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8.570361 - BACH, J.C.: 6 Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 17
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Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)
Six Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 17

 

Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, was born in 1735 in Leipzig, where his father had served as Thomaskantor since 1723. By the time of his birth his two eldest brothers, born to Johann Sebastian's first wife, had left home. Wilhelm Friedemann was employed as organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden and Carl Philipp Emanuel was at the University of Frankfurt-am-Oder. The fourth surviving son of Johann Sebastian's first marriage, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, had secured a position as organist at Mühlhausen, where his father had once served. Three surviving older children of the second marriage were at home, including the feeble-minded Gottfried Heinrich and the three-year-old Johann Christoph Friedrich. Johann Christian was taught by his father and perhaps by his cousin Johann Elias, who had come to live with the family. By the time of his father's death in 1750 he was the last of the sons to remain at home, Johann Christoph Friedrich having recently found appointment as an organist at Bückeburg.

On his father's death Johann Christian moved to Berlin, where his half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel was now harpsichordist to King Frederick the Great. Here he was able to undertake further study with his brother and it was during the following three years in Berlin that he wrote his first keyboard concertos and a choral ode for the King's birthday, among other compositions. In 1754 he seized the opportunity to travel to Italy, where introductions enabled him to enter the service of Count Agostino Litta, a member of one of the leading families in Milan. His patron encouraged him to turn his attention to church music and there followed a period of study with Padre Martini in Bologna. By 1757 he had become a Catholic and in 1760 was appointed organist at Milan Cathedral, although by now he had started to interest himself more in secular forms. His first opera, Artaserse, was written in 1760 for the Teatro Regio in Turin and the following year his setting of another Metastasio libretto, Catone in Utica, was given at the San Carlo theatre in Naples, where his Alessandro nell'Indie was staged early in 1762.

Offers had now come from Venice and from London for Johann Christian Bach's services, while Naples still hoped for further operas from him. Taking leave from his duties at the Cathedral, to which he had latterly given relatively little attention, he travelled to London for the 1762-3 opera season, arranging a series of pasticcios before the staging of his own Orione at the King's Theatre in February 1763, followed in May by Zanaida. Later the same year he finally resigned his position in Milan and settled in London, where he enjoyed the favour of Queen Charlotte, whose music-master he became, sharing lodgings with the viola da gamba player Carl Friedrich Abel, whose father had served with Johann Sebastian Bach at the court in Cöthen. Abel had also been a pupil of Johann Sebastian in Leipzig. With him Johann Christian established a series of subscription concerts in London that continued until his death. At the same time he enjoyed a reputation as a composer of Italian opera, notably for the King's Theatre. It was in London that the young Mozart met him, shared improvisation with him on one recorded occasion and fell under his lasting influence as a composer.

A commission for an opera in Mannheim took Johann Christian there in 1772 and this was followed by further commissions. In 1778 he responded to a commission for an opera from the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris, where he again met Mozart, at a difficult stage in the latter's career. Meanwhile Johann Christian's popularity and fortunes in London had declined. The subscription concerts, which had involved a considerable investment, were proving unprofitable and there was less demand for his work in the opera-house. He still enjoyed considerable respect, but, in addition to the demands of importunate tradesmen which he could not meet, he suffered from the depredations of a dishonest housekeeper. His health deteriorated and he died on 1 January 1782, leaving very considerable debts. His widow, the singer Cecilia Grassi, whom he had married in 1773, was helped to return to Italy by Queen Charlotte, who was also able to assist with funeral expenses, although Johann Christian's debts could not be fully met.

According to the English music historian Dr Burney, Johann Christian Bach had told him that for many years he had had little occasion to use the harpsichord or pianoforte, except for vocal accompaniment; his style of playing evoked such admiration in London, however, that he began to play again, but 'never was able to reinstate it with force and readiness sufficient for great difficulties, and in general his compositions for the piano forte are such as ladies can execute with little trouble'. His earlier keyboard works were designed for the harpsichord, but in 1768 he was able to introduce to London a square piano built by Johann Christoph Zumpe, who had established himself in London as an instrument maker, an event that did much to bring the new instrument into fashion. Johann Christian's Six Sonatas, Op. 5, published in 1766, were announced as for harpsichord or fortepiano, and the Six Sonatas, Op. 17, offer the same choice of instrument. These last were published in Paris in 1774 as Op. 12, and in London in 1777 by Welcker, to be issued again two years later by Hummel in Amsterdam.

The Sonata in G major, Op. 17, No. 1, opens with a movement approaching classical sonata-form, the second half of the movement opening with the first subject in the dominant key, briefly developed before the return of the tranposed secondary material. The second of the two movements is a Minuet with variations. After the theme the first variation presents triplets in the right hand, a process reversed in the second variation, with its left-hand triplet accompaniment. The third variation introduces running semiquavers in the right hand and the fourth introduces syncopation. The fifth variation has semiquavers in the left hand, before the original theme returns to end the movement.

The second of the set, the Sonata in C minor, Op. 17, No. 2, is one of the only two of Op. 17 that is in three movements. The opening Allegro again starts the second half of the movement with a transposd version of the main subject, briefly developed before it returns in its original key. The Andante is in E flat major and the 12/8 final Prestissimo brings its own elements of drama.

The Sonata in E flat major, Op. 17, No. 3, offers a first subject in which the right-hand melody is ornamented, with contrasting secondary material in the dominant but including a modulation into the minor key. The second half of the movement starts with the first theme, now in the dominant, leading to a tonic key version of the secondary thematic material. The following Allegro, in 3/8, makes considerable play with semiquaver triplets, first heard in the opening bar.

The fourth of the group, the Sonata in G major, Op. 17, No. 4, starts with a sonata-form movement which makes a feature of the relatively wide leaps in the left-hand accompaniment to the first theme. The second half of the movement duly starts with a transposed version of the main theme and a brief development, now followed by the return proper of the main theme and transposed secondary material. The relatively short Presto assai, in 3/8, bases its thematic material on broken arpeggios, with an element of dramatic tension in a repeated ascending sequence, reinforced by octaves in the left hand. There is a brief central development before the arpeggios of the main theme return.

The Sonata in A major, Op. 17, No. 5, starts with a particularly effective melody of Mozartian elegance and poignancy, introducing a movement more nearly approaching classical sonata-form. The second movement, in 3/8, opens with a characteristic descending figure and makes considerable use of triplet figuration.

The last of the set, the Sonata in B flat major, Op. 17, No. 6, offers a first theme that includes triplets, against the regular beat of the left-hand accompaniment. This main theme returns in the dominant to open the second part of the movement, with the secondary theme returning in the tonic key. The E flat major Andante, with its chains of thirds in the right hand, follows a similar form. The sonata ends with a 12/8 Prestissimo in which triplet figuration predominates, while the left hand is allowed to explore the extremes of the lower range of the instrument.

Keith Anderson

 


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