Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque conversations 1

Thursday January 17, 2013

Bach Trio Sonata in C major for Oboe and Violin (orig. for Two Violins), BWV 1037


Bach Trio Sonata in G major for Two Flutes, BWV 1039


Bach Trio Sonata in C minor for Flute and Violin from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079


Bach Trio Sonata in C major for Oboe and Viola (orig. Organ Sonata), BWV 529


Tonight’s program features the trio sonata, a genre closely affiliated with Baroque composers such as Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) and Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1751). The four trio sonatas being performed this evening, however, are attributed to the master of the High Baroque style, Johann Sebastian Bach. Three of the sonatas are almost certainly Bach’s, but one has a slightly cloudy history.

To say that Johann Sebastian Bach was a busy man would understate his productivity immensely. When he worked at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1723–1750), his duties included composing new music for every Sunday service and feast day, training singers and instrumentalists from the four churches in the city and writing special pieces for weddings and funerals. In addition, in 1729, Bach took over as the director of the Collegium Musicum. An ensemble of music-lovers who were mostly university students, the Collegium put on frequent performances around the city. Bach also had a large family to look after; he fathered 20 children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. Bach, like many composers, sometimes arranged his own music for different ensembles. This skill was a practical necessity, allowing composers to change a piece to suit available instrumentalists or fit a new situation. Far from being an “easy way out,” these arrangements actually required a great deal of skill in orchestration, since what worked on one instrument didn’t necessarily work on another. Two of the pieces on tonight’s program are trio sonata arrangements of earlier works.

On the surface, the term ‘trio sonata’ is something of a misnomer. Rather than the expected three players, there are actually four in the group, but the basso continuo duo—in our case, cello and harpsichord—really counts as a single entity. While the basso continuo holds together the harmonic aspect of the music, the two solo instruments play in counterpoint with each other or play together in harmony. The first three of tonight’s trio sonatas share a similar structure. Each one has four movements: The first and third are slow, while the second and fourth have a quick tempo. The last trio sonata has just three movements: The first and third are quick,
with a slow contrasting section in the middle.

The first work of the evening, the Trio Sonata in C major for Oboe and Violin, was originally scored for two violins and continuo and attributed to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the virtuoso harpsichordist who was the intended performer of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Not published until more than a decade after Bach’s death, the authorship of the piece was, at first, attributed to Goldberg, who was encouraged in his composing by Bach himself. However, a few years later, Goldberg’s piece was added to Bach’s catalogue. Many scholars agree that the piece was indeed Goldberg’s, but it remains in some sources as belonging to Bach(labeled a “doubtful” attribution).

From 1717 to 1723, Bach was employed in Köthen as the Kapellmeister (musical director) for Prince Leopold. Bach’s employer was himself a musician, and recognized Bach’s considerable skill and talent. Leopold didn’t require Bach to write a lot of religious music (as a Calvinist, Leopold’s religious musical needs were fairly limited), so Bach concentrated on secular and instrumental music. He composed the Trio Sonata in G major for Two Flutes while he worked for Leopold, and it is a stunning piece.

The Trio Sonata in C minor for Flute and Violin actually comes from one of Bach’s late compositions. Bach composed The Musical Offering after visiting the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, in Potsdam in 1747. The King asked Bach to improvise a fugue based on a theme of the King’s invention. Bach did so, brilliantly, and then wrote a collection of pieces, including the original fugue, based on Frederick’s theme, calling the collection The Musical Offering. It included two ricercares for keyboard (pieces with imitative polyphony); canons for flute, violin and continuo; and a trio for flute, violin and continuo. That Trio, performed tonight, is one of Bach’s most challenging and elaborate works in the genre.

The Trio Sonata in C major for Oboe and Viola originated as a work for solo organ. Because of the unique design of the instrument — with different manuals for the hands and a keyboard for the feet — it is possible to play three separate parts on the same instrument. Bach composed six Trio Sonatas for Organ. When Bach turned the Organ Sonata into the Trio Sonata for Oboe and Viola, he had the opportunity to bring out the different voices of his original composition. The timbres of the instruments allow the ear tomore easily perceive the interplay of the three parts, and to truly appreciate the art of the trio sonata in the hands of a master.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD

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