About this work
Far less famous than Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin are the six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord composed at roughly the same time. And yet these works are among the finest treasures that High Baroque chamber music has to offer. BWV 1016, the Sonata in E major for violin and harpsichord was, like the others, composed sometime during his years as Kapellmeister at the court of Cöthen; it shows how well Bach had absorbed the Italian sonata da chiesa tradition, and even better how well able he was to bend that tradition to his own creative will.
The four movements of BWV 1016 follow the same basic pattern in the typical Corelli or Handel sonata da chiesa: slow-fast-slow-fast. The opening Adagio, with its very Italianate style of ornamental melodic writing, is in two, nearly equal sections. A slowly-pulsing bassline supports a shining, rising melody in the violin.
A kind of Baroque concerto form (really concerto-fugue hybrid) is laid out in the following Allegro, shooting forth on a joyous melody in the harpsichord right-hand, so inviting that that the violin cannot help but imitate it, followed by the bass. During the second portion, a new motive in eighth notes is introduced, occupying the player's thoughts to the near-exclusion of all else. The subject, countersubject, and new motive are all thrown together into one, stunning C sharp minor phrase. With the return to E major, the subsidiary motive is finally completely dispelled.
Passsacaglia is the fuel for the third movement, Adagio ma non tanto. Atop a repeating four measure bass pattern rides a florid melody in triplets that, along with some steady accompaniment and a secondary gesture, is developed by the violin and piano treble in the usual give-and-take manner. The movement, with its C sharp minor tonality, is a statement of real, but eminently restrained pathos.
Bach sets up a large three-part form (or perhaps four-part, as the middle section falls easily into two halves) in the concluding Allegro, setting two contrasting themes against each other. A running sixteenth-note idea, very similar to the kind frequently found in the keyboard Inventions, fills the opening section, but moves on to triplets as the second begins. At the movement's exact midpoint, the sixteenths return, and a false cadence to E major immediately slides into C sharp minor, allowing the developmental middle section to continue. The movement ends with a exact reprise of the opening section.