J. S. Bach two works for violas


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a composer that understood the potential of the viola at different levels.  Bach himself a great composer and keyboard player was also a good string player, who knew to perfection all the possibilities of the string instruments[1]. He explored the special characteristics of violas, (alto and tenor), in different pieces and ensembles.

I will focus on two works by Bach for the Viola da Braccio in three different genres. They are the Cantata and Concerto Grossi compositions.  Some of this information includes some performance practice suggestions for each piece. Before we start, it is important to bear in mind that the term “Viola” during the Baroque period meant different types of string instruments in different areas and countries in Europe and Latin America.  For example the term viola could refer in some cases to instruments of the Viola da Gamba family and in other cases to instruments from the Guitar family. In general when we speak of viola here, we speak of the Viola da Braccio, a member of the violin family used in the Baroque period. Throughout the Baroque period, instruments of the violin family such as violas used gut strings, baroque bows, flatter bridges, had no chin rest.  Therefore they had less sound projection and they were played in small chambers or rooms.  For these reasons, these Baroque instruments presented limitations for the performers, which they do not experience nowadays. Since the time of Monteverdi, there were two types of violas with two different ways of playing with their own style of writing.  One was the alto viola in the alto clef and the other the tenor viola on the tenor clef.  The main difference between these violas was the size of the instrument and their idiomatic, mechanical and technical characteristics.  According to Robin Stowell”[2], the term (viola) was also qualified to distinguish between different registers within the viola range, thus explaining the occasional use of “Alto viola” and ‘Tenor” viola parts (e.g. Handel’s Concerto Op3. No.1, Walsh edition of 1734) or the common incorporation of three viola lines exploiting different registers in seventeenth-century French five part ensembles’[3]. The alto-viola a smaller instrument than its Tenor counterpart allows the performer more flexibility and agility when playing fast passages. This is because it is easier to hold the instrument and the player can use higher positions to play in high registers.  Technically speaking string crossings are comfortable and the articulations of faster notes in virtuoso style writing are also easier to produced because of its small size presents less resistance from the instrument. It also had a brighter sound, which helped the instrument to project the sound better in general. In contrast, the tenor-viola is a much bigger instrument with a darker sound.  It is a harder instrument to play because of its size. It has a longer fingerboard and it has a bigger distance between the strings on the bridge.  Techniques such shifting positions, bariolage and arpeggi are not idiomatic elements on the writing for this instrument of this instrument, and if they are they present a lot more difficulty to produce than in an Alto Viola. Tenor Violas lack of a chin rest support, (baroque violins and violas did not have a chin rest), makes holding this instrument hard because of its big size and weight. Composers generally wrote parts for this instrument in the lower register to take advantage of its darker color and richness of sound in that register. For these reasons the range used to write for this instrument was smaller.  

Gleichwie der Rengen und Schnee vom Himmel fallt, Cantata BWV18 for Sexagesimae. Weimar version for Basso, Tenor, Soprano, choir, four violas, fagotto, violoncello, Continuo Violone o Organo. Five movements, Sinfonia-Recitativo-Recitativo-Aria-Choral


The original score for this cantata is lost and we only have the individual parts as remain.  Erdmann Neumeister in 1711 wrote the text in the 3rd Kantatenjahrgang[4]. Bach wrote the music  for this Cantata between 1711 and 1715[5]. There are two versions of this work.  One is has four viola parts and continuo and the other version adds two recorders to the score which double the first and second viola parts. The latest version is known as the Leipzig version and was enhanced by Bach according to some scholars, to make it brighter and to meet the needs of  the bigger churches in that town. This cantata, as with the early Bach cantatas, displays a flexible form.  The Sinfonia is a Chaconne with interrupting episodes in a da capo form. The second movement sets verses of Isaiah  in two recitatives sung by the Bass. The third movement, the centerpiece of the cantata is the longest movement and the one with interesting contrasts of textures, harmonies and form. Bach uses these technique in the orchestra score along with the choir to underline the text by Neumeister. The Aria for soprano movement has a counter melody from the violas in two portions rounded by a  ritornello. Here we see the style of composition Bach  used in his beginning career as a composer. Bach first important jobs were as organist and his first compositions were also for the organ. In his early cantatas, Bach uses the organ as a basic compositional tool since some scores resemble organ settings. When he started to write vocal music for the first time, he drew mostly from his experience as an organist and a organ composer[6]. In spite of the Bach organ writing influence in this period, the viola parts in this cantata show a deep understanding of the instruments with clear rolls in the score. Each part functions idiomatically for each type of viola. In this Cantata, as in other cantatas, Bach writes two different clefs for the parts to differentiate the parts. In the first movement, he outlines the size and the participation of the instruments in the general texture. The top viola lines are the alto and written in alto clef and the lower parts are for the tenor viola and use the tenor clef. In the Sinfonia, the tenor viola writing is closer to the continuo writing using characteristic writing for cello and bass parts.  The tendency here seems to be using mostly a lower and dark register characteristic of the tenor-viola timbre. It is also interesting to note that in the scores the Tenor-viola imitates motives from the alto viola lines emulating a second violin part. Last but not least, the alto-viola parts are the most active and with a range as high as two octaves and a fifth and the tenor-viola parts have a range of two octaves and a major third. Furthermore, in contrast to the tenor viola parts, the alto violas have the main themes or motives and imitations and canons in the episodes.  The writing is brighter and stands out  as the primary material for the episodes. In the remaining movements, the viola parts are more homogeneous, (organ like writing), and served a role of accompanying and supporting the Choir same as in the third and fifth movement to contrast the soprano solo in unison in the Aria movement. Bach revised the Weimar Edition, adding two recorders for the Leipzig version., but from a performer’s perspective I would suggest to perform the Weimar version. It makes the counterpoint, harmony and the texture and sonority cleaner and clearer. This is particularly true in the Sinfonia, where adding the brighter color of the recorders, make the third and fourth viola contrapuntal lines more obscure and difficult to appreciate. The Sinfonia is the best example in a cantata of viola writing by Bach in a Cantata. It shows his understanding and use of the two types of instrument in principal and accompanying roles.

Brandenburg Concerto BWV 1051 for two violas da braccio, viola da gambas, violoncello, violone and Cembalo

In the tradition of the viola repertoire, the Brandenburg Concerto # 6, the last of the set of concertos that Bach wrote, is a work surrounded by some controversy about its time of conception, style, structure and instrumentation. For this reason, some scholars consider this concerto the “Cinderella”[7] of the Brandenburg set. Coincidentally, the viola is also considered the Cinderella of the violin family, because of its lack of brilliance and “limited” possibilities. The instrumentation of this concerto is for two solo violas da braccio, two Gambas, violoncello, violone and continuo.  This instrumentation is unusual for any piece written in the Baroque period and it also contrasts with the other concertos in the Brandenburg set.  This is not only because of the type of instruments used in this score, but also because the roles of the instruments are reversed according to the traditions of the time[8]. During this period the role of the viola was more as an accompanying instrument in the orchestral score. Furthermore, the viola player’s social position and his salary were both low, in contrast, the Bass Viola da Gamba was considered a solo instrument and was the instruments of Kings and nobility.  Virtuoso Gamba players with high-cultivated technique were also violinist. However, in this concerto, the violas are treated as solo instruments whereas the Bass Viola da Gamba parts are treated mostly as accompanying parts. The violoncello has a virtuoso role also in this concerto, a roll the Bass Viola da Gamba would normally have. Closer examination of the score will reveal some details that can  shed some light on the ideas that Bach had for the instrumentation of this piece. First of all, the viola writing in this concerto is for an alto type viola.  This instrument is smaller and for this reason higher positions can be played with ease.  Comparing the solo viola parts of this Brandenburg Concerto with the viola parts of the cantatas BWV 4 and 5, one soon realizes that the former goes to higher positions or to a higher register than the later two octaves and a fifth. There are also some techniques used in the parts that can support this alto-viola idea. They include the semi-bariologe and arpeggi passages in the last movement. These techniques are closer to the violin writing in Bach’s violin music, but do not posses the same kind of virtuosity. Secondly, the Gambas in the score are not the Bass type normally used in performances of this piece today.  A closer look at the parts will reveal that the lowest note in the score is a G, a fourth above the register of the Bass viola da Gamba. For this reason, the Gamba used here was smaller and a little brighter timbre that the Bass Viola da Gamba.  So the general color of the ensemble would be lighter and the contrapuntal lines in these viola da gamba parts would be clearer. Thirdly, the violone is also a different type of instrument than the Violones used normally in the Baroque Era. Violones were very different in sizes, tuning, in number of strings and some even had frets. The one similarity that the violone and the modern Double Bass shared was that they have the body characteristics of  viola da gambas. Because of the register used in the violone part in the score, it would match a 6-string instrument similar to a Double Bass Viola da Gamba. This idea  is supported by some measures in the score where the Violone part goes two octaves lower than the harpsichord part and lower that the capabilities of the Violone. Finally, the characteristics of the instrumentation provide a very different tone color result to the music. It would be brighter and not as dark as it is perform and perceive today. One has to consider that because of the score of this concerto requires  an unusual instrumentation, in generalit makes it difficult to program it and even more difficult with the instrumentation suggested by the research I am presenting here. Another controversy, is that this concerto was believed by some scholars to be an earlier work arranged by Bach for this set of concertos.  They argue that the score for this concerto was originally a trio sonata.  Scholars point out that the Gamba parts were added later because they have a lot of correction and by contrast, the rest of the parts in the score do not have any corrections. Stylistically speaking, this concerto stands in contrast to the rest of the set.  It is of a style not very common to Bach.  From the performers and audience point of view, this work is unique and unconventional. The first movement without tempo markings has a basic structure that begins with a strict canon at the eight note and a Trommelbass[9], the” drum bass”, figurein the accompaniment.  This technique is also applied to the middle parts in this movement.  These two elements, the canon and  the Trommelbass, suggest a very fast tempo, where a feeling of chasing each other in the viola da braccio parts becomes very effective making the music come alive. The Second movement, is scored without Viola da Gambas.  Here the violas go through a process of imitation that culminates with a long cadenza at the end of the movement in an extended Phrygian cadence. In the third movement the violas play the melody together and then start to imitate each other. The cello part in this movement is more solistic and virtuoso than in the other two movements.  As mentioned earlier, here Bach uses some Bariologe and Arpeggi techniques in the viola parts. Some performances of this concerto include complete viola sections for both parts as a tutti to contrast with the solo passages in slow tempi.   This practice gave this concerto the reputation of a dark, dull and boring piece. One instrument for each part is the best way to perform this concerto.  It would make this piece brighter and more interesting because the counterpoint and form


J. S. Bach, Leipzig

[1] Hans T. David & Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader (New York: Norton & Norton, 1966) 277.

[2]  Robert Stowell, The early violin and viola: A Practical Guide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 34.

[3] J. S. Bach, Konzert Es-Dur fur viola, Streicher un Basso Continuo, Reconstruktion nach BWV 169, 49,1053. Ed. Wilfred Fisher, Kassel Germany: Barenreiter- Verlag, 1996. VI-IX.

[4] Bach, J. S. Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fallt, Kantate zum Sonntag Sexagesomae, Leipzig version, BWV 18. Ed. Wener Neumann, Kassel, Germany: Berenreiter.

[5] Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

[6] Christopher Wolff, Ed. The World of the Bach Cantatas (New York: Norton & Norton, 1995). 77-87

[7] Malcolm Boyd, Bach the Brandenburg Concertos (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 91.

[8] Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of  J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), 55-57 [9] Malcolm Boyd, Bach the Brandenburg Concertos ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 92.

[9] Malcolm Boyd, Bach the Brandenburg Concertos ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 92.