ALBUQUERQUE BAROQUE PLAYERS
with special guest Stephen Redfield, Baroque violin
7:30 p. m., Saturday, 10 March 2012, Fellowship Christian Reformed Church
3:00 p. m., Sunday, 11 March 2012, Historic Old San Ysidro Church, Corrales
Two Strings—All Bach!
Trio sonata in C
major, after BWV 530 Johann
Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
recorder, violin, viola da gamba
Duos, from the Clavierübung
violin, viola da gamba
Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b
Sonata in A major, BWV 1015
Andante un poco
Trio in G major, after BWV 1027
Allegro ma non presto
Adagio e piano
oboe, violin, continuo
How did Johann Sebastian Bach comes to occupy the exalted position in which we place him today? Why do we mention his name with such reverence?
What we might loosely call politics must take some of the credit. Bach’s first biographer, Johann Forkel, published his monograph on Bach in 1802, at a time when a German sensibility was rapidly growing. German folk tales and pseudo-folk tales such as those by the brothers Grimm were being collected. German was becoming a respected language of literature and philosophy, which it had hardly been even fifty years earlier, and German cities were developing into important centers of artistic life. Forkel’s subtitle, “for patriotic admirers of the true musical art,” clearly reflects this cultural trend, and his book, based in large part on information gathered from Bach’s two eldest sons, especially C. P. E. Bach, stimulated much interest. Though Forkel had cited mostly keyboard pieces as examples of Bach’s style, by the 1820s the vocal music was being unearthed. While it’s not true that Bach’s music had been forgotten, it is true that the 1829 production of the St. Matthew Passion by Felix Mendelssohn introduced a flurry of performances and led to the first “complete” edition of Bach’s works.
The organization of the Bach Gesellschaft (society) in 1850, marking the centennial of Bach’s death, and the subsequent publication of all of Bach’s music known at the time parallels the rise of German hegemony and its emergence as a modern, consolidated nation. Bach was considered the quintessential German composer, and his Lutheran works—that is, German cantatas and Passions—were most prized. As a musician and as a man, Bach served as a major source of German self-respect and even superiority. German historians, followed by others, placed him at the apex of the Baroque era, and his death at the end of that epoch.
Only after World War II was this view seriously contested. A new edition of Bach’s music, begun in the 1950s, offered new interpretations and corrections—and, it must be admitted, its own errors and miscalculations. Old ideas of chronology have been questioned, and some pieces previously accepted as Bach’s have been deemed spurious or doubtful. The music of important composers contemporary with Bach, notably Telemann, has been rediscovered, reevaluated, and accorded a high status. Scholars and performers seem to have arrived at a balanced appreciation of Bach’s entire corpus of music, whether vocal or instrumental, sacred or secular.
It used to be thought, for example, that most of Bach’s chamber music originated for use in Cöthen, where Bach worked as a court musician, not as a church musician, from 1717 into 1723. It was a tempting hypothesis, resulting in a picture of Bach as a practical man who composed what was immediately useful to him. Nothing wrong with that: Bach did, after all, honor his commitments in whatever post he held. It doesn’t account for, though, Bach’s interior musical life, his personal passions, and his efforts to accommodate these with the pressing responsibilities of his jobs. More recently, scholars believe that Bach, though certainly bound by his obligations, found time and energy and creativity to compose what he wished when he wished. Some such works found function, and some may have been left for future appreciation, but presumably all satisfied Bach’s needs, for his employers and for himself. And what was satisfactory to Bach is remarkable indeed.
This, then, is the key to our appreciation of Bach today: not the language he spoke, nor his career, nor any one genre among his works, but the integrity, richness, expressiveness, and challenge of his music.
Our program includes two sonatas for a single instrument with an obbligato, or written-out, keyboard part rather than a basso continuo line. This type of trio, where the right hand of the keyboardist functions as a second soloist and the left as the continuo, might well have been Bach’s preferred scoring in his chamber music repertory, for within a relatively small number of extant chamber pieces, there are two for flute, three for viola da gamba, and six for violin. Our other trios include a traditional one, for two treble instruments with continuo, and one we’ve transcribed from an organ sonata. For many of these, researchers have posited earlier models or discovered later transcriptions, and we can’t be sure of their precise dates of composition.
The G minor sonata for oboe and harpsichord, a case in point, is widely known in its B minor version as the most demanding of Bach’s flute sonatas. Its first movement is of considerable length and difficulty, its weight calling for a similarly solid finale. Bach’s solution was to write a last movement in two parts, a fugue followed by a thematically related gigue. In between the outer movements is a cantilena for the flute, supported by a thick chordal accompaniment. Only the keyboard part of the G minor version remains, and since that key is so disagreeable for the Baroque flute and so flattering to the Baroque oboe, it’s assumed that this is the harpsichord part of an oboe sonata. Bach did love the oboe and showed that love in obbligato parts in cantatas and Passions, but he left no independent works labeled for oboe. The G minor version most likely predates the B minor flute version.
Another of Bach’s trios better known in a later transformation is the G major trio for two flutes and continuo. (We’ll perform it with violin, oboe, and continuo.) The model for Bach is the Italian sonata da chiesa, by his time in four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement. Fast movements are fugal, or at least significantly imitative. The slowly changing and chromatically inflected harmonies in the third movement are especially beautiful. In its later refashioning, it became a sonata for viola da gamba and obbligato keyboard.
The six violin sonatas with obbligato harpsichord were composed as a set, and the A major is the second of them. As in many of Bach’s groupings, the sonatas as a group seem to present a compendium of possibilities for the genre. In the A major sonata, all movements, not just the fast ones, are highly imitative. Indeed, the third movement is a strict canon between the violin and the right hand of the keyboardist, accompanied by a relentless, detached bass line. In general, the gaiety and lyricism of the A major sonata mask a wealth of contrapuntal devices.
The trio that opens our concert was transcribed and transposed from the sixth organ sonata, in G major. Bach collected the six technically difficult organ sonatas, or trios, for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and that son did in fact become a noted organist, so he must have practiced them assiduously. In our version, the two hands of the organist become, respectively, the violin and the recorder, and the feet become the viola da gamba.
All of these trios were completed sometime in Bach’s early years in Leipzig, in the mid to late 1720s, though some might have had their beginnings in Cöthen. All show Bach’s prowess in counterpoint, his attention to structure—sometimes beyond the individual work, to encompass a set of works—his rich harmonic vocabulary, and his expressiveness. All exhibit typical Bach challenges, both technical and interpretive.
Equally contrapuntal, carefully constructed, expressive, and demanding are the duos from the third part of Bach’s Clavierübung, or Keyboard Practice, published in 1739. The whole comprises a large prelude for two-manual organ, organ chorale settings for parts of the Lutheran Mass and for Luther’s Catechism, and a powerful tripartite fugue for organ (the so-called “St. Anne” fugue). Interspersed among the larger chorales are smaller ones, perhaps for domestic use, playable on a one-manual keyboard without pedals, and, oddly, four duos for unspecified instruments and unspecified use. The chorales are built on traditional hymn tunes, while the duos rest on nothing pre-existent. Various theories have been put forth to explain their inclusion, ranging from the Trinitarian to the trite. They might be symbolic of, say, the four gospels; or of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit; or of Luther’s four teaching precepts; or, more abstractly, of the four elements. It’s also been conjectured that they merely filled out blank spaces on the pages, or even that they were printed by mistake. We’ll perform the third and second of the four, using violin and viola da gamba.
In 1950, just before the first volumes in the new edition of Bach’s complete works were issued, Wolfgang Schmieder published a thematic catalogue for Bach, listing all his works with the first few bars of each along with other basic information, and assigning each a number. These are the BWV—Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or Register of Bach’s Works—numbers, since then commonly found on recordings and printed music and in articles and books about Bach. Once in a while you see them referred to as “S” numbers, honoring the cataloguer. The numbering isn’t by date of composition, which, as we’ve seen, can be unknown or uncertain; it’s by genre. In the 1980s, a new, multi-volume, greatly expanded and more systematic catalogue was begun, in which the authors used “BC” (Bach Compendium) numbers, but the BWV numbers haven’t yet been superseded.