Flute Sonata in E major, BWV 1035

April 3, 2016: Sir James Galway, flute; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Paolo Bourdignon, harpsichord

Bach presumably wrote the E major Flute Sonata in 1741 in connection with his visit to the court of the flute-loving King Frederick the Great in Potsdam (close to Berlin), and probably for the King’s flute partner and chamberlain Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf. The sources for the work all date from the nineteenth century, so the exact date of composition and circumstances for which it was written remain conjecture—hence the attempt of Bach scholars to suggest a plausible scenario.

The style of the piece, though an unreliable way to date a composition, also fits with the 1741 date. The E major Sonata does not contain the kind of imitative polyphony usually considered “typical” of Bach, and it takes the form of a sonata da camera—typically a free introductory movement and several dance movements—the only such instance among Bach’s ensemble sonatas.

Instead of casting doubts on the work’s authenticity, this style fits in with the progressive tendencies Bach showed in the late 1730s and early 1740s, before he adopted an older, increasingly contrapuntal style after 1745. Bach may also have associated a more galant, dance-inspired style with the transverse flute, which developed primarily in France. He did not, after all, indicate the flute as interchangeable with violin or any other treble instrument. (Later publications have done this to make the flute sonatas available to a wider public.)

The opening motive—a long note with a florid continuation—recurs throughout the slow first movement. Bach provides agreeable rhythmic variety with two sections of triplets. The Allegro second movement follows rounded binary form—two sections, each repeated, with the opening theme returning halfway through the second section in its original key—the precursor of sonata form. The Siciliano, also in binary form, exhibits the characteristic 6/8 meter and dotted rhythms of the Baroque dance suite movement. The final movement, Allegro assai in 3/4 meter, features phrases alternately beginning with three eighth-note or three sixteenth-note upbeats. As in the work’s other binary movements, Bach follows the custom in Baroque suites for the main thematic material to initiate both sections.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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