The life of Johann Sebastian Bach, at first glance, is not so mysterious. We can be quite certain of the basic facts. Bach’s biography was first traced in his children’s lifetime, and the fame of his sons Carl Philip Emmanuel (C.P.E.) and Johann Christian (J.C.) Bach, who knew very well what sort of a composer their father was, ensured that generations of musicians following their own would study the elder Bach’s music. J.S. Bach’s enduring fame was certainly buoyed by Mendelssohn and Schumann’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, but he had been a known name for quite some time.
Ultimately, however, there is something about our knowledge of the life of Bach that feels speculative, or even archaeological. This is perhaps because the figure of Bach in the history of Western music, like the figure of Shakespeare in English literature, is so large that no amount of documentation or research can explain him and his encyclopaedic output. Christoph Wolff, who has contributed enormously to Bach scholarship in recent years, reports from the front that ‘writing knowledgeably and responsibly on virtually any aspect of Bach and his music is one of the more arduous and perplexing tasks in the business of musical scholarship.’ A perusal even of the chapter titles of the Bach Reader, which contains many first- and second-hand documents relating to the life of Bach, points to the curiously un-‘critical’ nature of the documentation:
67. Bach and Louis Marchand Compete at the Dresden Court.
68. Bach is Jailed and Unfavorably Dismissed from his Weimar Post.
69. Bach Titles a Collection of Organ Chorales for the Ecclesiastical Year.
153. Bach Publishes Partitas Nos. 1-6.
154. Bach Receives Liquor Tax Revenues.
The Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1019, is the last in a set of six works for the violin/keyboard combination. For a description of these pieces, we may best defer to a letter from C.P.E. Bach to his father’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, dated October 7, 1774:
In somewhat of a rush, I take pleasure in sending you, my dear friend, the remainder of my Sebstianoren, namely 11 trios, 3 pedal pieces, and Von Himmel hoch, etc… The 6 Clavier Trios [that is, the violin sonatas BWV 1014-1019, which may be played with cello accompaniment], whose respective numbers belong together, are among the best works of my dear departed father. They still sound excellent and give me much joy, though they date back more than fifty years. They contain some Adagii that could not be written in a more singable manner today. Since they are badly worn, you will be so kind as to use them with great care.