Bach spent most of his professional life in church positions, composing sacred music almost exclusively. He wrote extensive secular music (including the Brandenburg Concertos and many of the suites for solo instruments) while working for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, but upon his move to Leipzig, church duties again consumed him. In 1729, he found a new secular outlet when he took a side job as director of the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble of professional and amateur musicians that performed weekly concerts. Bach wrote various new works for the Collegium, and he also regularly mined his catalog of old compositions (especially the instrumental music from Cöthen), creating new versions tailored to the ensemble. The source materials for the Concerto for Two Violins date from the Leipzig period, but some scholars suspect that the work was recycled from earlier.
In the Concerto for Two Violins, Bach combined the florid instrumental textures he had absorbed from Vivaldi with the rigor of his own contrapuntal craft. The memorable subject of the concerto’s fugal opening begins with an ascending scale fragment that leaps up and then gradually snakes its way back down an octave to the starting pitch. In counterbalance, the solo episodes wrangle an incisive theme of dramatic leaps and descending scale fragments. The movement proceeds in this ritornello format, interspersing ensemble statements of the subject around churning elaboration by the soloists.
The stately slow movement again begins with a fugal pattern. The two solo lines dance in subtle opposition of each other, creating a smooth stream of nearly constant motion. When the voices do unite in descending harmonies, this simplest music speaks with uncanny elegance.
The Allegro finale returns to the propulsive D Minor mood of the concerto’s opening movement. The first solo violin takes the first statement, followed just two eighth notes later by the second violin, at the same pitch instead of transposed. This echo effect, featured throughout the movement, harkens back to similar examples in works for soloists by Corelli and Vivaldi, reinforcing the Italian influence in Bach’s concerto style.
Aaron Grad ©2011