The Double Violin Concerto was composed in Köthen, where Johann Sebastian Bach served as Kapellmeister at the Court of Prince Leopold. Bach did not have access to a good organ, as the prince was an adherent of Calvinism and did not approve of the use of music during divine worship. It comes as no surprise that almost all of Bach’s legacy from the Köthen period comprises instrumental works of a secular character. They include sonatas and partitas for solo violin, suites for solo cello and numerous instrumental concerti.
In his concerti Bach follows the traditions of Antonio Vivaldi, interpreting the latter’s experience in his own unique way. Just like the Italian maestro, Bach uses a three-movement cycle with fast outer movements framing the slow middle one, and he also builds the drama of the first movement against the contrasting sound of the full orchestra (ripieno) and the soloists (concertino).
In the Double Concerto the parts of both violins are perfectly equal in status. The first movement is staggering for the complexity of its counterpoint. The cantilena closely resembles the spirit of an opera duet, and here the orchestra has an accompanying role. In the energetic finale there is almost no sense of the dance features typical of the closing movements of Bach’s concerti, although in terms of the brilliance of polyphonic writing it in no way cedes to the first movement.
Bach’s Double Concerto has become one of the most popular works in the violin repertoire. One performance of the concerto in Moscow in November 1945 went down in history when Yehudi Menuhin – one of the first foreign soloists to perform in the USSR after the war – played it together with David Oistrakh.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major (1880) is one of the composer’s most famous works. When he composed it, Tchaikovsky was making reference both to examples of 18th century music (he himself wrote that “In the first section I have paid my tributes to Mozart; it is a deliberate imitation of his style, and I would be happy if people were to say I was not too distant from the image I took.”) and to the discoveries of his own contemporaries, amongst whom the Hungarian composer Volkmann was particularly close to him.
The typical features of instrumental composition of the early 18th century and Mozart’s era are doubtless present in the first section. The second section – a waltz – is a traditional feature of a serenade as a reference to an everyday genre (in the 18th century this was the minuet). The Élégie (third section) has a definite vocal musical nature: the accompanying voices may be interpreted as a “chorus”, while the main melody is, of course, a romance; it is a brilliant “song without words” alongside other pieces written by Tchaikovsky. We meet yet another everyday kind of music in the finale, the theme of which is the Russian dance song Under the Apple Tree. This undeniable masterpiece by the great composer blends together the traditions of two centuries of Russian and European music.