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Violin and Piano Sonata in E, BWV 1016

March 24, 2019: Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, violin; Gilles Vonsattel, piano

Bach may have begun his six Sonatas for violin and keyboard (BWV 1014–19) before 1725—possibly in Cöthen—but it is clear that he completed them c. 1725 in Leipzig, where he served as director of the city’s church music and of the Collegium Musicum. (For more about the Collegium see the notes for the Double Violin Concerto.) Some of the important surviving manuscript sources, dating from the mid 1720s and 1740s, show layers of emendation, suggesting that the sonatas were played frequently and that slight modifications were introduced.

Bach’s accompanied Violin Sonatas differ from other Baroque violin sonatas in that the keyboard serves as an equal partner to the violin instead of merely providing continuo accompaniment. In many Baroque sonatas the keyboard part consists of a written-out bass line and a set of numerical figures that indicate which harmonies are to be filled in by the right hand. In these sonatas, however, Bach writes out a specific, independent part for the keyboard right hand, which engages in dialogue and independent counterpoint with the violin in the manner of a trio sonata.

In regard to formal plan, Bach did embrace tradition—in all but the sixth of the Violin Sonatas he kept the typical sonata da chiesa (church sonata) sequence of four movements—fast, slow, fast, slow. The imposing Adagio that opens the E major Sonata, shows an exception to the general predominance of trio sonata texture. In this case the violin plays sweeping phrases, the keyboard right hand plays chords in an ostinato or repetitive pattern, and the left hand provides solemn, measured pacing.

The main theme of the fugal Allegro transmits an innocent, popular character. Though the movement is clearly delineated in A–B–A form, the main theme recurs even in the cantabile B section. The return of the A section is considerably condensed.

The third movement takes the form of a modulating chaconne or passacaglia in which the repeating pattern (occasionally altered) occurs in the bass. The violin and the keyboard right hand play independent melodic lines. At the end Bach writes out a miniature “cadenza” where other Baroque composers might have left an improvisation up to the performer.

Bach’s irrepressible closing movement again displays ternary structure. The middle section features a contrasting triplet idea, though ideas from the opening section eventually appear here as well. Bach makes it very clear, nevertheless, when the opening section proper returns. Throughout the movement the trio sonata texture is fully exploited in the engaging interplay between the violin and keyboard right hand.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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