For many years I have lived in Eastern Germany in a region of extreme contrasts. I worked in Bitterfeld, the heart of the former GDR’s chemical industry marked by extreme environmental pollution and the layoff of tens of thousands of workers after the collapse of the socialist system. I worked and lived in the Halle, where Händel was born, a town with a vibrant theater and music scene and an attractive university. My job often took me to Leipzig, home to the Bach family for many years, with its opera, its museums and art galleries. And over the weekend, I hiked through the lovely vineyards in the Saale-Unstrut valley, mostly during autumn when the leaves would start to turn yellow or orange. I visited some amazing castles there, and the beauty of the landscape made me quickly forget that the whole region was not doing well at the time.
Memories of golden autumns
Some months ago, I listened to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042, while driving to work. Its characteristic introduction made my mind wander – not advisable during early morning traffic – and memories of me walking through those vineyards came back. I saw the fog rise slowly of the Saale river, I felt the warm autumn sun and the breeze that made the leaves rustle, I had the taste of that delicious white wine from the Saale-Unstrut valley on my tongue… wonderful! And an excellent excuse to write something about that piece.
Time for Bach then. It is unclear, when he wrote the second violin concerto. For many years, musicologists were convinced that all of Bach’s works for orchestra saw the light between 1717 and 1722, while he served as Kapellmeister in Köthen, some 50 km north-west of Leipzig. Recently, the German researcher Christoph Wolff has come up with some evidence, that some, if not all works for orchestra actually were composed in Leipzig, after Bach had left Köthen. Since there is no outright consensus on the date of the concerto’s composition, it is equally unclear why Bach wrote the piece. Was it commissioned by someone or did Bach write it on his own initiative?
Köthen or Leipzig?
In Köthen, Bach served Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, a young man who loved and understood music. When the prince married in 1721, things changed. The prince’s bride had no interest in arts and the relationship between the two men irritated her. Were the first and second violin concertos written to entertain Leopold? That thesis is at least plausible. When Bach moved to Leipzig, he was supposed to focus on religious music. Not that he cared too much about what was expected, in Leipzig he composed whatever he liked. In 1729, five years after his move to Leipzig, he took over the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble founded by Georg Philipp Telemann. Under Bach, the Collegium performed both religious and secular music: cantatas, the Brandenburg Concertos. Were the two violin concertos written for the Collegium? Again, the thesis is plausible, but considering the lack of detailed and reliable sources, it is hard to say.
Vigorous – plaintive – vigorous
Does it matter in the end? No. The Violin Concerto No. 2 is such a wonderfully balanced and melodious piece of music that it needs no explanation at all. Is simply is. The first movement starts with that vigorous melody that makes it stand out between all other string concertos, with the exception perhaps of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti grossi. Throughout the piece you can hear that the composer was a master of the organ and a master in composing fugues. Listen to those chord progressions!
The second movement starts very gently, almost painfully, like a mourning song, but then the solo violin plays a long, long, long delicate melody, like an angel flying over the scorched earth. That should not really come as a surprise, since most of Bach’s pieces were meant to be part of the liturgy. The divine element, the hope for salvation, somehow it is never very far, even in the secular compositions.
The third movement takes up the energy of the first movement, jauntily it hops from bar to bar. It is a vibrating piece of music, expressing the joy that life can confer if one is looking for simple pleasures – like a nice walk in the Saale-Unstrut valley and a cool glass of Riesling later on!
Hilary Hahn and the issue of precision
Bach’s Violin Concerto is a popular piece and the recordings are abundant. I have a special preference for a recording with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane and Hilary Hahn playing the solo parts. I heard Hilary Hahn a few years ago, once in Luxembourg and once in Vienna. She is an extraordinary violinist, if I may say so, and each time I was amazed by her precision matching Bach’s precision in his scores. Years ago, I thought she would not easily connect with the audience because of her focus on precision. I was wrong. I owe her a glass of Riesling. Zum Wohl!
© Charles Thibo