Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Bach - Sonata For Viola da Gamba No. 3 In G Minor BWV 1029

Despite his death over 250 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach's music continues to be acknowledged as some of the greatest ever written. He wrote music in all the forms of his time except for opera, and his output was huge. His career spanned a time of great change in not only musical styles but musical instruments themselves.

The piano forte had been invented by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime in the early 18th century, and Bach played some early examples, but it took years before improvements in the piano helped it to render the harpsichord and clavichord as obsolete. The situation was different for the viola da gamba family of instruments. Violas da gamba were becoming rare in Bach's later life as the instruments of the violin family were more suited for the public performance of music. But as viols were a popular amateur instrument, there were still instruments being played by royal amateur musicians for the benefit of private performances in smaller royal venues, and virtuosos of the instrument that were employed by royalty.

Christian Ferdinand Abel
Viols may have descended from the vihuela, an ancestor of the guitar that was played by plucking the strings like a modern guitar. Sometime in the 15th century musicians began to play these instruments with a bow. The viola da gamba retained the flat back, frets, and tuning of the vihuela. The name of the instrument stems from the playing style, as they were held between the legs.

J.S. Bach wrote 3 sonatas for bass viola da gamba and keyboard, and for many years musicologists were unsure what years they were written. Some think they were written around 1720 when Bach was employed at Cöthen as the virtuosoChristian Ferdinand Abel was employed at the court. Others thin that they were written after Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723.

Bass viola da gamba
showing the frets,
rounded shoulders, and 
C-holes of the instrument.
The first two sonatas are sonata da chiesa written in 4 movements; slow-fast-slow-fast, while the third sonata is written in three movements. There have been some musicologists that think this sonata was originally a concerto for unknown instruments.

I. Vivace - After the initial statement of the theme,  The left hand of the keyboard plays a continuo part and fills in the harmonies when the right hand doesn't play. When the right hand enters, the two hands become play notes as written, thus making this sonata a three-part or trio sonata. The theme is traded back and forth between the gamba and the right hand. After excursions to different keys, the theme goes back to G minor and ends the movement.

II. Adagio - This movement is in B-flat major. The left hand plays slow and stately chords while the gamba and right hand weave in and out with an expressive, decorated duet.

III. Allegro -  The music goes back to G minor as the keyboard states the repetitive notes of the first theme with the gamba close behind. There are a variety of themes and modulations until the music settles back into G minor at the end.

This sonata, along with the other two, are also performed in editions for the cello and piano. The accompanying video is a performance on bass viola da gamba and harpsichord.