Reception on the Patio
mprovisation was a major component, if not the foundation, of the organist’s art in the Baroque period. Johann Sebastian Bach, heir to the tradition of Northern European organ composers often referred to as the “North German Organ School,” was no exception. As improvisation played such a major role in Bach’s art, and the boundary between improvisation and composition was a very thin one, why would Bach write down his major organ works?
We know that written-down praeludia in the North German tradition were often composed as teaching models; surely some of Bach’s works fall in this category. It is also possible that Bach wrote down certain preludes and fugues as “fixed” versions — as opposed to the ephemeral versions he undoubtedly extemporized — for the major public organ recitals held periodically throughout his life.
he two sets of Preludes and Fugues heard this evening are certainly reflective of this tradition. BWV 531 is sometimes referred to as the “Lüneberg,” indicative of it being a youthful composition; Bach was in Lüneberg from 1700 to 1703, where he attended school and probably studied with the organist Georg Böhm. He was therefore most likely still a teenager when this piece was composed. Its style also identifies it as a youthful work; it also is very close to the art of improvisation. The fugue ends with a toccata-like flourish, making its form evocative of the multipartite structures of the 17th century, with alternating free and fugal sections, and the prelude contains dramatic gestures and abrupt changes of harmony, both hallmarks of the 17th-century improvisatory style known as the stylus phantasticus. BACK
In contrast, the later BWV 547 (extant copies date from Leipzig, although the work may be earlier) has much more of a “composed” quality. The prelude clearly demonstrates the influence of the famous Venetian violin composer Antonio Vivaldi, whose works were ubiquitous in Western Europe. This can be heard both in its contrasting sections of harmonic stability and instability (evocative of Vivaldian ritornello forms), and in the manner in which Bach draws great amounts of compositional material from the opening motives. The fugue is a contrapuntal tour de force; its subject is heard in stretto (overlapping entries), in inversion and in augmentation, often all at the same time. BACK
horale preludes — short, liturgical works based on a chorale melody, the hymn of the Lutheran church — formed a major part of Bach’s compositional output as an organ composer. (As with Preludes, they were also certainly extemporized in practice as well.) BWV 659 and 661 are both based on one of the chorales for the first Sunday of Advent, but the treatment of the melody in each is very different. In BWV 659, the chorale tune is heard as a heavily paraphrased, ornamented melody on a solo manual; in the latter, it is used as a plodding cantus firmus in the pedal, which contrasts with a lively fugal texture in the manuals. The well-known setting of Liebster Jesu, Wir Sind Hier, BWV 731, is in the general style of BWV 659. BACK
f you attend our Friday concert, you will hear the bass line of the Sonata in G major for violin and continuo again a second time. Our opening trio sonata on that program is composed over a bass line identical to the bass line in this violin sonata. Some believe that this bass line was one Bach assigned to his sons as homework, requiring them to supply both a solo line above the bass and a trio version with two upper lines. The bass line is perhaps well-suited to this purpose, as none of the four movements is terribly long, and the movements offer much contrast.
The opening Adagio is lovely and tender, the Vivace is lively and buoyant, the Adagio is darkly chromatic, and the closing fugue gallops to a triumphant finish at a great pace. It is interesting to compare the thematic material in the two versions: there is no substantial point of melodic similarity between the two versions in the first and third movements, though the effects are quite similar. The second movement employs virtually the same figuration in both versions, and the fourth movement, being a fugue, necessarily uses the same material! BACK
oday we think of the French Suites as concert works (the moniker “French” was not given by Bach, but was applied to the works after his death); in their original manifestations, however, they seem to have been intended as domestic music. Their earliest extant versions exist in the Clavier Book for Anna Magdalena, ostensibly assembled to improve the keyboard skills of Bach’s second wife, and are certainly reflective of the Bach family’s domestic music-making. (Other evidence exists that suites such as the French and English Suites were used by Bach as part of a keyboard/compositional pedagogical program.) They differ from the “English” Suites in that they don’t have preludes. BACK
ach composed many works in sets of six: six Brandenburg concertos, six solo cello suites, six solo violin sonatas and partitas, six organ trios, six French and six English suites, and six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord, of which the Sonata in C minor for violin and obbligato harpsichord is the fourth. Why six?
Bach’s was a mathematical mind; he knew that six is the first “perfect” number (one whose factors add up to itself), making it a symbol of completeness and perfection. His was also a religious mind; he would have expected himself to produce the most complete and perfect six-piece sets possible as an offering to God. Though we cannot define completeness and perfection in music, certainly all of these sets of six are encyclopedic in terms of thorough exploration of the possibilities of each genre.
Unlike the little G major continuo sonata, in which the harpsichord is exclusively in the accompanimental basso continuo role (except in the fugue!), the six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord feature each hand of the keyboard player as an equal to the violin, so that these sonatas are, in effect, trios — or more accurately, trio sonatas, with two equal upper voices (the violin and the harpsichordist’s right hand) supported by a bass line (the harpsichordist’s left hand).
BWV 1017’s almost romantic opening movement is the only Siciliana in the set. The second movement is a determined, imitative Allegro, full of highly varied figuration and purposeful ascending chromatic lines. The following Adagio delineates three utterly distinct roles for the “three” performers: the violin in an impassioned, questioning rhetoric supported by a calmly understanding bass line, the two bound together by wreathed triplet figuration in the harpsichordist’s right hand. The final Allegro is a jaunty, robust affair whose liveliness is capped by a jazzy little passage of cross-rhythms. BACK
Notes by Ian Pritchard and Elizabeth Blumenstock