Friday April 21 at 7:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $24-$30
In today’s noon concert, we noted how mobility among composers and performers was gradually increasing during the 18th century. The profession witnessed the rise of freelance artists, who could follow opportunities when and where they presented themselves. Such movement, of course, did happen in the Baroque and earlier eras, but in most cases one’s change of location was tied to a specific job in an aristocratic home, royal court, or church. During Mozart’s generation, we begin to see musicians settling in cities without the same degree of patronage. This pattern can be seen in the varying careers of J. S. Bach’s sons, and tonight’s concert explores repertoire composed by them and their colleagues.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) lived his entire life in central Germany, almost entirely within a 200 km orbit between his native Eisenach and his final post in Leipzig. Bach’s professional affiliations typify the itinerant career of a practicing musician in the Baroque era. He served as court organist and choir director (Arnstadt), church organist in a free city (Muhlhausen), court composer (Weimar and Köthen), traveled to observe and advise on organ construction, and even found time to direct the secular Collegium Musicum while serving as music director of the great St. Thomas’s in Leipzig.
Bach is represented this evening by two works. First, we hear a preludial movement from the first French Suite in D Minor. The suite was published around the time Bach settled in Leipzig in 1723, though it probably took shape years earlier. We have firmer evidence for dating Contrapunctus No. 1 from his magisterial collection of counterpoint, The Art of Fugue (1742-1749). Though incomplete at his death, Die Kunst der Fuge exists in an autograph manuscript from the early 1740s, now held in the Berlin State Library.
Speaking of Berlin, it would become closely associated with one of Bach’s children. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was born in Weimar and educated almost entirely by his father. He even entered St. Thomas’s School in Leipzig the year after his father took charge of music at the venerable institution. He continued to explore possible career paths in music while studying law in both Leipzig and Frankfurt. Shortly after graduation in 1738, however, he received a prestigious musical post at the court of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. Emanuel packed his bags and spent the next 30 years in Berlin, performing at the keyboard and writing an influential treatise on keyboard technique, helping to keep the resident court orchestra occupied with chamber and orchestral music, and composing numerous sacred works. The Four Little Duets for two keyboards are the kind of pedagogical pieces Emanuel would have known from his father, here updated to the galant style: written in a homophonic (melody plus accompaniment) manner, free from contrapuntal density, with clearly defined phrase boundaries.
Emanuel’s younger half-brother carried the family name still farther from its ancestral home. Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) is nicknamed by historians as the “London Bach” for obvious reasons; in publications, most produced in his adopted English home, he is usually called simply John Bach. Christian was the youngest son of Sebastian, and enjoyed some instruction from the old master until the latter’s death in 1750. After that he boarded for a short time with Emanuel in Berlin, but the allure of southern climes – as well as the invigorating musical styles explored south of the Alps – brought Christian to Italy in 1754. In many ways his career path mirrors that of Handel: both were born in German lands, spent formative years in Italy, and finally settled in London.
For English audiences John Bach would compose numerous operas, dozens of chamber works, and even several songs on English texts. The two “Vauxhall” songs heard this evening have all the trappings of operatic arias. In particular, the vocal style of “Lovely Yet Ungrateful Swain” celebrates touches of coloratura opulence (high leaps, arpeggios). At the same time, the form is identical to a simple binary dance, with both A and B sections repeated.
J. C. Bach was in London in 1764 when a young prodigy was brought there on tour by his impresario father. The boy, born in Salzburg, was only eight years old but already showing a level of maturity in music that astounded all who met him. Although Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756-1791) would go on to create music far beyond what Bach could imagine, that brief meeting in London proved quite significant. Mozart remained in the capital as a student of John Bach for several months, and later arranged several of Bach’s works for his own performance needs. Listeners interested in what Mozart, the boy, could compose at that tender age will enjoy Sunday’s performance of Bastien und Bastienne, an opera of sorts that Mozart wrote as a 12-year-old.
The works programmed tonight include a substantial Fugue in C Minor for two keyboards, K. 426, composed in 1783. Within its five-minute timespan Mozart exhausts the contrapuntal potential of the jagged, chromatic main subject. That theme echoes famous fugue subjects by other composers (including J. S. Bach), particularly the prominent diminished-7th leaps. Whereas Bach likely could have accomplished nearly all of this music on a single keyboard, Mozart calls upon the full range of his two keyboards to provide greater clarity in the inner parts.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) knew and respected K. 426 enough to copy it out in his own hand, and there are moments that call to mind his final piano sonata, Op. 111, in the same key. Beethoven shared Mozart’s desire to incorporate counterpoint deeply into his musical style, even though that style largely depended on the familiar hierarchy based upon a distinction between leading melody and supporting accompaniment. At their best both composers managed to maintain lyricism while infusing conversational interaction between competing voices. On other occasions, Beethoven could indulge a more experimental whim. For instance, the Two Preludes Op. 39, each modulate quickly through all twelve tonal centers. The results are a little unsettling, but that is unavoidable as Beethoven changes keys nearly every few seconds. It is a technical show of force, to be sure, perhaps what one might expect from a brilliant teenager testing out his skills.
After a decade traveling and living abroad, Mozart felt stifled by the limited opportunities and low wages available at home. In 1777 he resigned his position and set out for southern German cities, including Munich and Mannheim. Mannheim boasted one of the finest court orchestras anywhere in Europe, and Mozart was immediately stimulated by the high level of musicianship. Within a very short time he composed several chamber pieces, beginning with his first Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 285. The choice of flute as the solo in this mini-concerto was probably based on a personal favor. His patron was Ferdinand Dejean, a surgeon with the Dutch East India Company and an amateur flautist. We should recall that commissions often came from prominent or affluent persons who were more or less amateurs (sometimes, far less). Dejean’s commission likely included Mozart’s second flute quartet and two flute concertos, K. 313 and 314.
The first movement of K. 285 offers a classic instance of sonata-allegro form, with its tripartite exposition-development-recapitulation structure. Mozart presents his themes and two principal keys (D and A major, in this case) with the utmost clarity and concision. The development section thrives on contrast, chromaticism, and startling changes of mood. The larger purpose, one might say, is to dramatize the eventual return of the opening theme and key at the recapitulation. Mozart is arguably the greatest composer of all time in handling the graceful return to the home key from distant tonal regions, making the inevitable sound spontaneous and “just right.” The transition back to D major occupies only a few measures, and after that it is smooth sailing.
The second movement, in B minor, provides a contrasting affect between the outer movements in D major. Key is not the only means at Mozart’s disposal: the Adagio tempo, pizzicato articulation in the strings, triple meter, and form all stand in contrast to the mood of the other movements. Mozart heightens the sense of this being an intermezzo by leaving the movement incomplete in itself. Two times he prepares and abandons a final cadence. The movement stops on a rhetorical interruptio, a musical ellipsis that trails off for a moment in silence before the finale begins.
Given a lack of closure to the Adagio, the Rondo finale cannot avoid sounding a little awkward at first. The abrupt return to D major from the dominant-7th chord of F-sharp minor is bound to raise a few brows. Might Mozart have originally planned to complete the movement? In any case, the D-major rondo theme starts right from the off, so we have no time at all to get our bearings before the plot begins to unfold. Elements of sonata form overlap with the periodic returns of the main theme, creating one of the Classical era’s favorite finale structures: the Sonata-Rondo hybrid.
Our program closes with a sizable orchestral work, composed just as the “Classical” symphony was coming into its own. Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony in E-flat Major, Op. 9/2, captures the spirit of the genre as it emerged and developed alongside the opera overture. Recall that Bach spent time in northern Italy in both Bologna (as a student of Padre Martini) and in Milan, which can lay claim to having the earliest non-operatic Sinfonias on record. In this way, Bach found himself in the center of developments in the early symphony. Years later, while living in England, he kept aware of developments on the continent; further stages of the evolution occurred in Mannheim – by virtue of the professional orchestra – and at Esterhazy, where Joseph Haydn was busily at work.
Bach’s Symphony in E-flat Major is cast in three modest-sized movements. (The fast fourth movement was a feature of the Mannheim School of composers and had not yet become the norm.) The opening Allegro strides forth with quiet confidence, building out from pure tonic harmony to reach a second key for a second theme. The second movement offers a striking contrast. Bach introduces pizzicato lowers strings below the muted first violin line, all unfolding in a hushed C minor. We find a Minuet in the familiar third movement spot. It provides a lively conclusion, to be sure, though our modern ears will probably still expect a fast Allegro conclusion that will not appear.
All the familiar features of the sonata form, which J. C. Bach helped to stabilize, are already in evidence: the opening movement’s three-part structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation; themes built on triads; dynamic contrasts and conversational interplay between strings and winds; and brilliant instrumental textures. J. C. Bach cannot be said to have invented the Classical style or the Classical symphony, but he was clearly “in the room where it happened.”
© Jason Stell, 2023