Bach Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041

performed by Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein (at least listed in iTunes as such) or below with Stern and others

part 2
part 3

I’d never thought to look at all the credits on this album and see who was involved in the various recordings. But today the focus is on Bach.

It’s interesting what these San Francisco Symphony program notes written by James. M Keller say about Bach and about this work. In fact, for further (or just alternative, better) reading, go read the whole article. I’ll quote only this section in full:

Johann Sebastian Bach was renowned in his day as a keyboard virtuoso, but he was also a skilled violinist. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had been a professional violinist in Erfurt and in Eisenach, so the composer surely grew up surrounded by the sounds of the violin. It was as a violinist that Johann Sebastian obtained his first professional appointment…

Indeed, many people think of him as the composer of keyboard works, the English or French suites, much music for organ, not to mention the Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier. But as the first two cello suites have shown, his genius was not limited to the keyboard, and he was, as mentioned above, apparently a fine violinist. The same article quotes his son, C.P.E. Bach, as saying that his father “played the violin purely and with a penetrating tone,” and that this served him well in leading an ensemble.

Speaking of ensembles, though, for much of Bach’s life, he didn’t have on hand anything that would resemble a modern orchestra. The video above shows what would be considered a chamber group today, indeed without a conductor. Taking a glance at the score shows that the soloist plays along with his brethren in the ensemble for some portions of the work, not the kind of show-stealing solo part one might expect from more contemporary concertos, but still virtuosic.

It’s also very baroque. There are only strings, most bowed, some plucked. Again, have a look at the score, and there are only five staves: the solo violin, first violins and second, viola, and continuo. Continuo is just the low instruments, whoever the bass is, more specifically “the bass line and harmonies), in this case harpsichord, cellos and basses, meaning they all play the same thing.

To say it’s baroque would mean to most people that it sounds ‘old,’ very old. It’s “simple” in that it’s all strings, so the texture and size of the sound lends itself to sounding small and chamber-y, but in contrast, the counterpoint (movement of musical lines against each other) is often incredibly dense, even with only a few major groups involved. In contrast to the smallness of the ensemble, and what might sound like an almost stuffy, rather polite music, it’s incredibly dense music.

Ritornello is a word you should know. It means ‘little return’ in Italian (the “ello” makes it a diminutive, the normal form being ‘ritorn’) and it’s a return, or repeat, of a passage. The first 24 measures of the piece, or all the music until the solo violin starts doing its solo thing, makes up this fundamental section.

The first movement (and thus the ritornello) begins by establishing strongly the A minor key, the entire ensemble (save continuo) landing on A minor, with the continuo answering. Just look at the first two bars of the piece. Instantly we see that things don’t last for long in unison; some things change, and some don’t. Direction, distance, and the resultant harmonies are a very simple example of counterpoint.

For more, just listen to the whole thing. There’s emphasis on strong and weak beats, calling and answering, heavy texture, all contained in this four-minute first movement. And the soloist.

The second movement makes up about half of the length of this concerto. The continuo is clearly present as the heartbeat of the opening. We’re in C major now, but you’d be excused for forgetting that later on in the movement. Notice that the repeated thing in continuo appears throughout the entire movement, if not in the cellos and harpsichord, then elsewhere. It’s called an ostinato, a thing that’s repeated almost ad nauseam. Shostakovich liked them. Of the crucial central movement, the same SF symphony program notes say that “Bach provides a slow movement of greater relaxation, though not without a measure of tension, thanks to the dissonances that pile up.” It certainly isn’t the bright, sunny C major most of us are used to, likely thanks to these dissonances. The whole thing so far, for me, has been a darkish, dense, kind of heavy, serious piece, more depressed than mournful, like thick, dusty curtains hung over dirty windows blocking out whatever rays of sunshine there may be.

The final movement is by far my favorite. It is, as Robin Stowell says (quoted from Wikipedia) in the rhythm of a gigue, in 9/8. Does it remind you of any of the cello suites? At least this movement, in the same style as the gigues of the cello suites, has a spirited sense of forward motion, even if it is in a serious minor key.

Again, coming in at only around fifteen minutes, this isn’t a difficult listen, quite proper, and one of the three-ish violin concertos Bach left the world, even if no complete original manuscript survives. The others are the E major concerto, likely my favorite, the double violin concerto, and a sinfonia in D major, which is incomplete. I’d originally thought we could feature more than one of his concertos this week, but we shall not. This one is enough for now, I feel.

Instead, we move on to other “orchestral” works that still sound very chamber-y. This is all, I should have mentioned, in honor of the string quartet series that we have started. I have been very excited about it, but should have probably started preparing for it far earlier than I did. With the podcast now in full swing and this new series, it’s a bit much to keep on top of, but it’s all exciting. Stay tuned for more music every day this week!

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4 thoughts on “Bach Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041

  1. One of my favourite Bach concertos! Have you checked out the recording by Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martins in the Field? Beautiful.

  2. I am constantly amazed by how much writing about music you manage to do! How do you fit it all in?! This piece was one of my grade 8 pieces as a teenager and I remember playing the first movement in a music festival and the adjudicator saying to me after my performance, “This piece is hard, and it doesn’t get any easier as you get older unfortunately!” It is definitely challenging to play as so much bow control and left hand dexterity is required. The last mvt is my favourite – as you say, remeniscent of the gigues in the suites and definitely joyful!

    1. That’s actually something I was curious about, its virtuosity and challenges, because it’s obviously not a solo piece like any of the Romantic-era concerti. Interesting.
      I still think I like the E major concerto more, maybe.

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