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Gamba Sonatas

Johann Sebastian Bach’s career and approach to his musical life are a model of compromise and transcendence. At each stage of his employment, he immersed himself in what was required of him, composing church cantatas and organ works in his church positions at Mühlhausen and Weimar, delving deeply into chamber and orchestral instrumental music in Cöthen, where his patron, Prince Leopold, played violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord. In his final post at Leipzig, beginning in 1723, his concentrations on various genres shifted as his activities there changed focus. In his first years, he primarily wrote various kinds of church cantatas—for solo voices, for chorus, and for both. All the elements of these pieces were incorporated into the altogether more ambitious oratorio passions (e.g., the St. Matthew, 1727) and other large-scale mixed vocal and instrumental sacred works.

After 1729, when he had more than enough cantatas to cover several years of the church calendar, Bach took on the leadership of Leipzig’s Collegium (musicum concert-giving society), which famously gave concerts at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house, among other venues. This society provided opportunities, and some income, for many of the best local performers (including several of Bach’s own sons) to play instrumental music for an appreciative public outside the confines of the Church. It also provided a solid core of excellent musicians that Bach and others could call upon for performances at weddings and other events. It also enabled Bach to return significantly to instrumental composition for the first time since the Cöthen years. In his last decade, many of the challenges he set for himself were almost theoretical, as opposed to fulfilling the needs of his position or of a particular commission.

Throughout these changes in the technical requirements of his employment, it was Bach’s practice to push the envelope of existing genres and to create hybrids based on those precedents. He often based new pieces on his own earlier pieces and, in several cases, those of other composers including his friend Georg Philipp Telemann or the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, whose innovative concertos of the 1710s served as models for many of Bach’s.

...it was Bach’s practice to push the envelope of existing genres and to create hybrids based on those precedents. He often based new pieces on his own earlier pieces and, in several cases, those of other composers...

There are many instances of Bach composing several different works using the same materials, and this may have been the case for all three of the sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027-1029. Scholars including Laurence Dreyfus and Christoph Wolff agree from stylistic elements in these sonatas that they most likely date from the second decade of Bach’s Leipzig years—probably 1735-1740—and not, as long thought, from Cöthen (ca. 1720). There is also some agreement that the first two are two-instrument versions of trio sonatas, that is, works for two melody instruments with continuo (keyboard plus bass instrument). In the case of the G major gamba sonata, BWV 1027, there is an extant trio sonata for two flutes and continuo, BWV 1039. (“BWV” refers to the genre-categorized numbering system of the “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” or “Bach Works Catalog,” first compiled in 1950.) We cannot say for certain which version came first, nor whether a parallel trio sonata exists for the D major sonata; it’s certainly less likely for the G minor sonata, which is in some ways sui generis, as suggested below. Before we move on: “Viola da gamba,” in general, refers to a family of bowed string instruments, prevalent in the Baroque era, that are played upright on the lap or held between the legs (“gamba” being Italian for “leg”), depending on size. They range from high treble (violin range) to contrabass (the basis for today’s double basses). Without any clarifying context, the term “viola da gamba” as used today usually refers to the bass viol in the cello range. The instrument usually has six strings; Bach’s gamba sonata in D, BWV 1028, was written for a 7-string instrument. Unlike a cello’s, the gamba’s neck is fretted with adjustable cords; the tuning is different from that of the cello and is more readily altered. By the end of the 17th century, the cello dominated the bass-baritone sections of string choir and the gamba had become largely obsolete. Cellists have appropriated most of the viola da gamba’s solo repertoire, when feasible, as is the case with the present sonatas. (With the increase of interest in historically informed early music practice, the viol family, particularly the baritone viola da gamba, has made a comeback in the past few decades.)

Both the G major sonata, BWV 1028, and the D major, BWV 1029, are based on the established genre of the “church sonata,” which consists of four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast, or, more accurately, two slow-fast pairs. (The other prevalent solo-instrument sonata form of the time was the “sonata da camera,” or “chamber sonata,” which is like a suite of dance movements.) The G major sonata, BWV 1027, opens with an Adagio, a marking that suggests less a specific beats-per-minute tempo than a certain relaxed circumspection of mood. In fact, it’s common in performance for the perceived beats-per-minute tempo of the Adagio to match that of the ensuing Allegro ma non tanto, though the meter changes from 12/8 to 3/4. The cello takes the lead in introducing the melodic line in the Adagio, with the keyboard’s right hand providing balance and imitative counterpoint. (In a trio sonata, this keyboard line is taken by the second flute or violin.) The left hand provides the bass for the harmonic framework. The final prominent, anticipatory “half-cadence” on the dominant prepares us for the Allegro ma non tanto second movement. Here it’s the keyboard that introduces the sprightly main tune, which the cello takes up a fourth lower in imitation. The brief Andante third movement shifts the key to E minor. The music is less melodically driven than a series of overlapping arpeggio textures; the movement’s role is that of prelude to the G major two-voice fugal finale. The keyboard introduces the finale’s twelve-bar fugal theme in the right hand, with the cello entering eight measures later, an octave and a fourth lower. In contrast with the other movements, the keyboardist’s left hand keeps up a fast stream of eighth notes throughout, heightening the finale’s energy and exuberance.

The Sonata in D major, BWV 1028, likewise begins with an Adagio; the counterpoint is imitative but less strict than that of the Sonata in G, with much quicker follow-the-leader alternation between cello and keyboard. Again, the movement ends on a half-cadence, underlining its prelude role in the two-movement pair. The Allegro’s flowing sixteenth notes place the cello in the foreground for nearly the entire movement; only for a four-bar solo introduction in the movement’s second half is the keyboard fully dominant. The stately 12/8 Andante in B minor restores some of the balance between the two top voices. The finale in 6/8 is all quick perpetual motion; unusually, the cello takes on a purely accompaniment role just after the midpoint of the movement, beginning with a rare series of double-stops (two notes played at the same time, on adjacent strings), followed by a passage fully highlighting the keyboard. Another detail of this ebullient movement is the prevalence of trills beyond their usual occurrence at phrase endings and cadences.

The Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029, is the only one of the three gamba sonatas to have three instead of four movements, which, as Bach scholar Laurence Dreyfus notes, tells us that Bach didn’t conceive these three works as a set (as he had with, say, the Brandenburg Concertos). Further, this work was conceived as a different genre altogether from the church sonata. It is instead a hybrid form of the solo concerto, akin to Bach’s Italian Concerto for solo keyboard. (In such a piece, the thematic episodes are introduced in ways analogous to the alternation between soloist and orchestra in Baroque concerto style.)

Despite being limited to three movements, the G minor sonata is a somewhat more substantial work than the other two gamba sonatas. The fast-moving opening Vivace is no prelude movement. The relationships between the cello part and the keyboard are fully explored, with a greater number of recurrences of the main materials and lengthier development and transitional passages. And, as you may recognize, the movement comes to a full stop on the tonic of G minor. The middle movement Adagio is one of Bach’s lovely, expressive instrumental arias, with a long, singing line for the soloist reminiscent of the famous Air “on the G string” from his Orchestral Suite No. 3. (Another touchpoint might be the Sarabande aria of the Goldberg Variations; all three may have been composed around the same time.) Both the cello’s and the keyboard’s melodic lines have the potential for, and in fact demand, florid ornamentation in the guise of trills, mordents, and the like, which heighten the music’s emotional power. The Allegro finale in 6/8 begins as a fugue in three voices with the subject (or theme) stated first in the right hand of the keyboard, then cello, and lastly in the keyboard’s left hand, a new and unexpectedly clear instance of three melodic voices. The repeated-note gesture of the fugue theme maintains the strong audibility of the movement’s imitative counterpoint, though this is no rigorously formal fugue. The energetic eighth-note pulse, the flying sixteenth notes of the theme, the harmonic flights, and the dovetailing of one phrase with the next create the movement’s feeling of inescapable momentum.

Notes by Robert Kirzinger

Robert Kirzinger is Director of Program Publications of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has provided program essays for the BSO, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Lincoln Center, the BBC Proms, and many other venues in the U.S. and Europe, and has annotated dozens of albums.

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