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Double Violin Concerto in D Minor BWV 1043

March 24, 2019: Paul Huang, violin; Danbi Um, violins; Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, violin; Kristin Lee, violin; Pierre Lapointe, viola; Mihai Marica, cello; Tim Cobb, bass; Gilles Vonsattel, harpsichord

An accomplished violinist as well as keyboard player, Bach wrote at least six concertos for one or more violins and a number combining violin with other types of solo instruments. He intended the solo parts for himself or for his qualified students or professional colleagues, including several of his own sons. The celebrated “Double” Concerto is in fact a concerto grosso, in which a small solo group (concertino)—here two violins—is contrasted with a larger group (ripieno or tutti). Accordingly Bach titled his manuscript: Concerto à 6, 2 violini concertini, 2 violini e 1 viola di ripieni, violoncello e continuo di J. S. Bach.

It was once thought that Bach had composed the work between 1717 and 1723 in Cöthen where he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, but scholar Christoph Wolff has convincingly suggested that he composed this Concerto as well as the A minor Violin Concerto, BWV 1041, around 1730 to 1731 in Leipzig where he directed the Collegium Musicum. This music society, founded at the University in 1702 by then student-of-jurisprudence Georg Philipp Telemann, was made up primarily of students under professional leadership. Bach directed the group from 1729 until the early 1740s (with a short interruption from 1737 to 1739).

The Collegium presented public community concerts, one of the first organizations to do so in Germany, and ultimately led to the Leipzig Gewandhaus, which remains the most important musical organization of that city. During Bach’s tenure with the Collegium he constantly needed to produce all manner of music for their weekly performances: overtures, duo and trio sonatas, sinfonias and concertos, including keyboard concertos, which he often performed with his sons and pupils as soloists.

A longtime admirer of the works of Antonio Vivaldi, Bach employed the concerto form he standardized in the eighteenth century—three movements: fast, slow, fast. He also availed himself of Vivaldi’s ritornello form (in which a refrain alternates with episodic excursions), though adapted in his own way, and with his particular contrapuntal leanings. All three movements of the Double Concerto make use of or allude to ritornello form. The opening Vivace’s first tutti statement occurs as a fugal exposition, an unusual feature for concertos in general, but a device Bach also used in the finale of the above-mentioned A minor Concerto.

In the Largo, ma non tanto, one of Bach’s most beautiful and heart-stirring slow movements, the soloists dominate. The way in which the solo parts intertwine, often weaving lovely chains of suspensions, continues to create a fascinating and moving effect no matter how many times one has heard the work. The opening theme, begun by the second solo violin, recurs in the manner of a ritornello, yet there are no “tuttis”—the accompaniment provides a continual soft rhythmic background, only to come briefly to the fore for cadential reinforcement.

The finale, Allegro, begins with a rhythmic cascade of close imitative counterpoint and unfolds in a free ritornello structure. Of special interest are the episodes in which, reversing their roles, the solo violins play broad four-part chords while the orchestra provides the motivic interest. The movement’s rhythmic drive creates a hypnotic momentum.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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