Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concerto in E Major
Composed potentially between c.1717-1723, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major was written to satisfy the requirements of Prince Leopold. The Prince wanted Bach to compose large numbers of secular music, as well as his ever-popular sacred works. It is really difficult to pin down an exact date and location for Bach’s E major Violin Concerto. There are many missing pieces of the puzzle, similar to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Some deduce that the concerto originates from Köthen, but others reckon it’s from a little later on when Bach was in Leipzig.
Around this kind of time Bach took a tour of Italy, spending many hours table copying the music of the Vivaldi, Corelli and many others. This intense knowledge allowed Bach to apply his newfound knowledge of Italian string writing into new works for chamber ensembles and string soloists.
The E major Violin Concerto is a brilliant example of Bach applying new knowledge and making it completely unique to his style. This particular concerto has been said to be one of Bach’s purest creations for this kind of ensemble. Bach based the concerto on the Venetian concerto model, Bach’s concerto is in three movements. However, Bach didn’t just do a copy and paste job with the structure of the concerto. To make it his own Bach gave the model a reshape, with each movement having an “un-Italian” characteristic.
Movement I – Allegro
Opening with three aggressive chords based on an E major triad, the atmosphere of the concerto is set from the off. Festive jollity exudes this opening movement and the flowing solo violin soars above the string ensemble motor underneath. The main theme of the movement begins to unfold through the ritornello structure, with Bach adding some surprises along the way.
Two more serious-sounding sections unfold, this time in a minor key. This provides a big contrast with the original main material. The soloist plays through a short cadenza, accompanied by the harpsichord, before the opening material of the movement shines out once more. The fully formed exposition is then played out until the joyous finish.
Movement II – Adagio
The minor-keyed slow movement opens with typical Bacharian poignancy and control. The persistent orchestral figure creates a chaconne-like structure to this movement. The solo violin is right at the centre of this movement, with the orchestra responding to the melodic material. There is a sense of sereneness throughout this movement, with the slow pace and the delicate long notes shining through from the soloist. Bach’s use of decoration is also pertinent in this movement, with trills and mordents littered across the soloists part to create shimmer and sparkle to the music.
Movement III – Allegro assai
The shortest movement of the three, the jubilant finale is based on call and response between the soloist and orchestra. The orchestra refrain appears five times with the soloist creating exciting variations in between. This is perhaps the most virtuosic movement of the three for the soloist, with the tricky technical lines being played at quite a speed. A short recap of the opening material from the first movement sings out after a brief gap, which leads the ensemble to complete the movement back in the home key.
Encapsulating the Venetian concerto model, Bach took this idea and made it fit his own mould. The the compelling melodies to the exciting twists and turns of the harmony and structure, Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major has remained one of his most popular and most-performed.
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