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About this Piece

Solo keyboard pieces aside, the bulk of Bach’s surviving instrumental works dates 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 (improvisation over a notated bass line, with the appropriate chords indicated). As a group, Bach’s violin and continuo works show the influence of Corelli and his Italian contemporaries in their clear structures, logical harmonic patterns, use of fugal techniques, and, especially, in their avoidance of virtuosity for its own sake.

This is readily apparent throughout the Sonata in E minor, 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 in E minor is quite conventional. It is notable for its toccata-like opening, followed by a lyrical Adagio ma non tanto, a harmonically sophisticated Allemanda, and a jaunty Gigue. —Compiled from materials in the Philharmonic’s archive