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An Afternoon with Bach

An Afternoon with Bach

Sunday May 19 at 4:00 pm
Augusta Stone Presbyterian Church | $24

Program Notes

Many composers can be described as extraordinarily broad in their outlook. But Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) seemed particularly motivated to develop every musical style, idiom, technique, instrument, and genre he encountered to a new degree of sophistication and variety. Today’s concert includes a series of short pedagogical works, one of Bach’s six French Suites, and a brilliant adaptation of the fashionable concerto genre making its way into northern Europe just after 1700.

But despite all the music Bach wrote specifically for keyboard, there is still strong interest among harpsichordists to perform works from his literature for other instruments. In particular, the great Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are a prime target for adaptation. There are historical precedents for this practice. During the composer’s lifetime, Bach himself (or perhaps one of his sons) arranged the A-Minor Violin Sonata for solo keyboard. More recently, acclaimed harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt made a version of Bach’s C-Major Sonata transposed to G major. Regarding his arrangements, Leonhardt humbly penned, “I think Bach would have forgiven me for embarking on these transcriptions. Whether he would have forgiven the way I did it is, of course, another matter.”

The Sonata in G Major, originally for unaccompanied violin, includes four movements in alternating slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement. The opening Adagio is dominated by a long-short rhythmic motive that permeates the texture as the number of voices gradually increases from one to four in the opening bars. On solo violin, the supporting harmonies cannot always be realized due to technical limitations, and this is one area where the keyboard version allows the music to unfold with far richer warmth and volume. On the other hand, the harpsichord cannot sustain a single pitch as well as a violin, so the arranger can introduce trills and ornaments to suggest melodic sustain. The second movement contains a massive three-voice fugue, lasting nearly ten minutes. Its theme, adapted from a Lutheran chorale melody, is brilliantly simple: narrow in range (covering only a 4th interval between highest and lowest tones), rhythmically varied, and suggesting possible harmonic support already in its barest form. In this tour de force display, Bach at times piles up overlapping statements of the main subject (i.e., stretto), inverts the texture to place the theme subject both above and below the counter-subject, and introduces brand new themes that border on a double fugue. Bach will not develop the subject in every bar of this grand movement, but hints and fragments of the theme are never far from the action.

After the fugue, Bach places a tender Largo in C major. Our ears welcome the change of tonal center, while the sinewy theme unfolds with a kind of reassuring consistency. Little needs to be added here by Leonhardt apart from a few touches to clarify the harmonic support. In the rousing Gigue finale, Leonhardt has more decisions to make as the single line of running notes hardly make use of the available resources for the keyboardist. As such, Bach’s fleet melodic line is bolstered by the arranger’s tasteful addition of supplemental bass notes. Purists might prefer the solo violin version, of course, but Leonhardt’s arrangement has the dual merits of being both stylistically sound and tastefully restrained in its handing of Bach’s original.

Bach’s works, including the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin just mentioned, often straddle the boundary between pedagogy and performance. This distinction must not be stressed too firmly, for it’s more of a modern classification than one Bach himself would have recognized. Music was music, whether it ended up being heard in public or remained known only to a few intimate friends and students. Occasionally Bach did explicitly mention his pedagogical purpose. For instance, the manuscript collection of Inventions and Sinfonias – a body of short keyboard pieces in two- and three-part counterpoint – opens with the composer’s own statement on the matter:

Forthright instruction, wherewith lovers of the clavier [harpsichord], especially those desirous of learning, are shown in a clear way not only 1) to learn to play two voices clearly [i.e., the two-part Inventions], but also after further progress 2) to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts [Sinfonias], moreover at the same time to obtain not only good ideas, but also to carry them out well, but most of all to achieve a cantabile style of playing, and thereby to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.

Even today, the Sinfonias are a staple of musical instruction, from keyboard technique to ear training. Young musicians are instructed to follow or even sing one line while playing the other two in order to reinforce the perception of Bach’s crystalline counterpoint. The fifteen Sinfonias are organized in an ascending tonal pattern and include eight in the major mode and seven in minor. Not all of the possible 24 major and minor keys are visited (such as in The Well-Tempered Clavier), but still the sampling allows budding musicians to experience the range of commonly-used tonalities: C major/minor, for instance, and G major/minor, as well E-flat major, E minor, B-flat major, and B minor. In three-part counterpoint the leading voice (subject) will be presented first, then change to a contrasting countersubject as soon as the second voice enters; the pattern is then repeated for the entrance of the third voice. Though Bach would explore four-, five-, and even six-part counterpoint in other compositions, the model presented in the Sinfonias strikes an optimal balance between instructional simplicity and aesthetic sophistication.

In the early 1720s Bach’s pedagogical impulse began to flourish prompted by the needs of his immediate family. His two eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel, born in 1710 and 1714 respectively, were ready for new musical challenges. Also, the widower Bach had remarried in late 1721 to Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a talented 20-year-old soprano. With these pupils in mind, Bach created early drafts of numerous keyboard works, including preludes and fugues destined for The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Inventions and Sinfonias, as well as the majority of his French Suites. Of the six suites eventually completed and grouped together, five appear in the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena” that Bach began compiling in 1722. The sixth suite was added about two years later.

The designation French Suites, descriptive as it may seem, probably misleads more than helps. One could argue that the most specifically “French” feature is the style of ornamentation. But apart from the concluding Gigue in Suite No. 1, there are no French Overture movements, and the dances are more often Italian in character. Bach himself never called the suites “French.” That task fell to posterity, which applied the label to distinguish them from Bach’s other sets of six suites. During his lifetime they were referred to as the Little Suites; the grander English Suites and Italian Partitas are rather more ambitious in scale and difficulty. The French Suites charm through subtlety and melodic beauty, favoring refinement over display . . . well, perhaps they truly are French after all!

The opening suite in D minor includes the basic dance core of the suite as it had come to be defined by the early 18th century: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Most suites also include diverse “alternative” dances that provide contrasting character and help expand the overall size of the suite. Allemandes had originated in German-speaking lands in the early 16th century, though it was in the hands of French and Italian composers that it became the standard opening movement. The Courante which follows is more lyric than most. The Sarabande is a particular highlight with its striking dissonance and grave majesty. The optional dances here are one or two Minuets (depending on which source the performer follows), and the suite closes with a contrapuntal Gigue.

Throughout the Baroque era, Italian and French musicians had fought – sometimes quite literally – for the upper hand in opera and concert music. Italian masters would occasionally be unceremoniously dismissed from Parisian courts, and vice versa. Working within his narrow central German orbit, Bach could stand aloof from all this political foolery, though he remained finely attuned to the inflections of musical style that resulted from Franco-Italian relations. He had already made close study of Italian concerto technique, and had also worked extensively in the French dance suite tradition. Around 1735 Bach conceived the idea of pairing French and Italian works within a single collection; as we will see, the material for both was already in his portfolio. The title page indicates Bach’s desire to present the works as a pair, a grand synthesis:

Second part of Keyboard Exercises, consisting of a Concerto after the Italian Taste [Gusto] and an Overture in the French Manner [Art], for a harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach . . . .

This would become the second installment in his Clavier-Übungen (Keyboard Exercises), comprising the French Overture and the Italian Concerto. Today’s concert concludes with the latter work.
Bach made numerous transcriptions of Italian concertos, mostly of works by Vivaldi and Albinoni, during his years in Weimar (circa 1710). Bach’s generation still learned by virtue of imitation and apprenticeship. If he wanted to master the newest trends from Italy, he could either go there like Handel (1707) and Mozart (1770), or – and this was eminently more practical – he could copy them out by hand. For instance, even before Vivaldi’s famed L’estro Harmonico concerto collection was published in Amsterdam in 1711, Bach had acquired a copy in manuscript from which he made six transcriptions. Of course, Bach would not have been Bach if he had simply transcribed the model without alteration, note-for-note. No, at almost every turn in the music Bach could find some different detail – a slightly different harmonic pattern, a fuller bass, perhaps putting the melody in the bass and the chords up above. The possibilities were nearly endless, and he exploited the raw material for all it could offer. By the end he had internalized the drama, brilliance, and rhetoric of the Italian concerto. Thus when Bach composed his own Italian Concerto in F Major around 1735, it was with a fair amount of experience. A draft of the first movement has been preserved in the composer’s own hand and seems to date from much earlier in his life, perhaps going back as far as Weimar.

The Italian Concerto stands apart as Bach’s only example of an original concerto for solo instrument without orchestra. All the give-and-take, all the dialogue that defines concerto form must here be suggested by the keyboard alone. Bach explicitly calls for a two-manual harpsichord so that the different volume and timbre of the two keyboards can mimic an opposition between soloist and orchestra. Significantly, this Concerto marks one of the very few occasions when Bach notates forte (“loud”) and piano (“soft”) directly in the score. Moreover, these dynamic markings were not included in Bach’s earlier version of the Concerto’s first movement. The outer fast movements are spirited and robust; the finale in particular never lets off the gas from the moment it begins. Still Bach manages to introduce a fair amount of counterpoint – more counterpoint, in fact, than would have been typical of fast movements by Vivaldi or other Italians. In the middle Bach positions a plaintive Andante. This Andante typifies the beauty of Baroque song, with a rock-steady accompanying pulse in the left hand supporting the spontaneously lyric and highly ornamented melody. There is a hardly a treble note that is not set alight with a flurry of decoration. Bach’s contemporaries apparently adored the newest concertos imported from abroad. His Italian Concerto rivals anything in the genre, with the added advantage that its performance only requires one musician.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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