Photo: Benjamin Harte
Ton Koopman and Catherine Manson
A New Type of Sonata
In the 18th century, there were established conventions for how to compose a trio sonata: the melody went to a couple instruments—say, two violins—which were supported underneath by a harpsichordist playing a bass line and filling in harmonies as indicated by numeric figures in the score.
But Bach’ s Six Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin with their fully written-out harpsichord parts represent something different than the standard convention of the time. These pieces can be heard as trio sonatas with the harpsichord taking the role of both the bass and one of the melody lines. But even in this, one senses that these pieces go beyond a reassignment of roles to something new and different. The violin and keyboard meet on equal terms in this music with both instruments participating equally in the thematic-motivic material.
Another hallmark of these pieces are the Adagios. Writing in 1774, Bach’s son Carl Philipp praised the works with special mention of the slow movements, saying that “the 6 clavier trios are among the best of works of my dear father. They still sound very good now and give me much pleasure, despite the fact that they are over 50 years old. There are a few Adagios in them that to this day are unexcelled in their cantabile qualities…”
We don’t know very much about when Bach composed these works—they originated either during the years that Bach lived in Cöthen or after he moved to Leipzig, depending on who you ask.
There are several surviving manuscripts, and the differences in those copied between 1725 and 1740 show Bach’s continued work and revision on the pieces. This recording gives a sense of that revision history, including the two early and alternate movements of the Sixth Sonata in G major. The alternate Cantabile movement shares musical material with an aria from BWV 120—a cantata Bach wrote for the annual inauguration of the Leipzig town council.