TBC Ep 6 | Flute Sonata in E minor, BWV 1034


Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 6: Remarks by Jeanne Swack (University of Wisconsin-Madison), performance by la speranza


Bach's Sonata in E minor for traverso [i.e., transverse flute] and basso continuo, BWV 1034, presents a fascinating look at Bach's treatment of genre in the sonata, combining aspects of the sonata da chiesa, or “sonata for the church”—typically consisting of four movements, alternating slow and fast tempi without overt dance movements, and often featuring a fugal second movement—with a type of sonata that imitates an Italian concerto in at least one movement. Bach was particularly attracted to the latter, composing fascinating examples in sonatas for violin, transverse flute, and viola da gamba. In the Sonata in E minor, it is the second movement that imitates the Italian concerto, a feat even more impressive for a work with only two obbligato parts, the flute and the basso continuo. Bach's other examples of this genre have three obbligato parts and are often in three movements (fast, slow, fast) in the manner indeed of a typical Vivaldian concerto. The reduced scoring in the Sonata in E minor makes the concerto structure of the movement more difficult to bring out in performance and more difficult for the audience to hear.

First, a few words about the piece itself. Unlike Bach's sonatas for flute and obbligato harpsichord in B minor and A major, both of which have opening movements with ritornellos, and both of which are clearly reworked from lost earlier versions in different keys and probable scorings, we have no evidence that this work originated as anything other than a sonata for flute and basso continuo. The one-key transverse flute was a relatively new instrument in Germany at the time. Bach's first work with a transverse flute, as opposed to the recorder, was likely the early version of the fifth Brandenburg Concerto. E minor is also a particularly grateful key on the instrument. The E minor sonata has been dated to about 1724, early in the Leipzig period. Bach's original score for the E minor sonata does not survive, and there are no sources for the work in his hand. We have instead two non-autograph copies of the score, only one of which dates from Bach's lifetime.

The E minor sonata is unusual in being both a four-movement sonata da chiesa, or “sonata for the church”—typically a sonata consisting of four non-dance movements and alternating tempos, beginning with a slow movement and ending with a fast movement—and a Sonate auf Concertenart, or “sonata in the manner of a concerto,” a sonata in which at least one movement imitates the ritornello structure of a Vivaldian concerto movement. Like Vivaldi's concertos, such works are often in three movements (fast, slow, fast), and the instruments simulate the alternation of a Vivaldian ritornello—usually tonally stable—with often virtuosic Italianate passagework that modulates to new keys in at least the first movement.

Aside from the Concertenart movement in the E-minor flute sonata, concerto-like sonata movements occur in other sonatas by Bach, as well as in trio sonatas and solo sonatas by a number of Bach's contemporaries, including Telemann, Zelenka, and Quantz, all of whom Bach knew well. Zelenka and Quantz both worked at the Dresden court of the Electors of Saxony, August the Strong and his son and successor August III, and Telemann had strong ties to the musicians at the court. The vast archives of music surviving from the court holds a substantial collection of Telemann's instrumental music. It is clear that this innovative type of sonata held a special appeal for Bach, especially given the general complexity and inventiveness of his music, and he produced some of the most innovative and sophisticated works in this fascinating amalgam of two crucial genres, the sonata and the concerto. Thank you.