Johann Sebastian Bach: History and Context
For a composer who now enjoys universal fame of staggering proportions, the life and career of Johann Sebastian Bach played out over a surprisingly small geographic triangle in eastern Germany. Born in Eisenach, in 1685, to a large extended family of professional musicians, and educated in a handful of towns in the German state of Thuringia, Bach’s employment would never take him more than 150 miles from his birthplace, and it would fall to the generations after his death to bring him the fame he now enjoys. Yet the variety and quality of music Bach would write within this tiny radius, in a provincial corner of Germany, continues to astound, and NOVA will offer a glimpse of this variety over the next two seasons.
Little is known about Bach’s early years: his childhood, his musical education, and his early employment remain lost to the mists of time. We do know that in 1703, at age 18, he accepted a position as church organist at Arnstadt, a small city in Thuringia, and in 1707 a position in the nearby city of Mühlhausen. His tenure in Mühlhausen lasted almost exactly one year, but during this brief period he wrote several cantatas, married his first wife (Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin), and attracted his first students. (In 1707, Bach had also been offered a job as organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, taking over the position of the recently deceased Dieterich Buxtehude. Bach had been a great admirer of Buxtehude’s, and it is an oft-repeated story that, in 1705, he had traveled to Lübeck on foot, a distance of some 200 miles, to see Buxtehude perform. Nevertheless, Bach turned down the position in Lübeck because Buxtehude had stipulated that his successor must marry his daughter, Anna Margreta –– a not uncommon condition at the time, as it guaranteed support for a musician’s children. Unfortunately, the young Miss Buxtehude, said to have been quite unattractive, was a price too high for the young Bach to bear.)
In the summer of 1708, Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Weimar, heard Bach play organ, and promptly offered him a position directing both church and chamber music at the Weimar court. The position was a productive and comparatively lucrative one, and during this time Bach wrote several extant organ works and a number of cantatas, as well as siring his first six children. But after almost a decade spent at Weimar, the time had come to move on, and a new position offered itself at Cöthen.
Bach’s new employer, the young Prince Leopold of Cöthen was a great lover of music. He had studied music in both Berlin and Rome, and could sing as well as play violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. In 1707, at the age of thirteen he had convinced his mother to hire three court musicians, a group which had, by the time of Bach’s arrival at the end of 1717, expanded to eighteen. Yet the Cöthen court was Calvinist, and the strict doctrinal teachings of this particular Protestant sect demanded that no music (except for psalm accompaniment on the organ) was to take place during religious services. Thus, with the exception of a few cantatas written for festival days (such as New Years and weddings), Bach turned his attention away from church music during this time.
Outside of the church, however, music was a constant form of entertainment at Leopold’s court, and Bach was regularly called upon for music to accompany dances, soirées, and other forms of entertainment –– which specifically meant secular music for various instruments. Thus, the six years spent at Cöthen saw an eflorescence of superb and duly famous instrumental pieces. The six suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the sonatas for viola da gamba, and the French suites, English suites, and Partitas for keyboard all date from this time. It is to this music that NOVA turns its sights on its October 18 concert.
Suite in C Major for Unaccompanied Cello
The dance suite as a set form had emerged several decades earlier, as a high-brow compositional form grown out of improvised lute dances. In the seventeenth century, the French court of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, became the de facto gravitational center of art and music in Europe. Louis loved to dance, and his court absorbed a variety of orbiting dance forms from around the European continent. At the courts of Paris and Versailles, these dances were stylized, and developed into cultivated compositional forms. Soon the Germans, nursing their own artistic Francophilia, imported the newly stylized dance forms to their own courts, and gathered the dances together to form a multi-dance suites. The standard structure, especially in the early years, consisted of four dances, in two slow-fast pairs: the Allemande, the Courante, the Sarabande, and the Gigue. The structure was thus slow-fast-slow-fast, with the middle two movements in triple meter and the outer two in duple meter. To this basic format were then added an introductory movement, often a free-form piece to introduce the key of the following suite; and a lively finale. And it is this format that Bach’s various French and English suites adhere, along with the Partitas (essentially, Italian dance suites) and the six beloved suites for unaccompanied cello.
Each of the four central dances had its own particular style and flavor, which improvisers and composers could play with and decorate as they pleased. The Allemande, called such because of its supposed Germanic origin (Allemagne being the French term for Germany at the time), was a slow, stylized dance in duple meter. The earliest mention of the allemande occurs in a manuscript from London, dating to 1521, and by the mid-sixteenth century allemandes for lute, guitar, and keyboard had appeared across Europe. Already considered “antiquated” by the early seventeenth century, it was this very antiquity that lent it its charm at the French court, where everything was meant to be mannered, stylized, and polished to perfection. Renaissance dances tended to be performed in pairs, a slow dance followed by a fast and lively one, and the Allemande was no exception: it was typically followed by a quick, triple-meter dance –– in the four dance suite, it was always followed by the Courante, whose name (from the Italian “corrente”) means, literally, “running.”
The Sarabande, which enjoys the spiciest history of the lot, had its origins as a wild, bawdy dance in Latin America and Spain (commentators at the time suggested that the name came from Peru). Originally a dance with sung lyrics, accompanied by guitar, castanets, and other percussion instruments, in 1583 the sarabande was banned in Spain for its supposed obscenity. (Its tremendous popularity is attested to by references by Cervantes and Lope de Vega.) In the seventeenth century, the sarabande arrived in Italy as part of the Spanish guitar repertoire, and was soon exported to France. In France, however, its guise changed completely: the Sarabande came to denote an untexted, freely sectional work, which in France and Germany was in a slow triple meter, with a distinctive accent on the second beat of the bar.
The Gigue’s origins lie in the "jig" of the British Isles, where, already in the fifteenth century, it was like a fast and lively dance. (In Much Ado about Nothing, Act II scene 1, Willian Shakespeare would write that “Wooing is hot and hasty like a Scottish jigge.”) When it appeared on French soil in the sixteenth century, now called the “gigue,” the dance was still quick and lively, and formed a fine follow-up to the stately sarabande.
The Suite in C Major for unaccompanied cello, featured on NOVA’s program, includes all four of the dances listed above. But rather than ending with a free-form finale, Bach inserts a short Bourée (another dance form) between the Sarabande and Gigue. The Bourrée was originally a French country dance, and folk dances called “bourrée” are still danced in the countryside in certain parts of France. As a courtly dance, it was characterized by duple meter, a “gay” character (according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionaire de musique of 1786), and a step known as the “pas de bourrée” that consisted of a little dip in the knees, a rise to the toes, a step, and a small leap. The Gigue, then, in this suite must fulfil the duties of both lively dance and impressive finale, which it does, by offering a dignified dance full of melodic flourishes and impressive double-stops.
Sinfonias for String Trio
Besides music for church and court, a large portion of Bach’s musical career was dedicated to teaching. Bach had already begun to garner a few students by the end of his stay in Arnstadt, but it was in Cöthen that his work as a pedagogue really took hold. Not only was he attracting more and more students from the city and elsewhere, but his legendary powers as a progenitor (he would father no fewer than twenty children by the end of his life!) meant that he personally supplied a string of pupils in need of musical education. In 1720, he began compiling the pedagogical Clavierbüchlein (little keyboard book) for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, compiling not only short piano pieces but also pedagogical instructions on clefs and on how to play trills and ornaments. Tragically, Bach’s first wife died that same year, and two years later he would marry one Anna Magdalena, née Wilke. Bach’s similarly pedagogical “notebook for Anna Magdalena” made her a household name among piano students. Yet the pieces from Wilhelm Friedemann’s notebook have, on the whole, enjoyed greater fame than the short dances and arias in Anna Magdalena’s book, and it is from Wilhelm Friedemann’s notebook that the pieces on NOVA’s concert come.
Many of the pieces in little Wilhelm’s Clavierbüchlein are well known from their later inclusion in other collections, such as a number of the Preludes from the first Well-Tempered Clavier book, all fifteen of the Bach’s two-part Inventions (here called “Preambuli”), as well as the fifteen Sinfonias (here called “Fantasien”). Yet when you hear the Sinfonias on NOVA’s upcoming concert, they will be performed not on a keyboard, but in an arrange for violin, viola, and cello. This arrangement, besides offering a lovely addition to the string trio repertoire, offers an opportunity for listeners to hear the construction of the music.
Bach was one of the greatest composers of a structure of music called “counterpoint,” in which multiple lines or “voices” are performed simultaneously while retaining their individual identity. (Compare this to later musical structures, where a single melody is performed over a foundation of chords.) The fact that we call these individual lines “voices” should point to the origin of this structure in choral music, where each singer or voice-type would have a set melody. When a group of singers performed together, a complex unified texture would be produced. The extraordinary variety of intellectual treatments that this basic structure could undergo will be on display this season on February 28, when NOVA performs Bach’s stupendous A Musical Offering, and again next season, when NOVA performs his Art of the Fugue. Yet even in these tiny Sinfonias, Bach’s masterful treatment of counterpoint is on display. Each voice is taken on by a single instrument: enjoy hearing how the lines interact, overlap, and play off one another, in a charming dance of musical coordination.
-Kamala Schelling, 10.4.15