Bach Flute Sonatas

Flute Sonata in Eb (BWV 1031)      J.S.Bach (1685-1750)
Susan Addington, Flute

The history of Bach’s flute sonatas is unclear. He probably wrote most of them while in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. Prince Leopold was a young man who loved music and who gradually expanded his court orchestra to eighteen players. In 1717 he engaged 32-year-old Bach as Kapellmeister (the highest position of musical responsibility in that day) and the esteem in which Bach was held can be seen from the fact that his salary was twice that of his predecessor. The Prince was an accomplished musician himself and played the violin, viol and harpsichord.

All performances at Cothen took place at court, with other courtiers taking part, as they wished or as they were requested. Cothen was then Calvinist — which forbade instrumental music in church — so Bach focused all of his attention on secular music. His six year tenure in Cothen saw the composition of some of the most significant instrumental compositions in Western music: the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and the first book of the Well- Tempered Clavier (all pedagogical), the French Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Cello Suites (favorites of Pablo Casals and Yo Yo Ma), the Sonatas for harpsichord and violin, the Brandenburg Concertos (widely regarded as the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era), some of the Orchestral Suites and the Flute Sonatas.

Not many manuscripts survive from Bach’s period at Cothen and most of the surviving material comes from his subsequent 27 year tenure in Leipzig. Bach later arranged a number of his Cothen works for the concerts of his Leipzig University Collegium Musicum. In arranging his earlier trio sonatas for solo instrument and keyboard, he laid the foundation for a genre that continues today, a genre transmitted through Bach’s sons to classical and romantic composers.

Bach’s flute sonatas were probably inspired by local flautists whose skill is obvious from the challenging solo parts in his cantatas and settings of the Passion. His visit in 1747 to the court of Frederick the Great (where his son Karl was Kapellmeister, and Frederick’s ability as a flautist was considerable) certainly produced the Musical Offering (an hour-long set of Sudoku-like pieces based on a theme composed by Frederick himself) and probably the Flute Sonata in E major as well. Some of Bach’s flute sonatas have been attributed to his son Karl. Regardless of their provenance, these sonatas remain foundational to the flute repertoire.

Susan Addington is a professor of Mathematics at California State University at San Bernardino, where she has taught for 27 years. Along with mathematics, she studied flute with Louis Moyse at Marlboro College in Vermont. Raised in Minneapolis, the daughter of a newspaper editor, she now lives nearby with her husband David Dennis. Funded in part by the Gates Foundation, Susan is currently part of a team writing a free, open-source middle school math curriculum, due out next summer. For more information go to: