Bach’s Violin and Harpsichord Sonata No.5

Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach wrote of the Six Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin as “these are the best works by my beloved father. They sound excellent and still give me much pleasure, even through over 50 years have passed.” Almost 300 years have passed now and they still give one of the most exquisite musical pleasure one can ever think of.

These sonatas are collected into a unit of six (BWV1014-1019), like all Bach’s instrumental chamber works and were composed in Cöthen, probably around 1719-20 [1]. They are part of a large set of sonatas and partitas written for many instruments (Sonatas and Partitas for violin, the English Suites, Partitas for harpsichord, Cello Suites). Their standard structure, like all sonatas, follows the pattern slow-fast-slow-fast in tempo (the last sonata though offers an interesting exception to the rule).

The Genius of Bach appears clearly in his sonatas and partitas given the limited set of instruments. He could even make the violin sound like a harpsichord in the 3rd sonata for solo violin (related post : here)! These pieces are extremely rich musically, which amazes experts since centuries, but more importantly they are exceptionally deep, emotionally gripping and overwhelmingly touching. In particular the largo and adagio movements and this is accessible to anyone who lends an ear.

David Oistrakh with Lev Oborin (piano), 1952. Largo Movement.

A notable fact about these sonatas is the importance given to the harpsichord, as stated in [2]:

Generally speaking, in all sonatas defined as “for harpsichord and …”, the harpsichord is dominant; this does not amaze, because Bach was the first great composer to give the keyboard instrument a solo part, where the piece is for more than one instrument (the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is the solo-keyboard christening in an orchestral work). Up to then, the harpsichord had been used only as a “complementary” instrument, leading the rhythmical part of the bass or accompanying (through simple chords) another instrument which led the melodic part. There are a lot of examples for it in Bach’s sonatas for Flute (violin) and figured bass.

I have chosen to start this series with the fifth sonata as it is my favorite one for the moment. The first movement is a wonderful parable of life. The harpsichord plays a continuous and beautiful tune giving the impression of lightness, happiness and consistency .. when suddenly the violin pulls out a deep sorrow from the inner self and then vanishes, leaving the harpsichord alone. The sun is back after a cloudy moment. The illusion lasts but few seconds when the sorrow comes back again and again. It symbolizes so well a tormented soul or mind.

As for the roles of the violin and the harpsichord, ref.[2] says:

Up to now, in the sonatas one can notice the exact equivalence between the part of the harpsichord and that of the violin, even if the former is often working twice, having to lead two melodic lines! Well, the third movement, seemingly written in a preludio style, grants the keyboard a leading part and “relegates” the violin to a simple accompaniment. In opposition to the other one in a minor key, this sonata confers to its movements no official space to the major mode and the result is that it has a remarkable character of tender sadness; however the third movement, although starting in C minor, turns unexpectedly into A flat major right at the end, giving some instants of relief, immediately annihilated by the difficult and uproaring fourth movement.

The complete sonata interpreted by Leonid Kogan and Karl Richter (harpsichord) is available here:

References:

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4 thoughts on “Bach’s Violin and Harpsichord Sonata No.5

  1. indeed if the 3rd movement does not finally resume to A flat major (from C minor throughout), one will drown himself with the music to the bottom of the sea, the music floats but the emotion is a downward spiral. The A flat major is just like a life buoy (a musical rescue from Bach, but only happens at the very final end).

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