The Kennedy Center

Sonata in E major, BWV 1016

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Peter Laki

Bach's six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1014-19) are the earliest duo sonatas in the true sense of the word, where both instruments are fully equal in importance. Paradoxically, the contemporaries often thought of these works as trio sonatas because the violin and the two hands of the keyboard produce a three-part texture.

We don't know exactly when the six sonatas were composed; the earliest extant manuscript source dates from around 1725, two years after Bach moved to Leipzig. It is likely, however, that the sonatas go back to the Köthen period (1717-23). The first five sonatas follow the baroque church sonata model (four movements: slow-fast-slow-fast); the sixth one is a more complicated case, combining elements of the sonata and the suite.

Tonight's recital opens with the third sonata from the set. The ornate melody of the opening Adagio unfolds over a single bass note that remains unchanged for a long time; even later the bass changes at extremely wide intervals, creating an impression of extreme spaciousness. The second movement is an extended three-part invention in which the opening theme is contrapuntally imitated, combined with a lively countersubject in fast eighth-notes and taken through a succession of different keys. In the third movement is a passacaglia; that is, it is based upon a four-bar bass line that is repeated over and over again in the bass. Unlike some other passacaglias, this one keeps changing keys, disguising the uniformity of the bass line. Against the recurrent bass, an expressive melodic line unfolds, alternating between the violin and the right hand of the keyboard. The ending of the Adagio is left open harmonically, leading directly into the final movement, another fast-moving three-way conversation with some fascinating rhythmic interchanges.

Although not as well known today as Bach's unaccompanied violin works, the six obbligato sonatas are special gems in their own right. Writing in 1774, Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel, one of the greatest composers of his generation, counted them "among the best works of my dear departed father. They still sound excellent and give me much joy, although they date back more than 50 years. They contain some Adagii that could not be written in a more singable manner today."