The Old-Bachian Archive

The Old-Bachian Archive

April 9 at 7:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

The Bach Family

Today the family name Bach is synonymous with Baroque music. All told, the Bach clan included more than 50 professional musicians and composers - mostly men, but a few women as well - born between Hans Bach (c. 1575) and the end of the 18th century. And above all others, we revere Johann Sebastian Bach as the highest expression of techniques that had been generations in the making. But when Bach died, he was not the most famous musician of the day (that was Telemann), nor was he even the most famous Bach (that honor fell to his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel). This is not to diminish Sebastian’s genius, but rather to situate him in the midst of a musical lineage that neither began nor ended with him.

During the peak years of the Bach family activities, an informal collection of works began to take shape. The Alt-Bachische Archiv (Old-Bachian Archive) contains dozens of works from the 17th century, many of which are known only by their preservation in this manuscript collection. Historians believe that Johann Sebastian’s father, Ambrosius, either began or substantially enlarged the project. Most of the original manuscripts were lost during the Second World War. Some were destroyed during bombing raids; others disappeared, only to be unearthed again as recently as 1999 in Ukraine. Fortunately, the Alt-Bachische Archiv contents had previously been published in 1935. It remains a priceless repository of vocal works by the leading composers of central Germany at the time.

Before diving into works represented in the Old-Bachian Archive, we begin with a signature composition by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). As most listeners will know, Bach produced an enormous amount of music in nearly every genre: dance suites, cantatas, passions, concertos, chamber works for all families of instruments, and organ works. In most cases his compositional efforts were driven by his employment circumstances. Organ works occupied his time during the early posts in Weimar and Arnstadt, for example, whereas sacred cantatas were required each week for his post in Leipzig years later. In Köthen (1717-1723), the Calvinist court of Prince Leopold, secular instrumental music was favored. Bach obliged by composing the famous Brandenburg Concertos, the works for solo violin and cello, and four Orchestral Suites. The latter were a popular form in Bach’s day, though he wrote far fewer than contemporaries like Telemann or Fasch. They all begin with a movement in the French Overture manner (hence Bach’s designation for the entire suite as an Ouverture), followed by various combinations of dances.

The Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major shows the traditional form of the French Overture: three sections in which the first and last are based on a dotted-note theme played by full ensemble; the middle section is in a fast, fugal style. D major is a tonality well-suited to the inclusion of natural (valveless) trumpets, which contribute a striking tonal quality. The central fugue of this overture is longer than many others in the genre, but it provides a suitably expansive beginning for this magnificent Suite. The overture is followed by one of the most globally performed and recognized pieces of Baroque music. The Air in G Major signifies a lyrical, non-dance movement. Its appeal lies in the transparent and simple harmonic structure enlivened with chromatic touches, over which Bach’s string trio takes alternating turns in presenting the melodic line. The remaining four movements in this Suite are two Gavottes, a Bourrée, and a Gigue. This Suite has fewer movements than its companions in the genre. But the exact number of movements in such works was not a rigid concept. Dances could be added or removed to accommodate the specific situation. In its present form, the D-major collection shows an orchestral suite at its most streamlined.

One of Bach’s ancestors included in the Archive is Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694), a prominent organist and instrument builder. He has the distinction of being Sebastian’s cousin and father-in-law (Sebastian’s marriage to second cousin Maria Barbara was something of an issue at the time). Only a handful of organ works and about 20 sacred vocal pieces survive, including the sacred cantata, Ach bleib bei uns, heard this evening. The simple style, including striking contrasts between repose and great intensity, reflects what Sebastian Bach’s early lost vocal works may have sounded like. After an instrumental introduction, the four-part choir delivers the text in largely homophonic textures. Phrases are short, giving the entire work a punctuated, sectional feel. Later passages grow increasingly contrapuntal, drawing upon poignant dissonant figurations to express the text’s “agony” and pleading. The entire cantata lasts just six minutes and does not carry the structural integrity of Sebastian’s works in the genre. Yet as its intent is simply to musically support the spiritual meaning of a fairly short Biblical passage, it shows just how successful the Old Bachs were in their craft.

There are several important figures in the family tradition named Johann Christoph Bach. One was an uncle born in 1645, twin brother of Sebastian’s father. Another was Sebastian’s elder brother (born 1671), who became his main teacher and guardian upon the death of their parents. A third Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) worked as organist and court musician in Eisenach, the birthplace in 1685 of his much-younger cousin Sebastian. This Christoph is an interesting personality: ambitious, itinerant, often conflicting with his employers, who in turn were utterly devoted to him. For instance, rather than let him be wooed by a beautiful organ and job offer in another town, the town elders raised funds to build Christoph a new one right in Eisenach! Nevertheless, reputation did not ensure financial success, and Christoph sadly died in abject poverty. He was revered by Sebastian.

Johann Christoph Bach produced excellent works for the organ, several of which were long attributed to Sebastian. Such is the case of the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat for organ, formerly designated BWV Ahn. 177 in Sebastian’s catalog of works. This manualiter piece (i.e., not requiring organ pedalboard) opens with a brilliant fantasia style prelude, which also recurs at the close of the fugue. The harmonic writing is quite adventurous and includes direct chromatic successions that might be atypical even for Sebastian. Christoph continues to exploit the chromatic element most clearly in the four-voice fugue, whose subject touches all the semitones between the tonic and dominant pitches. There is a lot here that Christoph’s young cousin would exploit in his own magisterial organ works.

The earliest Bach on tonight’s program is Georg Christoph Bach (1642-1697), born just two months before the organ-composing Johann Christoph just mentioned. Georg was Sebastian’s uncle and received his initial musical training in Arnstadt. Little biographical information survives about Georg. We know that he attended Leipzig University and that he held several church posts in the last decades of his life. Among his extant works are a few vocal compositions and several chorale preludes for organ. Without doubt, his most significant work is the celebratory cantata Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist es, based on Psalm 133. Notations in the score indicate Georg wrote the music to mark his birthday in 1689. The scoring for two tenors and bass voice, plus violin and gambas, may connect to the personnel on hand for the party: Georg, of course, as well as a special visit from his younger twin brothers, Johann Christoph and Ambrosius (Sebastian’s father). The cantata opens with an instrumental sonata built on contrapuntal imitation between the strings. It flows directly into a trio for voices who deliver the prevailing, and obviously timely message: “What a delight it is when brothers can sit down together in friendship.” Phrases of text are interspersed with engaging instrumental dialogue, and changes of meter (from duple to triple and back) create a highly sectional feel. Closing all is a quasi-sacred Amen - suitable given the Biblical text being set, but also emphasizing the brothers’ deep religious feeling and joy at being reunited.

The final work brings us back to Johann Sebastian, writing a secular cantata at the height of his powers. Cantata 207, “Vereinigte Zwietracht,” was written and first performed in 1726 in Leipzig. As is the case with nearly all of Bach’s secular vocal works, Cantata 207 took shape around a specific event, in this case the installation of Gottlieb Kortte as a new professor at Leipzig University. Bach was not opposed to creating music on-demand for academic or civic purposes, and he composed a similar cantata just one year earlier (BWV 205). In such cases, he was also not averse to recycling his own music to help fill the commission, especially if time was of the essence. Several of the ten movements (but mainly the opening chorus) draw from themes aired in his Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, written several years earlier in Köthen.

Cantata 207 features four vocal soloists each fulfilling an allegorical role suitable for the academic occasion: luck or happiness (soprano), gratitude (alto), hard work (tenor), and honor (bass). Supporting the voices is a rich collection of instrumental colors, headed by the festive inclusion of three trumpets and timpani. The opening March and Chorus create a summons: it would have been hard for any passing student at the university to not stop and observe this grandiose musical celebration of Herr Prof. Kortte’s arrival. Between this brilliant movement and the standard final chorus, Bach inserts three recitative-aria pairings. The first features solo tenor (“Hard Work” in the allegory) in an extensive accompanied recitative, outlining how “a man rightly enjoys the rest that has been made sweet by sour sweat.” The following B-minor aria, scored for tenor and strings, is not surprisingly (given the text) technically demanding. Bach then proceeds to a duet between Luck/Happiness (soprano) and Honor (bass), which works as a virtuosic two-voice fugue with continuo accompaniment. After a brief instrumental ritornello, the final recitative/aria pairing goes to Gratitude (alto). However, prior to the traditional final chorale, Bach introduces another lengthy recitative for all four soloists. Both Bach and the librettist (unnamed, but likely his frequent collaborator, Picander) knew that the student audience would be losing the thread by this point (“You sleepy people, come here! Look on Kortte , a man beloved by me.”). Any attempt to reprise the foregoing lofty sentiments must be matched - and is - by music of such grandeur that none can resist its call to action.

(c) Jason Stell