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FastNotes

  • The structure of Sonata No. 6 is quite unconventional. In profile it is an arch, fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, in tempos. The capstone of this arch is essentially a three-part invention of great character for solo keyboard.
  • In this arch, however, the two haunting slow movements actually serve as modulating preludes to the following fast movements, which are basically abstracted dances, with three-part imitation.

Solo keyboard pieces aside, most of Bach’s surviving instrumental works date from his time in Cöthen (1717-23), where he had good instrumentalists available and no demand for liturgical compositions. A capable violinist himself and thoroughly familiar with trend-setting Italian models, Bach undoubtedly wrote much more chamber music than has come down to us.

He was not, however, much attracted to the sonata for solo instrument with continuo accompaniment (improvised over a notated bass line, with the appropriate chords indicated). On the one hand, he favored the solo sonata without accompaniment, composing a group of six sonatas and partitas for violin, six suites for cello, and a sonata for flute, all of which are astonishing accomplishments of contrapuntal and idiomatically instrumental art.

Another type of solo sonata, which he virtually created, leaned the other way, toward the trio sonata. Bach manipulated and merged conventional forms and genres with uncommon flexibility. The six sonatas for violin and harpsichord that he wrote liberated the keyboard from the filler functions of continuo accompaniment, creating true partnership with the solo violin. In these sonatas, the right hand of the keyboard part works as a second melodic line, over an active bass line that also participates in the polyphonic give-and-take.

This is readily apparent throughout the Sonata No. 6, as the violin and keyboard swap material back and forth in buoyant counterpoint. Less obvious is Bach’s subtle skill at thematic transformation and motivic development, to use terms generally considered anachronistic in this music, and his moments of pulse-defying syncopation and metrical shifts.

The structure of the Sonata No. 6 is quite unconventional. In profile it is an arch, fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, in tempos. The capstone of this arch takes the emancipation of the keyboard all the way and dispenses with the violin altogether, being essentially a three-part invention of great character for solo keyboard. In this arch, however, the two haunting slow movements actually serve as modulating preludes to the following fast movements, which are basically abstracted dances, with three-part imitation.

John Henken is Publications Editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.