Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday April 5, 2007

JB Bach Suite No. 1 in G minor

orchestration: solo violin; strings; continuo

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

orchestration: continuo; strings

WF Bach Adagio and Fugue in D minor

orchestration: 2 flutes; strings

Bach Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

orchestration: 2 oboes; continuo; strings

It is said that in the late 17th or early 18th centuries, in a certain region of northern Germany, the word “Bachâ€? was a common synonym for musician. The article on “Bachâ€? in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians identifies no fewer than 78 members of the family tree of whom only a handful were not musicians, and fourteen of whom were distinguished enough to merit their own article.

Johann Bernhard Bach is one of the less well known members of the family, though he was a highly successful organist esteemed by Telemann. J.S. Bach thought highly enough of his cousin’s orchestral suites to have them copied by his son Emmanuel and to copy some of them himself for concerts he gave with his collegium musicum in Leipzig. The one to be heard here was one of these. Bernhard’s only surviving works are instrumental, orchestral suites and organ works. The suites survive only through the happy fact that Bach and his sons copied them out in Leipzig.

The Suite No. 1 in G major, scored for string orchestra with continuo, offers a variety of moods ranging from the assertive Overture to a quiet and meditative Air. The Rondeau is a movement of outgoing confidence, followed by a Loure, a Fantaisie, and a Passepied.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have immortalized the name of the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, to whom on March 24, 1721, Bach sent his lavishly beautiful presentation manuscript containing six splendid concertos representing a variety of different approaches to the concerto idea. The form in which we have these six works certainly owes more to the ensemble that Bach directed in Cöthen than to any possible inspiration from Brandenburg. The number of instruments called for in this set of concertos accords perfectly with the make-up of the ensemble at Cöthen. There is neither any evidence that any of these magnificently buoyant concertos was performed in Brandenburg, nor could the Margrave’s small orchestra have undertaken most of them.

The modern notion of the concerto as a work for a full orchestra with one or more soloists had not yet developed in Bach’s day. Indeed, one of his Brandenburg Concertos (the sixth) was intended only for a group of soloists treated as an ensemble, and it is entirely possible that he never intended more than one player on a part in the string parts to any of the Brandenburgs. Despite the presence of prominent and virtuosic solo parts, all of these works fall into the category of “ensemble concertosâ€? rather than “solo concertos,â€? since the soloists share the glory and the challenges equally with the other members of the ensemble.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major is unusual in that it is scored for strings only, divided into nine parts (three each of violins, violas, cellos), plus continuo bass. Though it is completely instrumental, the shape of the opening movement corresponds to that of the da capo (literally, “from the headâ€?) aria that filled Baroque operas: an opening statement (the ritornello) by the full ensemble, then a varied series of treatments of the material, ending in the home key with a restatement of the ritornello. The middle section ends in a contrasting key. In the opera house this contrasting middle section would be followed by a literal repetition of the opening da capo, with elaborate ornamentation on the singer’s part. But in the Brandenburg No. 3, Bach writes out the complete final part because he continues to recast the musical material with different combinations of instruments, and even adds a new countermelody at the beginning of the restatement.

Then comes a mystery: we hear two isolated chords that would normally end the work’s slow movement in the expected E-minor—but there is no slow movement to precede them! This “missing movementâ€? clearly has not been lost, because these two measures appear in Bach’s manuscript right in the middle of a page. Presumably the original performers improvised something over these two sustained chords, and something of the sort often happens today, too, for the lack of any more explicit indication from Bach. It leads directly to the finale, a lively, racing dance movement in binary form—which is to say, in two sections, with each part repeated.

J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, is far less well known to music lovers than two of his younger brothers. Yet he was a daring and imaginative composer whose life was made difficult by his desire to operate essentially as a freelance composer (something rarely, if ever, attempted in his day), without a fixed position or patronage like that of his brothers Emmanuel and Christian. Certainly his musical training, directly from his father, was the best possible. Starting at the age of nine in 1720, he compiled, with his father’s help, a manuscript known as the “Little Piano Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.â€? For the next six years they copied pieces that he was to study—and clearly by the end Friedemann was already an accomplished keyboard performer. The collection was probably also intended to provide models for composition.

Though his first formal position as organist in Dresden called for him mainly to act as a performer, he had enough free time to pursue other interests, including the study of mathematics and musical composition. In 1746 he moved to Halle and married a woman who had a considerable amount of land. The land proved less of a blessing when, during the Seven Years War, it was taxed at a high rate for military purposes. The land-rich, but then cash-poor Friedemann was forced to sell some of the manuscripts he had inherited from his father to pay the bills. Those works, alas, were lost forever.

In 1764, Friedemann resigned his position over disputes of various kinds. Without another job in view, he attempted the difficult task of supporting himself and his family as a freelance teacher and musician. His difficult personality and his increasingly unsettled life prevented him from winning several posts. Poverty forced him to liquidate the rest of his manuscripts, including some of his own works that he attributed to his father, evidently in the hope that they would bring in more at auction.

Clearly what survives of Friedemann’s works is but a small part of what he wrote. Still, despite a much smaller output than that of his brothers Emmanuel and Christian, and its more limited range, Friedemann must be placed with them as one of the most important composers of the middle 18th century.

The Adagio and Fugue in D minor begins with an expressive, pensive, dark movement in a trudging rhythm. Two flutes sing a mournful song in gentle competition. This opening culminates in the beginning of a vigorous fugue subject, demonstrating the technique that Friedemann had learned from his father and retained throughout his life.

J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major has long been one of the favorites in his series of suites, largely on the strength of its second movement, a sustained melody of ravishing tranquility that Bach simply called “Air.â€? It is most often referred to today by the incongruous title “Air on the G string,â€? after an arrangement for solo violin made by August Wilhelmj in 1871. Wilhelmj placed the melody more than an octave lower than the pitch at which Bach wrote it, so that it could be played on the violin’s lowest string (the one tuned to G) with rich effect.

As if to make up for this quiet movement, the remainder of the suite is filled with energetic dance pieces. A brisk pair of Gavottes is played alternativement (that is, with Gavotte I repeated after Gavotte II has been heard), followed by a festive Bourrée, and finished with a rollicking Gigue.

(c) Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)