Viola da Gamba Sonata No.2

Johann Sebastian Bach

Viola da Gamba Sonata No.2 in D major


About this work

It has now been determined that Johann Sebastian Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord were written in the early 1740s, a time when the great virtuosos of the viola da gamba had either passed on or were soon to do so. This becomes especially poignant when considering the Sonata No. 2 in D major, BWV 1028, the most outwardly virtuosic of the three viola da gamba sonatas, especially in its vigorous finale. Of course, the harpsichord is an equal partner in all of these works, but the proficiency required of the viola da gamba player in the Sonata No. 2 demands an art which Bach must have known was in decline. This, of course, is all the more reason to celebrate the fact that today, thanks to the period performance movement, there are masters of the viola da gamba once again.

Bach's second sonata is laid out in sonata da chiesa format, four movements alternating slow and fast tempi. The short opening Adagio shows just how much Bach viewed the two instruments used here as partners, as it presents an arioso-like melody, but interweaves the melody parts in the viola da gamba and harpsichord such that each is essential to the overall line. The two instruments renew their partnership in the following Allegro, which features a sprightly, busy melody organized in groups of four measures. Natural tension from the four-measure groups and lively rhythms give an exuberant momentum to this movement.

An Andante follows, in contrasting style; at its opening, the harpsichord temporarily subordinates itself to the viola da gamba, which presents a siciliano melody. This melody is reminiscent of some of Bach's most famous arias in 6/8 or 12/8 time, like the "Erbarme dich" from the St. Matthew's Passion, both in its use of ascending minor sixths and its solemn, deeply felt atmosphere. The recurring trills Bach puts in both instruments seem to turn the screws of the emotions here, leading to a particularly extended, tense trill in the viola da gamba just before the movement's end, which resolves in a long final note.

Sunshine breaks out in the final Allegro, which presents a joyful double melody consisting of an upward-skipping figure in the viola da gamba and a lively sixteenth-note figure in the harpsichord. The rhythms of this movement press forward breathlessly, and even the momentary turn to the minor mode in the B section cannot repress the exuberance of the music-making here. One would never suspect that the viola da gamba had suffered a decline when hearing music of such intelligence and deeply human emotion.