performed by Isaac Stern and the English Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Schneider, or below by David Oistrakh and The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy
(cover image by Colin Maynard)
Bach’s violin concerto in E major is sometimes labeled as No. 2, but Howard Posner writing for the L.A. Philharmonic says there’s much we don’t know about Bach’s violin concertos, including “even how many of them he wrote, since several were probably lost.” For now, we have three (this one, the one in A minor, and the double concerto), and this one was completed before 1737, probably around 1720, likely for Prince Leopold.
Bach was very familiar with the concerto form established by people like Vivaldi. This work is therefore ‘Italian’, or as Wiki says, citing All of Bach, “based on the three-movement Venetian concerto model, albeit with a few unusual features as each movement has “un-Italian characteristics”.”
It is in three movements, and in my recording (with Stern) is about 19 minutes in length. The movements are as follows, again per Wiki:
- Allegro, meter of , in ritornello form.
- Adagio, meter of 3/4, with a ground bass.
- Allegro assai, meter of 3/8, with an overall structure of a rondo.
So that’s fast-slow-fast, not uncommon. I’ve found various sources that suggest how common or uncommon the ABA form of the first movement is. Some say that it’s ubiquitous in the Baroque period, and that we’d see it everywhere, while Posner says that it “would have surprised Vivaldi.” The first movement, as you will hear, is a bit of a back-and-forth between soloist and orchestra. Posner says “The first movement makes typical use of alternating orchestral and solo sections, but also is in ABA form, with a literal repetition of the beginning section,” and says that while this form would have shown up in opera of the time, it was “highly unusual in a concerto.”
You might find the opening melody familiar, and then by extension most of the movement, as the ornate, glimmering dialogue unfolds between soloist and orchestra. It begins with three notes, like steps, that form an E major chord, and you’ll hear them through the entire movement. It is balanced and polite. As with Mozart, though, you may find the beauty to be more in the clarity and finesse of the performance than any overwhelmingly emotional expression, although the melodies are clearly golden.
In this structure, our second movement is a slow movement. Orrin Howard, also writing for the L.A. Phil, says that
The minor-keyed slow movement opens the floodgates of a kind of exquisitely controlled poignancy that is Bach’s inimitable version of Baroque romanticism.
He is far more laudatory of the work than Howard (who certainly wasn’t negative about it). He describes the whole work as “a creation of purest Bachian splendor.”
The second movement is “chaconne-like.” This means that there is repeated figure in the bass (continuo) that forms the foundation for what happens elsewhere in the work. It is an ostinato, but not in the way you may think of that word as attached to Shostakovich or someone. It’s the foundation that the orchestra stands on, like the turtles holding up the elephants who hold up the world, or our soloist, who weaves natural, aria-like melodies throughout this adagio. Posner, though, says that ” the memorable melody is a persistent figure in the bass.”
The first two movements make up the vast majority of the work’s playing time, leaving a short quick rondo as finale. We’re back to the dialogue idea, but not in the ABA form, but a rondo, which Posner also says is “an unusual form for Bach.” I won’t say too much more about that because you can just go listen to it.
If you’re used to listening to something less than 300 years old, you might find this a little bit repetitive, or dry. After all, we’ve had 300 years to get used to it, and it might seem a little uneventful relative to later work of later eras, but instead of expecting an entire landscape, or an entire garden, a panoramic view, it’s maybe more like the shape and elegance of a single flower and all the perfection and small details there are to appreciate. If you’re a Baroque lover, though, certainly this is at the very least a fragrant bouquet of beautiful flowers if not more. But not everyone likes everything.
We’ll be seeing more of Bach eventually, but this is just, to me, a fraction of the splendor and beauty of what’s to come later this week, so please do stay tuned, and as always, thanks so much for reading.