Concerto No 2

in E Major for Violin and String Orchestra, BWV 1042, Johann Sebastian Bach

During his lifetime, J.S. Bach wrote over 1500 compositions; astonishingly, only three extant violin concertos remain. It is more than likely others were composed and eventually lost. Bach’s son, CPE Bach, reported that his father, known primarily as a composer and organist, continued to play the violin “cleanly and penetratingly…until the approach of old age.” (Joel Lester Bach’s Works for Solo Violin.)

During his first term in Weimar, 1703–1707, the teenaged Bach was appointed as violinist in the orchestra, and he also played violin in his second term in Weimar, 1708–1717. At this time in his life (the early term) he was especially drawn to Italian music, and assiduously studied the music of Vivaldi, and Corelli, and Torelli, who were the first important concerto composers—both in the concerto grosso structure and early solo concerto formats. Using his favorite learning style, Bach not only copied their scores in order to learn from them but also transcribed the Italians’ concertos for other instruments, particularly those of Vivaldi. (Vivaldi was quite popular in Germany.) However, Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, noted that “Bach does not adopt the virtuosic extremes of the Italian models, nor does he abandon his inclination toward a style that combines expressive delivery with his meticulous development of themes and complexity of form. “ (Martin Geck, Johann Sebastian Bach, Life and Work quoting Johann Nikolaus Forkel)

After Bach moved to Cothen (1717–1723), he was in the service of Prince Leopold. Since the Prince was a Calvinist, the composer had ample time to write secular music (he had to supply weekly music for the court), and he made the most of that opportunity. During these six years, he composed orchestral suites, cello studies, sonatas, partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg Concerti.

Musicologists generally agree that all three violin concertos were composed in Cothen as well, even though autograph material exists for only the A Minor and D Minor concertos from that city. His Second Violin Concerto was possibly written in 1720, although the exact date is not certain. Because of similarity to the Brandenbrug Concertos, and subsequent complicated logic, Martin Geck postulates that the violin concertos were written in 1730. In the case of BWV 1042, the original score and all of the original parts are lost. The oldest hand written manuscript dates from 1760 from a copyist Bach used, Johann Friedrich Hering.

BWV 1042, perhaps the most popular of the set, is written in three movements: AllegroAdagio, and Allegro assai, following the Italian model of fast-slow-fast. The first movement begins with a strong Italian influence in form and zest. A clear tonic triad in E Major announces the opening, a feature which will occur several times in this section. Quickly thereafter, Bach produces a bouncing happy theme from the orchestra before the soloist enters. Alternation of soloist and orchestra continues throughout the movement, a similarity to Italian concerto grosso style. The main idea and subsequent motivic variations are worked out in fast moving, contrapuntal, imitative style. Notice the unrelenting sixteenth notes flowing from the soloist throughout, whether in solo position or playing with the orchestra.

The second movement opens with a soft, throbbing melody sung by the cello which is given gentle deep support. Although the melody is passed along through the orchestra, the soloist never shares significantly in its declamation, allowed only to make commentary or to sing a counter melody.  Heartfelt sadness continues throughout, closing slowly and quietly.

The third movement provides a perky dance-like rondo. Like the first movement, Bach immediately emphasizes an E major tonal center, only this time the presentation is filled in from its former skeletal appearance. Throughout, the pace remains fast; rhythms are clearly accented; the texture is busy and virtuosic for both forces. There is no slowing down as the concerto dashes to a brisk decisive ending.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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