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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041

About the Work

J.S. Bach
Quick Look Composer: J.S. Bach
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonidas Kavakos, conductor & violin: Works by J.S. Bach, Mussorgsky, & Sibelius May 14 - 16, 2015
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Any father with twenty children is bound to have a problem at sometime or other. Papa Johann Sebastian Bach must certainly have had his share of family crises during his lifetime (more than half of his brood did not survive him), but one bit of puerile misadventure has, unfortunately, resounded on (or, more accurately, silenced) an important part of his musical legacy. At Bach's death, many of his important manuscripts were divided between his two oldest living sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. Carl took loving care of his inheritance, but Wilhelm did not. Though, as a boy, Friedemann had received excellent training from his father, and held some responsible positions as a young man, he was never able to fulfill his early promise. His presence of mind seems to have deserted him after his father's death, and he gave way in his later years to dissipation and pretty well made a mess of his life. The manuscripts from Sebastian's estate that came into his possession were lost or destroyed or perhaps sold for a pint of Asbach-Uralt. At any rate, it is known that Wilhelm let at least three of his father's violin concertos slip through his unsteady fingers into oblivion. The three that remain were the ones passed on by Carl.

It was long thought that Bach composed his three extant violin concertos-two for solo violin and one for two violins-while serving as "Court Kapellmeister and Director of the Princely Chamber Musicians" at Anhalt-Cöthen, north of Leipzig, from 1717 to 1723, a productive period for instrumental music when he wrote the Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral suites, many sonatas and suites for solo instruments and keyboard, suites and sonatas for unaccompanied violin and cello, and such important solo harpsichord pieces as the French Suites and the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In the Bach tercentenary issue of Early Music published in May 1985, however, Harvard professor and Bach authority Christoph Wolff surmised from stylistic evidence and from the fact that the only extant performance materials for the Concerto in A minor (BWV 1041) and the Concerto in D minor for Two Violins (BWV 1043) were copied around 1730 that at least those two works date from the years (1729-36) that Bach was directing the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, the city's leading concert-giving organization.

The A minor Concerto follows the traditional Italian structure of three movements, arranged fast-slow-fast. In the heroically tragic opening movement, the violin is carefully integrated into the texture and melodic working-out of the material. The basic plan of the movement is ritornello (i.e., anchored around the frequent returns of the opening music in the orchestra), though Bach's realization of the form is considerably richer in texture and sentiment than are its Italian models. The episodic sections between the recurrences of the ritornello, the places in which the soloist is dominant, are rather like windows separating the tutti columns supporting the architectonic structure. In the second movement, which derives its lyrical style from the world of opera, the basses present a theme at the outset that is repeated in various keys throughout the movement. Above this ostinato foundation rises the touching melody of the soloist as counterpoint and commentary on the orchestral background. The finale, inspired by the vivacious strains of the gigue, resumes the quick motion and rich pathos of the first movement.