With the Six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019), J.S. Bach spectacularly reimagined the Baroque trio sonata.
Traditionally, the form, developed by composers such as Arcangelo Corelli, consisted of two solo instruments and continuo. The continuo involved a partially improvised accompaniment in which the keyboard player would be given the bass line and the harmonic “short hand” of figured bass notation. It was an arrangement which was not unlike the harmonic changes in a jazz chart.
In contrast, in the Six Sonatas, Bach’s keyboard lines move into the foreground. They are richly melodic and written out. The violin and harpsichord become equal partners in a vibrant musical conversation involving three independent contrapuntal lines—the violin, and the right and left hand keyboard voices.
The equality of the three voices can be heard immediately in the opening moments of the Sonata No. 2 in A Major, BWV 1015. The three voices enter into a sensuous canonic conversation, initiated by the violin. As if to chase away the melancholy of the previous Sonata in B minor, this opening movement, set in a gently flowing 6/8 time, is awash in pastoral sunshine. Following the slow-fast-slow-fast structure of the “church” sonata (sonata da chiesa), the second movement is a joyful Allegro in 3/4 time, filled with glittering running lines. The third movement (Andante un poco) moves to F-sharp minor with another, more intimate, canonic dialogue between the violin and harpsichord. The final movement (Presto), built on the ultimate infectious, whistleable melody, brings the Sonata to a close with a cheerful three-part fugal dialogue. Notice the passages in which the violin joyfully enters with the theme a beat later than expected, to form another canon (12:05).
Bach wrote the Six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord between 1717 and 1723 while he was employed as Kapellmeister in Köthen. Produced by the Netherlands Bach Society, this performance from December 6, 2021 features the Croatian violinist Bojan Čičić with the British harpsichordist, Steven Devine:
Featured Image: the title page of Bach’s Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord.