Flute Sonata No.6

Johann Sebastian Bach

Flute Sonata No.6 in E major


About this work

The key of E major presents many fingering challenges on the Baroque flute, and so this sonata is beyond the skills of most of the flutists known to have been in Bach's circle. According to the title page of a later copy of the score, Bach wrote this sonata for the highly adept Potsdam flutist Michael Gabriel Fredersdorff, who was in the service of the flute-loving King Frederick the Great. Bach adopts the four-movement, slow-fast-slow-fast structure typical of the sonata di chiesa or "church sonata," in which the individual movements are usually given tempo designations rather than dance titles. Unexpectedly, though, Bach dubs the third movement "Siciliano," and two of the other movements are crypto-dances: the second is a Rigaudon, and the finale a Polonaise. The opening movement, however, is a straightforward Adagio ma non tanto. It's a stately, placid piece, a precursor to Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits. The first melody stretches in long, gentle arcs, then wanders freely around the staff, taking time for occasional, modest trills. This is succeeded by an even freer section in which the melody follows the same basic contours but flirts with the minor mode, and then a coda that strips the theme to its most essential notes. This movement establishes a structural pattern Bach will observe through most of the rest of the sonata: a succession of fully worked-out variations rather than a sequence of repeats that allow the performer to improvise heavy ornamentation. The second movement, Allegro, is a Rigaudon, typically cheerful and quick in duple meter; many passages challenge the flutist's breath control. The aria-like "Siciliana" brings a pastoral mood to the sonata; with its dotted rhythms, it's essentially a slow-motion gigue. The movement falls into three sections, each based on the same melodic germ, but the center portion is slightly unsettled compared to the sections that surround it. The final Allegro assai is the most overtly virtuosic music here, in Baroque Polonaise form (not to be confused with the later examples of Chopin); it's moderately quick and demands great agility of both fingering and tonguing.