Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: baroque conversations 5

Thursday May 9, 2013

WF Bach Sinfonia in D minor, “Adagio and Fugue,” FK 65

orchestration: 2 flutes; strings

Bach Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major (orig. Harpsichord Concerto No. 4), BWV 1055

orchestration: solo oboe d’amore; harpsichord; strings

JC Bach Sinfonia in D major, Op. 3, No. 1

orchestration: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns; harpsichord; strings

Bach Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042

orchestration: solo violin; harpsichord; strings

The Bach family was a musical dynasty that lasted for generations, spanning the 16th century through the 19th. The death of JS Bach’s great-granddaughter Carolina Augusta Wilhemine Bach in 1871 marked the end of the family line. Before their rise to prominence, however, this family was made up of simple town fiddlers who made money from music informally: court musicians who formed part of orchestras, big and small; organists who worked at humble and great churches; and Kapellmeisters who held positions of esteem in various cities. Today, we consider Johann Sebastian to be the most famous member of the Bach family, but this was not the case during his lifetime. JS Bach gained worldwide popularity (and had many of his pieces published) only some 50 years after his death. (Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, was, by comparison, much more famous in his own time than he is today.)

By all accounts, JS Bach was a hard-working composer and music director who gave little thought to his lasting fame. He was also a family man who fathered 20 children, though only ten would reach adulthood. A few of Bach’s sons went into the family business of music and achieved some level of success: his two oldest— Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel—as well as his youngest—Johann Christian. Tonight, we feature the music of Bach and two of his most famous sons on this program.

Johann Christian Bach, JS Bach’s 18th child and one of the 13 children he had with second wife Anna Magdalena, was born on September 5, 1735. He likely studied a bit with his father when he was young, but the elder Bach’s blindness and ill-health meant that much of Johann Christian’s musical education did not take place at his father’s knee. After his father’s death, Johann Christian went to live with his successful older brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel in Berlin, who took over teaching his half-brother. A fine keyboard player and fledgling composer, Johann Christian was heavily influenced
by the Italian opera of his day, and he traveled to Italy to learn more. He was appointed an organist at Milan’s Cathedral, but soon turned to opera over religious music, composing for productions in both Naples and London.

The Sinfonia in D major on tonight’s program comes from Johann Christian’s third opus, a collection of half a dozen symphonies dating from the 1760s. These pieces were written when the composer was around 30 and living in London. In April of 1764, a young prodigy named Mozart came to London and met Johann Christian. The two got along famously, and from that moment on, Mozart was deeply influenced by the music of the older composer. Mozart did not undertake formal study with JC, but the two did improvise together, and the young Mozart was quite fond of Bach’s music. The Op. 3 Sinfonias were written to be performed as part of a 15-part subscription series in London. The Sinfonia belongs to the tradition of the early Classical period, with a three-movement form, simple succinct themes and phrases and an economy of transitions and form. Mozart’s own early symphonies reflect the style seen in the works of JC Bach’s Op. 3.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was Bach’s eldest son (he had one older sister), born November 22, 1710. He showed great promise as a child, but was not able to reach his full potential, falling into poverty and ill health near the end of his life. Nonetheless, he was known for his abilities as an organist and was renowned as an improviser. He moved from position to position and from city to city, never quite finding the right fit for his talents. The compositions of WF Bach have proved something of a puzzle for musicologists who cannot date or even authenticate many of his works. The Sinfonia in D minor on tonight’s program was published in the 20th century and consists of just two movements, an Adagio and a Fugue. WF Bach’s own compositional style vacillated between the contrapuntal ideals of his father’s generation and a more contemporary vein, sometimes achieving the best of both worlds. The Fugue in the Sinfonia displays the affinity WF Bach had for the older fashion.

Johann Sebastian Bach had great talent in writing keyboard music and was also a skillful composer for strings. Some of his most breathtaking melodies, however, were written for woodwinds. One of the finest examples of this is Bach’s Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major. The oboe d’amore is a bit larger than the standard oboe (and they share much of the same pitch range), but it has a distinctive tranquil timbre that makes it uniquely suited for certain musical moments. The concerto begins with a long passage for the ensemble. When the oboe d’amore enters, it echoes the opening theme,and subsequently, the soloist and orchestra continue to trade the spotlight. The ensemble nearly always assumes an accompanimental role when the soloist is playing. The oboe d’amore plays long and complex lines that exemplify the intricacy of Baroque musical phrases. The second movement, marked Larghetto, features a long-breathed, aria-like melody that seems to spin out endlessly, twisting around the accompaniment. The final movement is once again vivacious, with the violin and oboe d’amore demonstrating the virtuosity of the soloists. Throughout the concerto, the oboe d’amore shows its luscious timbre in the low register and its effervescent voice in the middle and upper parts of its range. It is no wonder that Bach used the uniquely serene sound of the oboe d’amore to great effect not just in this concerto, but in both the St. Matthew Passion and the B-minor Mass.

In JS Bach’s Oboe d’amore Concerto and his other work on this program, the Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, we can see the High Baroque style at work. As a contrast, the work of Bach’s children — especially JC and CPE — represents a later time period, and a new stylistic approach that prefigured the Classical period. Bach wrote his Second Violin Concerto while he was working at Köthen as Kapellmeister. Much of his instrumental music comes from this time, including clavier music and numerous concertos. For the latter genre, Bach studied the work of the Italians, particularly Vivaldi, whose skill as a composer of concertos is legendary. Bach’s ability on the violin and familiarity with collections such as Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico helped him create works like the Second Violin Concerto. There are three movements in this concerto, two fast outer movements with a slow movement in the middle. Bach uses the ritornello form Vivaldi was fond of, in which passages for the full orchestra alternate with parts for the soloist. The second movement mimics an operatic lament with the voice of the solo violin providing counterpoint to the morose mood of the orchestral music. The finale is a rondo form, with returns to an opening phrase. The soloist enters between recitations of the rondo subject, playing soloistic material that builds on the main theme.

After JS Bach’s death, he left his music in the care of Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. CPE Bach was careful with his father’s music, and it is because of his prudence that many of these works survived and were eventually published. WF Bach, on the other hand, lost much of his musical inheritance, including three violin concertos. What survives of the Bach dynasty, however, is a rich legacy of music that spans many generations. The training of the Bachs and the experiences that led them to different parts of Europe caused ripples of influence that cannot be fully quantified.

This musical family’s history is a microcosm of the development of music over parts of four centuries, and it is a monument that will likely never be duplicated.
–Christine Gengaro, PhD