Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque conversations 4

Thursday April 19, 2012

Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in G major, BWV 1027


Bach Oboe Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b


Bach Violin Sonata in E major, BWV 1016


In celebration of his 15th year as Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra music director, Jeffrey Kahane has invited three LACO principals — cello Andrew Shulman, oboe Allan Vogel and concertmaster Margaret Batjer — to join him in performing sonatas by Bach for tonight’s concert. To help us appreciate this beautiful music even more, let’s try to get a picture of Bach’s life.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musical family in 1685. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was in charge of the musicians in the town of Eisenach, where the Bachs lived. Bach’s father was also his first teacher, and Johann Ambrosius’s brothers—little Johann Sebastian’s uncles—were musicians as well. When Johann Sebastian was about nine years old, he lost both parents within a year of each other. He was taken in by his older brother Johann Christoph, who was also, naturally, a musician. Johann Christoph was the organist at Michaeliskirche in the town of Ohrdruf and had studied under Johann Pachelbel (famous for his much-loved Canon in D). At the side of his older brother, Bach studied the great composers of the day and learned how to play and maintain a church organ.

Bach’s formal music training began at the age of 14, when he entered into the choral school of St. Michael’s in Lüneberg. There, he sang, played instruments, learned languages and studied important subjects like Latin and history. Bach also met even more musicians and gained a favorable reputation for his keyboard playing. After graduation, Bach began working as a court musician in Weimar. It wasn’t a very good job, and he left after only seven months. He then became organist at St. Boniface’s in Arnstadt, which was fortunate because the church had a brand new organ. The organ was tuned in a modern system that made it possible to play in every key; in previous tuning systems, some keys were quite dissonant and were avoided. Although it wasn’t a dream job due to what he perceived as sub-standard singers, Bach worked there for a couple of years. However, Bach did do something that in retrospect might seem impulsive, but was very important for his musical development. Bach took a leave of absence from his post at Arnstadt to meet and study with north German organ master Dieterich Buxtehude. The trip was only to last four weeks, but Bach was gone for four months instead. The delay was in part due to the fact that he walked there and back (a round trip of about 500 miles!), and also because he stayed longer than he planned. Apparently, Buxtehude wanted Bach to take over for him at the Marienkirche, but Bach would have had to marry Buxtehude’s daughter, and he refused the position. Instead he returned to Arnstadt and suffered his employer’s wrath, but stayed at that post for another year.

Bach changed jobs again, going back to Weimar, but in a more prestigious position, and married his second cousin, Maria Barbara. Of their seven children, four grew to adulthood, including two more musical Bachs: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, the latter of whom came to be known as the father of Classicism. The elder Bach used what he had learned on his journeys to compose orchestral and keyboard music while he worked in Weimar. In addition to the French and German influences of his youth, Bach began to incorporate into his music Italian idioms he heard in the music of Vivaldi and Corelli. It’s clear that Bach had a talent for understanding the music of others and for bringing those influences into his own music in a very cohesive and skillful way. Things at Weimar ended poorly, and, after spending a month in jail for arguing about his dismissal, the feisty Bach moved on to yet another new position in Cöthen for Prince Leopold. Since the prince was a Calvinist, Bach’s duties in writing religious music were minimal. He was able, in this time, to complete several important secular works including the music he would later collect as his Brandenburg Concertos.

Bach lost his wife suddenly in 1720. About a year later, he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young soprano with whom he’d worked at Leopold’s court. They produced 13 more children, six of whom grew to adulthood, and among these, there were a few more musicians, including Johann Christian Bach. In 1723, Bach took on the job of Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, a position he would hold until his death in 1750. Here Bach blossomed. He was incredibly prolific, producing church cantatas (one every week), secular cantatas, the B-minor Mass and The Art of Fugue.

After his death, Bach’s music was considered old fashioned, although he continued to be revered by composers who admired his keyboard music. Carl Philipp Emanuel’s prominence in the new style of Classicism (as well as his other musical sons’ work) also brought him some posthumous fame. But Bach wasn’t going to fade into history. First of all, Bach is a composer’s composer; some of the most famous names in history—Mozart and Beethoven among them—studied Bach’s music, and his contrapuntal style lived on in their work. Second, Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at a concert in Berlin in 1829, an event that effectively brought Bach the public attention he never enjoyed during his life.

Tonight’s concert spotlights three of Bach’s sonatas. Although exact dates are unknown for many of Bach’s chamber works, tonight’s sonatas likely come from the 1720s and 1730s, right about the time Bach was taking the job at St. Thomas Church. In Bach’s time, there were two types of sonatas, those for the church and those for court. Two of the three sonatas on our program, the Viola da Gamba Sonata and the Violin Sonata, grew out of the church sonata tradition with a slow introduction, a faster second movement, slow third movement and lively finale. The Oboe Sonata, on the other hand, is an example of the secular sonata that Bach and his contemporary Handel, helped standardize. It begins with a fast movement, leaving the contrasting Adagio for the middle movement, and finally ending with an effervescent Allegro.

Although it was his counterpoint that kept Bach in the minds of composers of succeeding generations, Bach had an incredible gift for melody. The sonatas allowed Bach to display this facet of his talent: the ability to compose long-breathed lines of stunning simplicity and grace. When one sees how many compositions Bach churned out in his lifetime, one might conclude that he was a mechanical producer of pieces, but in reality he was an artist. That he worked for hire, and he fed his large family with the proceeds from his music, did not take away from his ability to create diamonds under pressure. These sonatas are such gems, glistening with Bach’s genius and creativity.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD