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
The origins of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 are uncertain, but musicologists now suspect that the work dates from Bach’s early years in Leipzig. The score appeared no later than 1725, by which time Bach had already begun his association with the Collegium Musicum, the amateur group he went on to direct starting in 1729. Suites in the French style were fashionable among German composers in Bach’s day; such a work would have been known as an Ouverture (to use the French spelling), taking the name from the substantial opening movement. The subsequent movements employed dance styles popularized during the seventeenth century in the French royal court, especially during the reign of Louis XIV, an avid dancer himself. Orchestral suites by Bach and his contemporaries were not intended to accompany dancing, but the familiar rhythms and patterns would have contributed to their entertainment value.
True to form, the first Orchestral Suite opens with a grand overture in the French style. The structure employs the expected slow introduction, complete with dotted rhythms to invoke a majestic mood, which then connects to a fast fugal section. The ensemble’s small woodwind section, just two oboes and a bassoon, emerges for several exposed contributions before the slow tempo returns for a stately recapitulation.
The dances that constitute the remainder of the suite each adopt the usual binary structure, consisting of two repeated sections. All but the Courante and Forlane come in sets of linked pairs organized in a da capo format, meaning that the first dance returns for a final pass after the second concludes. The suite’s Forlane is the only movement with that title in Bach’s surviving output; the pastoral oboe melody, droning bass, and slurred accompaniment make for a memorable effect. Instead of ending with a typical gigue, the suite closes with a pair of Passepieds, another rare form found only four times in Bach’s music. This fast spin on a minuet reuses the same melody for the second part, dropping the tune to a lower octave and adding a dizzying counterline from the oboes.
Aaron Grad ©2013