Johann Sebastian Bach and Michael Hersch, Together Again

“Michael Hersch,” writes NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink, “is a composer we're going to be featuring over the coming seasons; the Gallery Series this season offers our first installments in this multi-year project.” After initial exposure at the Gallery Series concert in October, Utah audiences will have a second opportunity to hear Hersch’s work on April 10 & 17, at NOVA’s second and final Gallery Series program of the season. Hersch, a young American composer, has enjoyed astounding success. Winner of the Rome and Berlin Prizes, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, Hersch has had works commissioned and premiered by many of the world’s foremost symphonies, chamber groups, and soloists, including the Cleveland Symphony, Ensemble Klang, Thomas Hampson, Garrick Ohlsson, Béla Fleck, and Midori.

Composer Michael Hersch

As with NOVA’s Gallery Series last October, the upcoming concert will pair Hersch’s work (this time, the Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello) with a selection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s two-part inventions, as well as Bach’s monumental Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor. “The juxtaposition of Bach’s dance movements, among the most beloved works in the repertoire, with Hersch’s music will offer a nice parallel for an audience seeking a way into his music,” explains Hardink, “since many of Hersch’s works are, like Bach’s dance suites, sets of miniatures.”

From 1717 to 1723, Bach worked at the court of Prince Leopold at Cöthen, a Calvinist court where music during religious ceremonies was forbidden, but secular music during courtly entertainments was embraced. It was while at Cöthen that he wrote many of his most famous instrumental works, including the suites of dances for unaccompanied cello, keyboard, and violin that now form such important parts of the repertoire for each of these instruments. The dance suite brought together stylized folk dances from a wide range of backgrounds, and in the seventeenth century composers and publishers in the German lands began combining these dances into small collections or “suites,” grouped by key. The standard form of this suite was Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue. According to this pattern, the dances would follow a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, with the outer two movements in duple meter and the inner two in triple meter. The stately Allemande (“German dance”) would be followed by the quick-footed courante (from the Italian corrente, meaning “running”), while the grave Sarabande would be followed by the lively, hopping Gigue (from the Irish “jig”). By the time Bach inherited the suite, composers typically added an introductory prelude, meant to introduce the key of the work, and an impressive finale. (For more on the history of Bach’s stay at Cöthen, and on the history of the dance suite, see the NOVA Notes for the October 18 concert.)






Prince Leopold of Cöthen, Bach’s employer from
1717 to 1723

Yet in his second Partita (essentially, an Italian dance suite) for solo violin, Bach stripped away the by-now traditional prelude and finale, reducing the dance suite to its four fundamental dances. To these four movements, he then added a Chaconne, a compositional form in which a short “ground bass” melody is played on a loop while the composer builds variations above this recurring foundation. It is a fun quirk of music history that both the Sarabande and the Chaconne, now known for their expansive stateliness, are thought to have their origins in quick-footed, lubricious dances imported from South America in the sixteenth century. Bach’s Chaconne, on the other hand, is a monumental work of staggering proportions –– the four-bar ground bass is repeated no fewer than sixty-four times –– that has become one of the most famous works ever composed. A century and a half after the Chaconne’s composition, Johannes Brahms would write to Clara Schumann, in June 1877:

The Chaconne is, for me, one of the most unimaginably wonderful pieces of music. On a single string, for one small instrument, Bach writes an entire world of deepest thoughts and most profound feelings. If I could even imagine that I might create such a work, I am sure that the excess of excitement and shock would drive me mad.

A manuscript of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, likely copied by Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena.

And, indeed, Brahms would be one of many composers –– Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Ferrucio Busoni among them –– to arrange the work; Brahms’ version is for the piano, for the left hand alone. On April 17, Bach’s tremendous second Partita will be performed for NOVA’s gallery audience by Alexander Woods on Baroque violin.

Kamala Schelling,  April 5, 2016