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Violin Sonata No.1 in G Minor BWV1001
 Composed by Bach, Johann Sebastian
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J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

Violin Sonata No.1 in G Minor BWV1001

Bach was probably much more proficient as a keyboard player than as a violinist, yet his experience of stringed instruments was considerable. He is known to have played as a child, and, on leaving the Gymnasium at Luneberg, was sufficiently accomplished a performer to play in the orchestra of the reigning Duke of Weimar’s brother. But most of his chamber and orchestral positions date from later in his career, when, in 1717, at the age of thirty-two, he was appointed Court Musician to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. The Prince was an ardent music-lover, but his Court Chapel was ‘Reformed’, and the Calvinist austerity of the services gave Bach little scope for writing church music. So Bach’s duties at Cothen necessitated the regular supply of music for the court rather than the chapel. The Prince himself is known to have been an accomplished string player, but the six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, undoubtedly dating from Bach’s time at Cothen, were probably written to be played neither by the prince nor by Bach himself but by Joseph Speiss. This player was Prince Leopold’s chief violinist, and, like Bach, often journeyed with the Prince.

The earliest of the three known autographs of the Sonatas is in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach: it was discovered in St Petersburg in 1814 among old papers destined for a grocer’s shop as wrappings. Although the set is usually referred to as six Sonatas, only the first, third and fifth were so designated by Bach: his title for the second, fourth and sixth was Partita (i.e., the form of the Suite made up of dance movements).

Bach’s three Sonatas for unaccompanied violin follow the same pattern: each begins with a slow movement serving as an introduction to a lively Fugue. The 'beautiful and impassioned' ( in the words of Bach’s biographer, Spitta) Adagio of the First Sonata is the type established by Corelli in the Violin Sonatas of his Op.5. Combining breadth and dignity with melodic expressiveness, it affords a good example of the synthesis effected by Bach: just as the expressive contours of some of his keyboard writing suggests the bowing and inflexions of string music, so does the texture of his solo Violin Sonatas sometimes aspire to the polyphony of keyboard writing. The melody of this Adagio first threads its way as a middle voice, later as the higher voice. Harmonies, if not actually sounded, are implied throughout the movement.

The Fugue has an arresting subject with repeated notes. Here the fugal texture is interspersed with passages for a single line of semiquavers, which serve to make the return of the polyphony more impressive.

The Siciliano was a dance rhythm which, according to the Lexicon of J. G. Walther, a friend and contemporary of Bach’s, originated in a popular Sicilian dance-song. It was common in the eighteenth century and sometimes used as a slow movement in instrumental music, usually in a minor key. For the Siciliano of this First Sonata, Bach abandons the tonic minor key of G for its relative major, B flat. Once again, the texture subtly hovers between simple melody, accompanied melody and polyphony.

The final Presto is back in G minor. Its two repeated sections maintain an even movement of brilliant semiquavers in three-eight time.

© Felix Aprahamian 1999

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