The popularity of the viola da gamba was already fading when J.S. Bach composed three sonatas for the instrument (BWV 1027–1029) in the late 1730s. A predecessor to the cello, the bowed, fretted string instrument evolved from the Spanish vihuela in the late 15th century, and flourished during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Evidence suggests that Bach wrote the Viola da Gamba Sonatas in Leipzig. During this period, in addition to his duties as Thomaskantor, he directed the Collegium Musicum, which famously presented concerts at the coffee house of Gottfried Zimmermann. Perhaps intended for these occasions, the technically demanding Sonatas were conceived for a skilled virtuoso.
The Sonata in G Major, BWV 1027, which opens the set, was adapted from the previously written Trio Sonata for Two Flutes and Basso Continuo, BWV 1039. The viola da gamba plays one of the flute lines, while the other moves into the left hand line of the harpsichord. The music follows the model of the Italian sonata di chiesa (“church sonata”), developed by Corelli, which features four movements in an alternating slow-fast-slow-fast progression. Rather than simply providing a figured bass blueprint, as was common at the time, Bach transformed the trio sonata by specifying all of the notes, and creating a musical conversation in which all voices take on equal importance.
The opening Adagio features a tender, sensuous duet between the two instruments. It’s a stately dance which drifts, in the final bars, into mystery and melancholy. The second movement (Allegro ma non tanto), built on an infectious, sunny melody evocative of a folk dance, opens the door to thrilling fugal counterpoint. Moving to E minor, the third movement (Andante) spins a haunting harmonic web through a series of arpeggiated progressions. The final movement (Allegro moderato) is a jovial fugue, set in the dance rhythm of a bourrée. Philipp Spitta, an early biographer of the composer, singled out the G major among the three Sonatas as “the loveliest, the purest idyll conceivable.”
This performance, recorded on March 23, 2023 as part of the Netherlands Bach Society’s All of Bach initiative, features Mieneke van der Velden (viola da gamba) and Emmanuel Frankenberg (harpsichord). Van der Velden performs on an instrument made in 1617 by Antoine Despont.
- Bach: Viola da Gamba Sonata in G Major, BWV 1027, Mieneke van der Velden, L’Armonia Sonora Amazon
Featured Image: The Music Lesson, Woman Seated at a Virginal or A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman” (c. 1665), Johannes Vermeer