Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: harpsichord, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 4, 1971, Paul Zukovsky soloist, with Gerhard Samuel conducting
About this Piece
Location. Location. Location. That, as we know, is the watchword of real estate agents. It was also the defining element in the career of Johann Sebastian Bach, who never set foot outside of his native Germany but found several locations in which he developed his magnificent talent to genius level. In fact, Bach has rightly been described by the redoubtable musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky as a “master comparable in greatness of stature with Aristotle in philosophy and Leonardo da Vinci in art.”
The first stop on his journey was Ohrdruf, where he learned much about organs in his brother’s church. Next, Lüneberg and the discovery of French music from a student of Lully, whose opera overtures were a kind of blueprint for the overtures to his four orchestral suites. As his virtuosity on the organ flourished, he settled in Weimar, where most of his important works for the instrument were written.
Perhaps of greatest interest to the general public, because of frequency of performance in our concert halls, is the concerto repertoire, which emerged in the very important location of Cöthen. Bach’s concerto output includes the six Brandenburgs and several harpsichord concertos, most of the latter being transcriptions of his own violin concertos (self-plagiarism has never been a crime in the composer fraternity). As for the violin concertos themselves, only three of the many he was known to have written remain, two for single violin and one for two violins.
During the Cöthen period, from 1717 to 1723, Bach had to satisfy the requirements of his boss, Prince Leopold, by turning out large numbers of secular works. He was well prepared. Earlier, in Weimar, the hopelessly provincial Bach took a grand tour of Italy by spending countless hours at his writing table copying out the music of the Italian masters Vivaldi, Corelli, and others. (This occupation almost certainly played havoc with his eyesight, which deteriorated drastically in the final years of his life. Two eye operations performed in his last year were to no avail, in fact were thought to have hastened his death.) With his genius working at warp speed, he was able to put to marvelous practical use this hard-gained knowledge of Italian string writing, which was so far in advance of any other kind. The Cöthen works are striking evidence of Bach’s ability to assimilate and create.
The E-major Violin Concerto is a creation of purest Bachian splendor. Opening with three aggressive chords, built on an E-major triad, that form the beginning of the main subject, the first movement unfolds in a fashion characteristic of the composer, but with some surprises. Two serious episodes in minor provide sharp contrast with the ebullience of the main material. And before the return to the main subject, the violin has a tiny solo followed by an unexpected pause before those three opening chords announce the final full exposition of the movement’s main substance.
The minor-keyed slow movement opens the floodgates of a kind of exquisitely controlled poignancy that is Bach’s inimitable version of Baroque romanticism. The form is chaconne-like, which is to say there is a persistent figure in the orchestra above which the violin, after entering on a long-held note, spins seemingly improvisatory strands of serene expressiveness. Bach at his most exalted.
The exuberant final movement is calculated to be give-and-take between orchestra and soloist – the group refrain appears five times with the soloist’s episodes in between. In the final solo episode Bach gives the soloist a brief but telling bit of virtuosity.
Orrin Howard served for 20 years as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.