About this Recording
8.572309 - BACH, J.S.: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue / Partita No. 4 / English Suite No. 3 (L.G. Crawford)
English 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Chromatic Fantasia • Partita No. 4 • English Suite No. 3

 

The three works presented on this recording. the Chromatic Fantasia in the German stylus phantasticus, the Fourth Partita with its French Ouverture and the Third English Suite with its Italianate Prelude, reflect Bach’s life-long interest in incorporating and combining different national styles in his compositions.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903) and stylus phantasticus
The eighteenth-century music-writer Johann Mattheson describes stylus phantasticus as a manner of composing that is both theatrical and almost completely improvisatory. He praises Handel’s accompaniments to operas as excellent keyboard examples of this style and in Chapter 10 of Der volkommene Capellmeister (1739) gives the following rules:

For this style is the most free and unrestrained manner of composing, singing and playing that one can imagine, for one hits first upon this idea and then upon that one, since one is bound neither to words nor to melody, only to harmony, so that the singer or player can display his skill. All kinds of otherwise unusual progressions, hidden ornaments, ingenious turns and embellishments are brought forth without actual observation of the measure and the key, regardless of what is placed on the page, without a formal theme and ostinato, without theme and subject that are worked out; now swift, now hesitating, now in one voice, now in many voices, now for a while behind the beat, without measure of sound, but not without the intent to please, to overtake and to astonish. These are the essential marks of the fantastic style.

The Chromatic Fantasia is a spectacular example of Johann Sebastian Bach exploring stylus phantasticus. Bach’s first biographer Johann Nicolaus Forkel wrote in 1802 that he had searched long and hard to try to find another piece by Bach like it, but never did. Apart from the Fantasia in G minor, BWV 542, for organ, the Chromatic Fantasia is a rare example of Bach’s interpretation of the free fantasia, a style that would dominate the aesthetic of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Wolfgang Wiemer suggests in his 1988 Bach Jahrbuch article that this piece was written in 1720 as a Tombeau for Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara, who died suddenly in that year at the age of 36. Perhaps this explains why such an improvisatory work was so carefully notated and preserved in several copies in the Bach household. In two ways Bach guarantees that the performer dare to be improvisatory when she plays this piece. First, from measures 28 to 48 the score gives carefully written-out figuration alternating with large half-note chords marked “arpeggio”, forcing the performer to make choices about how to realise this “short-hand” notation. Then in measure 49 a plaintive melody marked Recitativ begins to alternate with abrupt almost violent short chordal passages, calling the performer to imagine how she can imitate the new character that has suddenly come on stage: a solo voice singing a lamento, accompanied by continuo.

The fugue that follows has a subject built on two ascending minor thirds filled in chromatically. The fugue gets its real rhythmic drive from the countersubject that begins in measure 8 built from a chain of long-short-short figures known in Bach’s time by their rhetorical name: figura corta.

Partita No. 4 in D major (BWV 828) and the Clavier Ubung tradition
In 1689 Johann Sebastian Bach’s predecessor at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722), published the first known volume to use the title Clavier Ubung, also one of the first collections of keyboard suites to be published in Germany. Ubung, meaning study or practice, carries with it a connotation of wholesome didactic purpose. Publishing took decades to recover after the Thirty Years’War but a new market of students and lovers of music developed in the peace that followed. Kuhnau’s and later Bach’s published Übungen can even be seen as first steps in the larger Enlightenment Project, indoctrinating a wide public in good taste and in art.

The Six Partitas that make up the first volume of Bach’s Clavier Ubung were first published as a collection in Leipzig in 1731 and follow the standard pattern established in earlier keyboard suites. The first movement of each partita explores a radically different kind of prelude form: the Germanic organ-like Praeludium of the first partita; the Italian Sinfonia; the stylus phantasticus forms of the Fantasia, the Praembulum, and the Toccata; and in the fourth partita contained on this recording, the grand French Ouverture, with its characteristic over-dotted rhythms, virtuosic upbeat scalar passages and elaborate ornaments. The Ouverture announces the second half of the volume, a pattern Bach will repeat in Clavier Ubung II, as well as the Goldberg Variations.

English Suite No. 3 in G Minor (BWV 808) and the development of the Keyboard Suite
Forkel wrote that Bach used the title English Suites because he wrote them for a member of the English aristocracy. No other reference to this possibility has ever come to light, although one early source gives “Fait pour les Anglois” on the first page, and it is some corroboration of Forkel’s claim that it appears Forkel did not know this manuscript. The important sources for these pieces also consistently use the modern G clef in the upper system, standard already in England at the time, but not in Germany. The range of the suites does not exceed the spinets and harpsichords built in England in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The oldest source for the first English Suite in A minor can be dated to a manuscript in Johann Gottfried Walther’s hand written between 1714 and 1717. The second, third and fourth suites were probably composed in Weimar before 1715 while the fifth and sixth probably date to a few years later in Köthen. The earliest source of all six suites dates to sometime between 1719 and 1725, probably copied by the Köthen organist Bernard Kayser. In the 2007 Bachs Klavier- und Orgelwerke: Das Handbuch published by Siegbert Rampe (to which these liner notes are indebted), the author gives an overview of the development of the keyboard suite in Germany that outlines four stages. In the first, the characteristic order of Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande develops in Germany from keyboard transcriptions of lute suites brought to Denmark and northern Germany by traveling French and English musicians. The term Suite was adopted to describe this prescribed order of dances in England, while in German-speaking areas, the Italian term Partita was more often used. In Rampe’s second stage, the Gigue was added (after the 1640s), and in the third stage, by the late seventeenth century, the dance suite always began with a prelude and started to include fashionable dances such as the Gavotte, the Minuet and other more fanciful character pieces. The English Suites represent this third stage of development. In contrast to the diversity of the first movements of the six Partitas, all of the English Suite preludes except the first one are concerto-like allegri in Italian style. In the third suite, presented here, a Gavotte is inserted before the Gigue, while others include a Minuet, Gavotte, Bourée or Passepied in the same place in the sequence. Eventually, in the fourth and final stage of development of the suite described by Rampe, such character and galant pieces outnumbered the traditional dances.


Joel Speerstra


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