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8.553085 - BACH, J.C.: Sinfonias, Vol. 3

Johann Christian Bach (1735 -1782)

Johann Christian Bach (1735 -1782)

Sinfonia, Op. 9

Sinfonia concertante in A Major, To 284/4

Sinfonia concertante in E Flat Major, To 284/6


Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of the great Thomascantor Johann Sebastian, was born on 5th September 1735 in Leipzig. Known from the most important periods of his career either as the Milan Bach or the London Bach, he owed his musical education either directly to his father, or at least to his supervision. After the latter's death in 1750 ~e moved to Berlin, where his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, 21 years his elder, undertook his further training. In common with many other musicians he was attracted by Italy, where he moved in 1756, becoming a pupil in Bologna of the then most distinguished music theorist Padre Martini, who later gave lessons to Mozart. After conversion to Catholicism he was appointed organist at Milan cathedral, soon after turning his attention to opera and consequently to the Italian form of symphony. In 1762 Bach move finally to London, where he won success as a composer of opera and as music-master to Her Majesty Queen Sophie Charlotte of England, enjoying high favour at court. In 1764 with the composer and viola da gamba virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel he founded the Bach-Abel Concerts, which from 1775 took place in the famous Hanover Square Rooms. In the same year came the important meeting with the eight-year-old Mozart, who visited London with his father and played for him. Johann Christian was an unrivalled exponent of the galant style and exercised a strong influence on the musical development of the young Mozart, an example that it is possible to trace in the latter's later work. As his star had risen like a comet in the middle of the eighteenth century, so quickly did his fame decline at the beginning of the 1780s. In May 1781, he gave his last concert in London. Now financial and health problems compelled him more and more to withdraw into private life. He died in straitened circumstances in London on lst January 1782. Mozart gave moving expression to his sorrow in a letter, writing of the great loss to the musical world.


Known respectively as Giovanni or John, Bach left some sixty symphonies as well as twenty concertante symphonies for one or more solo instruments, not counting thirty solo fortepiano or harpsichord concertos. Evidence of his fame is seen in the numerous publications of his instrumental compositions in his own life-time, in particular of his symphonies. These are, except for one and a doubtful example, in three movements, in the form developed from the Italian opera-symphony (fast - slow - fast) and used by Bach in the overtures to his operas. The gift for thematic invention inherited from his father, under Italian influence transformed into singing, lyrical material, his understanding of form giving rise to a new school of composition, subtle feeling for colour and for formal clarity, harmony and thematic contrast are all characteristics of his musical style. Opera-symphonies with Bach turned more and more into concert symphonies, culminating in the six late symphonies of Opus 18, three of which are for double orchestra. It is true that he never reached the blessed profundity of Mozart, nor did he seek to. There are, however, in his music many examples of directly affecting feeling, particularly evident in the C minor middle movements. The so-called singing allegro, the cantabile style and full string sound makes its appearance also in the fast movements, and, with the handling of the woodwind, had a strong influence on Mozart. In general the woodwind instruments that up to that time had for the most part doubled the strings, two oboes or flutes, a pair of French horns and the traditional instrument to reinforce the bass, the bassoon, increasingly took independent parts. If comparison is made between Mozart's early symphonies and those of Bach, an astonishing correspondence can be seen. Nowhere are there such seamless connections and such an interweaving of elements. Brightness, freedom from sorrow, joy in living and above all a charming amiability inform Bach's symphonies, which are a clear expression of his time. If also fully conceding to the taste of the period - and Bach well understood what pleased - his writing never slid into the banal or the purely superficial. The profound, the reflective or dry academic rhetoric will be sought here in vain.


The three Sinfonias, Opus 9, are leading to the last great symphonies of Opus 18, the summit of Bach's symphonic achievement, with woodwind solos alternating with string sonorities. They were first published in 1773. The Sinfonias in E flat seems to have enjoyed special favour among the composer's contemporaries. Its broadly designed and splendidly constructed principal movement impresses through its incomparable mastery, with a Mannheim crescendo over a sustained pedal-point. Between that and an enchanting Minuet finale is a serenade movement for muted violins and pizzicato string accompaniment, into which horns and oboes are introduced in the middle section, adding a magic colouring of their own. In the other two symphonies the woodwind also plays an independent and soloistic part, with the violas and oboes contributing a charming trio section. Mature compositional technique appears again in the wonderful middle movements of these works.


The concertante symphonies of Bach are typical examples of this form, so popular from the middle of the eighteenth century and derived from the Baroque concerto grosso. These were doubtless written for the Bach-Abel Concerts and were performed there for the first time, intended as a sign of gratitude to the principal musicians of the orchestra. The Sinfonia Concertante in A major and the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major were written for two string instruments, with the two solo violins in the middle movement of the E flat Sinfonia Concertante recalling, at the opening of the theme, Che faro senza Euridice from Cluck's Orfeo, surprisingly leaving the field to a solo oboe. In the other movements, in which the solo violins have a prominent part to play, there is a marked parallel with the Sinfonia concertante in E flat of Mozart for violin and viola. After a 54-bar introduction, in which the woodwind - here two flutes, a pair of horns and a bassoon reinforcing the bass-line - take a solo role, the first violin announces the principal theme, immediately taken up and developed by the second violin. Now together, in alternation, the two solo violins vie with each other. A cheerful Menuett en Rondeau, with double-stopping giving a four-part texture in the C minor middle section, completes the enchanting work.

Exceptionally the Sinfonia Concertante in A major for solo violin and cello is in only two movements. The first of these is in a relatively gentle 6/8 metre, with extended elegiac sections. There are exchanges between the two solo instruments, with contrasts of colour, ending in an ecstatic duet anticipating an element in Mozart’s Mass in C minor. The movement that brings together, as it were, andante and allegro is capped by a dance-like Rondeau in the form of a Gavotte with a musette-like middle section.


Hanspeter Gmur

(English translation by Keith Anderson)


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