Composed: c. 1720
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: strings, continuo, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 20, 1952 (No. 1), Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with soloist Zino Francescatti
As well known as Bach’s two surviving solo violin concertos are, we know almost nothing about their origins. We don't know when, where, or why he wrote them. At one time it was fashionable to ascribe them both to the years between 1717 and 1723, when he was Capellmeister at the court of the Duke of Anhalt-Cöthen. It was the only time in his 50-year professional career that he was not employed in making music for Lutheran church services, his duties at the Calvinist court centering around the duke’s elite 18-piece orchestra. We know he composed concertos in Cöthen, but we also know that when he left Cöthen and became music director of Leipzig’s Lutheran churches, he supplied concertos to the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, which he also directed. And indeed, the only extant evidence for the A-minor Concerto in Bach’s handwriting is a set of parts that date from well into his Leipzig years.
We also don’t know whether Bach played the solo parts himself, although a fair guess would be that he did. He was a capable fiddler who liked to direct his orchestras while playing the viola, where he could be in the middle of things musically and physically. He owned a violin by Jacob Stainer, whose instruments were prized more highly than those of Stradivari in the 18th century. And Bach extended the horizons of the violin as a “complete” harmonic and contrapuntal instrument in his phenomenal unaccompanied partitas and sonatas, works that, if often unkind to the player, could not have been written by someone without a comprehensive working knowledge of the instrument.
In the A-minor Concerto, the soloist and the orchestra don’t share much material. The assertive theme that starts the first movement never appears in the solo episodes. Nor does the orchestra ever play the yearning theme that the first solo introduces. The rolling theme in the bass, cello, and continuo that begins the slow movement, and recurs throughout it, disappears during the solo episodes, as do the bass, cello, and continuo themselves, leaving the violas as the bottom of the ensemble. Not until the last phrase of the movement do all the elements come together and all the instruments play at the same time. The finale combines the rhythm and feel of the jig (the traditional last movement of the Baroque suite) with fugal techniques, with the tutti passages corresponding to the fugal expositions.
— Howard Posner