Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (b. 1685 - d. 1750)
Performance date: 03/07/2019
Venue: St. Brendan’s Church
Composition Year: 1680 - 1750
Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ
Instrumentation: vc, pf
Finghin Collins -
Laura van der Heijden - [cello]
Gamba Sonata No 1 in G major BWV 1027 [unknown]
The viola da gamba is a six-stringed, fretted instrument which played the role of the modern cello in the viol family of stringed instruments (gamba is the Italian for leg). The viol family was common throughout Europe from the late middle ages until about 1750. The viol and violin families of instruments coexisted for at least two centuries. However the four stringed violins were stronger, more difficult to make, more difficult to play and were preferred by professional musicians. With the rise of opera in the eighteenth century orchestras favoured the louder, brighter violins. Composers stopped writing for the viols and they gradually died out.
Bach wrote three sonatas for the viola da gamba and harpsichord. They do not form a set and very little is known about their composition. There is an autograph score of the G major sonata dated 1740. However this sonata had appeared in an earlier form scored for two flutes and harpsichord continuo and that may have been a revision of an even earlier work.
The fact that this sonata first appeared scored for three instruments, while in a gamba sonata there are obviously only two, gives an important clue about its structure. There are three parts here; the gamba and the right and left hands of the harpsichord. The harpsichord is not just a continuo but takes an active role in the frequently contrapuntal structure of the music as well covering continuo duties.
The baroque sonata originated in Italy. Although not necessarily intended for the church, sonatas were regarded as serious pieces of music. They usually had three or four movements alternating between quick and slow. The baroque sonata is a sonata without any movements in “sonata form” since this way of structuring a movement was developed by succeeding generations of composers. Bach had to rely on polyphony and counterpoint to sustain his sonata movements. This suits chamber music perfectly as the equal interplay between instruments is a key feature of most chamber music. This performance will be played on modern instruments (cello and piano) which has the advantage that this interplay between the two instruments can be more clearly heard.
The opening Adagio has the slightly unusual time signature of 12 eighth notes (quavers) to the bar. The twelve quavers are arranged mainly in four groups of three. This gives the movement both a feel of a slow march (four time) and a slow dance (three time). The effect is beautifully melancholic. The cello opens with the main theme while the piano’s right hand first holds a single note and then plays a subsidiary idea. The instruments then swop roles. At the conclusion of the movement, after repeating the opening theme with the piano going first, there follows a brief, exquisite coda.
The second movement is a much jollier affair in three time. The principal feature of the main theme is two trills each placed at the beginning of a bar. Additional material is introduced while the main theme repeatedly returns as if in a rondo. The haunting andante in E minor is based on a canon with the cello following the piano half a bar behind. As expected, the instruments swap around throughout the movement. The finale is a joyful fugue. The counter subject is partly syncopated. Bach exploits this to provide a robust conclusion to this little gem of a sonata.
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