The Kennedy Center

Concerto in A minor for Violin, Strings & Continuo

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The violin concertos were written as part of Bach's duties at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, where he was ?Court Kapellmeister and Director of the Princely Chamber Musicians.? Since he was responsible for the secular rather than the sacred music at court, those years saw the production of much of his purely instrumental music. The ?Brandenburg? Concertos, the Orchestral Suites, numerous suites and sonatas for solo instruments and clavier, the Sonatas and Suites for unaccompanied violin and cello, and much solo harpsichord music, including the French Suites and the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier , date from that time. Bach tried to present his noble employer with music that would be both of a high quality (the Prince was a good and appreciative musician) and in tune with the latest styles. For his concertos, Bach avidly studied the recent works of the Italian masters, most notably Vivaldi's L'estro armonico , which had been published in 1712. He transcribed several of those compositions as solos or concertos for keyboard for his own use, and utilized their formal and technical components as the models for his original works in the genre. His idiomatic writing for strings grew not just from this study, however, but also from his own experience as a violinist. His son Carl wrote, ?He played the violin cleanly and penetratingly. He understood to perfection the possibilities of the stringed instruments.? These violin concertos, among the earliest works in the orchestral repertory, are outstanding examples of Bach's luxurious instrumental style. In the words of Edward Downes, ?[This music's] rhythms dance, its melodic line soars, its harmonies branch and blossom with a richness and a sense of inevitable growth in which Bach has no equal.?

The A minor Violin 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 these 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.