-minor Adagio ma non troppo of BWV 1016, a four-bar ostinato in the bass, punctuated by a “written continuo” (in the harpsichord or in the violin), gives the movement a tension absent in its BWV 1014 counterpart. Only with the reappearance of the canonic writing in triplets do we reencounter the serenity and fluidity of the D-major Andante of Sonata I. The final Allegro—a ternary form in both cases—exploits the virtuosic possibilities of both instruments. Both movements are fiery, dynamic and brilliant, and even though their overall structure is different (AABB in one case and ABA in the other), they share nevertheless the same spiritual quality.
© Geneviève Soly
Translation: Alex Benjamin