Viola da Gamba Sonata No. 2 in D major – Bach, For Whom did Bach Write this Virtuoso Gamba Part?

ByQuyen Anne

Aug 22, 2023


For whom did Bach write this virtuoso gamba part?

From the very first notes, it is clear that Bach wrote this piece for a top-level gambist, as the musical and technical demands are way above average. The harpsichordist, too, must have been a very experienced musician, although we do not have to search long for him, as it is highly likely that Bach performed this part himself. It probably dates from his Leipzig period, especially as the harpsichord takes on both the upper part and the accompaniment, which is the sort of innovation that Bach was trying out in Leipzig. There, he premiered a great deal of instrumental music between 1729 and 1739, at the Café Zimmerman with his collegium musicum, preferably with fellow musicians, pupils and family.

But the question is who could have played the virtuoso gamba part. The leading candidate was long thought to be Christian Ferdinand Abel, a gambist who played in the Köthen ensemble led by Bach between 1717 and 1723. But that was when this sonata was dated considerably earlier. Now that an increasing number of musicologists are becoming convinced that the work was written in Leipzig, this contemporary and good friend of Bach no longer seems to be an option. He succeeded Bach as Kapellmeister in Köthen, where he is presumed to have been buried in 1737, and probably never even went to Leipzig.

It is another case entirely for his fourteen-year-old son Carl Friedrich Abel, a promising gambist who went to study at the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1737. Under Bach’s wing, he grew into an outstanding musician and composer, and his mentor helped him get a job in 1743 at the prominent court chapel in Dresden. Later, this Abel went to London, where he often worked with Bach’s son Johann Christian. In England, Abel also composed a respectable oeuvre of symphonies and concertos, as well as dozens of wonderful works for gamba.

Although we cannot be certain, Carl Friedrich’s close ties with the Bach family and his great talent make him the ideal candidate performer of this Sonata for gamba in D major.

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