Violin Sonata no. 1 in G minor
BWV 1001 performed by Shunske Sato
Behind the music
Almost the most beautiful key
The sonority of the open G and D strings reverberates throughout the whole sonata.
The first of Bach’s six solo works for violin exudes the most calm. On a violin, the key of G minor has a pure and stable sound, as the two lower strings (the G and the D) fit naturally in the root position triad without needing to use the fingers of the left hand. The sonority of these low ‘open strings’ reverberates throughout the whole sonata. According to the eighteenth-century theoretician Johann Mattheson, G minor was “almost the most beautiful key”; one that “combines a rather serious character with spirited loveliness” and thus, in short, “lends itself well and flexibly to moderate plaintiveness and tempered gaiety”. This appears to be precisely what Bach had in mind for this sonata.
The opening Adagio movement is subdued, with an air of desolation. It fits well with Mattheson’s description of “moderate plaintiveness”. The Fugue, which by definition is strict in form, leans towards the “rather serious” side. It is the first fugue in the whole set of six solos, and Bach does not cut too many contrapuntal capers as yet. Later on, Bach – or somebody else – arranged this fugue for organ, without making too many changes (BWV 539). It is followed by the gently swaying Siciliana, the only movement of the sonata in a major key, which provides some relief. But although the atmosphere is more relaxed, there is still a hint of sadness.
The final movement, the Presto, sounds like an example of what Mattheson may have meant by “tempered gaiety”. There is agitated motion, although it is in minor. It is sharp, spirited and virtuoso. The chord that closed the Fugue, spread out over four strings, also ends the Presto. And the Adagio even starts and finishes with this harmony. This creates linking pauses between the movements; an effect used by Bach in this sonata alone.
Six sonatas and partitas for solo violin
At the top of his manuscript of six solo works for violin, Bach wrote ‘Sei solo’. But did he mean six solos (which is ‘Sei soli’ in correct Italian), or did he really mean ‘Sei solo’… you are on your own? In the days before spellchecks, spelling was more a question of feeling, especially in another language. It could be that Bach deliberately did not write ‘Sei soli’ above his six violin solos, choosing rather to warn his soloists before sending them off to perform with just a bow, four strings and a few of his most difficult pieces.
Bach’s solo works are in line with the wonderful tradition of Westhoff, Biber, Matteis, Schop and others, although Bach aims not so much for virtuosity, but for interiority, playing a theoretical game with the impossibility of true polyphony on a single melody instrument. Bach understood perfectly well how our brain naturally makes music out of sounds. He was also aware of the importance of his work, calling the autograph manuscript of the sonatas and partitas from 1720 ‘Book 1’. He may have had the Cello Suites and the now solitary Flute Partita in mind as carefully planned sequels for the future. Polyphony on your own – you can hardly get your head around it.
We recorded these six sonatas in a former power station in Haarlem, which used to supply the city with power and light. This explains its nickname ‘Lichtfabriek’ (Light Factory). Inspired by this special setting, the director chose to give lighting a prominent role in the performance.
- Violin Sonata no. 1 in G minor
- Sonata no. 1
- chamber music
- Six partitas and sonatas for violin
- ca. 1720
- Köthen, Weimar
- Release date
- 24 October 2019
- Recording date
- 23 June 2019
- Lichtfabriek, Haarlem
- Shunske Sato
- Cornelius Kleynman, ca. 1684
- Director and editor
- Onno van Ameijde
- Music recording
- Guido Tichelman, Bastiaan Kuijt, Pim van der Lee
- Music edit and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Jeroen Simons, Marijn Zurburg
- Zen Bloot, Henry Rodgers, Joris van Gulik
- Jasper Leeman
- Data handling
- Eline Eestermans
- Onno van Ameijde, Marloes Biermans
- Jessie Verbrugh
- Frans Wytema, for making the Cornelius Kleynman violin available to Shunske Sato.
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