Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042 (1717)

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Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21, 1685–July 28, 1750)

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro assai

Bach’s humility and religious fervor are legend. He once said of his music that “anyone who works equally hard will be able to do as much.” However, when musicians speak of Bach, they do so with reverence: Schumann once said “music owes almost as much to Bach as Christianity its founder.”

The Bach family earned their living as town musicians, organists, and cantors. The family had produced musicians for several generations. As a 9-year-old child, Johann Sebastian lost both parents in one year. He then went to live with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was an organist in Ohrdruf. It is part of the Bach lore that Johann Sebastian got his first formal keyboard lessons from his brother. Given the Bach family traditions and Johann Sebastian’s talent, it is likely that he was already a versatile musician.

Although Bach is remembered as a virtuoso keyboard player, he was also a skilled violinist. In fact, the first professional job he had was as an orchestral musician. The degree of his skill as a violinist can only be guessed at, yet his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin make it clear that he was quite proficient. In these polyphonic landmarks of the violin repertoire, Bach demonstrates his familiarity with the effects that can be attained on the violin, often skirting the edge of the possible.

In December 1717, Bach started his new job as Capellmeister in Köthen. His new patron was Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen (1694—1728), a music enthusiast who played the violin, the viola da gamba and the clavier; he was “dearly loved” by Bach. Bach led Prince Leopold’s court orchestra, while playing violin, and wrote lots of chamber music in Köthen. Half of the violin concertos that Bach wrote have been lost. However, of those that remain, Bach’s first biographer, Forkel, wrote that “One can never say enough of their beauty.” Among the violin works composed at Köthen that survive are: The E-major Violin concerto (1717), the Double concerto for two violins, and a concerto for violin and oboe. Several of the six Brandenberg concertos and Four Orchestral Suites also feature prominent violin parts.

Bach’s concerti are different than modern examples of this genre. As opposed to modern concerti, which are generally virtuoso solo pieces with orchestral accompaniment, the obbligato line is more important to Bach than the actual instrument he is writing for. Hence, of seven keyboard concerti Bach wrote, six probably come from violin concerti. Such is the case with Keyboard Concerto #3 (BWV 1054), which is simply a transcription of the violin concerto in E major, BWV 1042.