Composed: c. 1720
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: strings, continuo, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 18, 1945, Wallenstein conducting, with soloist Yehudu Menuhin
We don't know when, where, or why Bach wrote his violin concertos, whether he played the solo parts himself, or even how many of them he wrote, since several were probably lost. We do know he was a capable player. He liked to direct his orchestras playing viola, so he could be in the middle of everything, and owned a violin by Jacob Stainer, whose instruments were then more prized than Amatis or Stradivaris.
The E-major Violin Concerto is known from a manuscript copy that dates from about 1760, a decade after Bach’s death, and from a harpsichord concerto version that Bach wrote around 1740. The conventional wisdom dates the violin original from between 1717 and 1723, when he was Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. This was the only time in Bach’s 50 years as a professional musician that his job did not consist of making music for Lutheran worship. The young prince had a passion for music that he could not indulge in church because his Calvinist religion limited liturgical music to simple psalm-singing. So he supported a first-class instrumental establishment of 17 players (quite a large group for a court orchestra of the time), brought in Bach to direct and write music for them, and made him the second highest-paid employee in his entire court. Much of Bach’s instrumental music is thought to date from his time in Cöthen.
The concerto form was about the same age as Bach, and the word referred to more than one kind of composition. The E-major Concerto has much in common with the Vivaldian solo concerto that Bach had already studied thoroughly, but it has features that would have surprised Vivaldi. The first movement makes typical use of alternating orchestral and solo sections, but also is in ABA form, with a literal repetition of the beginning section. This structure was common in Baroque opera (and the arias in Bach’s cantatas) but highly unusual in a concerto, even though the concerto first movement was originally an adaptation of aria form. Even more unusual, in an era when paper was expensive, is that both manuscript sources include the repeat fully written out instead of simply instructing the players to go back to the beginning and repeat the first part. The slow movement is one of those Bach concerto middle movements in which the memorable melody is a persistent figure in the bass. The finale is a true rondo, an unusual form for Bach.
— Howard Posner