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8.554041 - BACH, J.S.: Favourite Piano Works

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Famous Piano Works

The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke's service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university Collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702.

At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period saw the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach's life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music, he was able to provide music for the university Collegium musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.

The piano as it exists today was unknown to Bach, who had at his disposal, in addition to organs of various degrees of sophistication, the harpsichord, with its plucked strings, and the clavichord, with its relatively gentle hammer-­action. The piano, under the name gravicembalo col piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and loud) was invented by Bartolommeo Cristofori of Padua in 1709. The development was the result of dissatisfaction with the fixed dynamics of the harpsichord, which played either loud or soft, but was unable to provide shades of dynamic. Bach himself saw two instruments by the German maker Silbermann in the 1730s, but objected to the weakness of touch and sound of the treble register. He took a kinder view of a Silbermann instrument that he saw in 1747. Nevertheless the developing instrument, whether pianoforte or fortepiano, lacked the strength and possibilities of the later piano, with its iron frame and improved metal strings. Whatever it may lack in historical accuracy, the modem piano must be recognised as a viable instrument for the performance of earlier music, although searches for some degree of authenticity have led even pianists to adopt techniques of playing that reflect in some measure the earlier techniques of performance on harpsichord or clavichord.

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring may claim immediate pianistic relevance. The piano piece of this name is a transcription of a chorale-prelude from Bach's Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (‘Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life’) by the pianist Myra Hess. A pupil of Tobias Matthay, Myra Hess made her concert début in 1907 under Thomas Beecham, going on to a distinguished career as a recitalist and soloist, in particular in the war-time concerts in London's National Gallery. Her transcription has made Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring one of the best known of all Bach's compositions.

The Italian Concerto holds a particular place in the affections of every pianist. In three movements, it has the original title Concerto nach italienischen Gusto (Concerto in the Italian Taste) and was included by Bach in the second volume of his Clavierübungen (Keyboard Exercises), published in 1735. Here it forms a contrast to the Ouvertüre nach französischer Art (Overture in the French Manner). The Italian Concerto reflects the form of the solo Venetian concertos of Vivaldi. Designed for a two-manual harpsichord, it allows for contrasts between solo and tutti, the full orchestra of strings, with one manual serving as a solo keyboard and the other, perhaps coupled, providing the fuller sound. The piano has no need of such mechanical devices to reproduce the necessary contrasts of dynamic level.

Programme music was nothing new to composers of Bach's generation. His most obvious excursion into this field was with his Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother). Here each short movement suggests a further element in his brother's departure, or, more accurately, a further reflection on his absence. In 1704 Bach's brother Johann Jakob left to enlist in the guard of Charles XII of Sweden as an oboist. His later career took him to Turkey, where he had flute lessons from Buffardin. The Capriccio reflects the attempts of his friends and family to prevent Johann Jakob's departure, their sadness and apprehensions. The sound of the post-horn is heard, as the carriage prepares to leave, which it does to the sound of a lively post-horn fugue.

Bach's Minuet in G major enjoys some notoriety as apiece for beginners. It was included in the collection of keyboard pieces that Bach put together for the use of his second wife, Anna Magdalena, whom he married in 1721, sixteen months after the death of his first wife. The Anna Magdalena Clavierbüchlein (Anna Magdalena Little Keyboard Book) gives some idea of the kind of music to be heard in the Bach household, initially in Cöthen, where Anna Magdalena took immediate responsibility for her four surviving step-children, to be followed by thirteen children of her own, of whom seven survived childhood.

The first five of the six French Suites of Bach are included in the first little book for Anna Magdalena, compiled in 1722. Suite No. 5 in G major, the additional title 'French' added by later musicians, to distinguish these from Bach's other keyboard suites, follows the set pattern of French dances that had become customary, although without any prelude. The French German dance, the Allemande, of moderate speed, is followed by an after-dance, a Courante, leading to a solemn Sarabande. The next three dances, not obligatory in the sequence, are an elegant Gavotte, a Bourrée that is decorous rather than boisterous, a French Loure and the usual final Gigue.

Bach's Fantasia in C minor has been dated to about 1738, the year in which his second son Carl Philipp Emanuel was appointed harpsichordist to Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, the later Frederick the Great, and in which his third son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, left Sangerhausen in a hurry. He had served as organist at the Marienkirche in Mühlhausen, but had abandoned that position, leaving debts that his father had to settle. Now he had caused further embarrassment, for the same reason, leaving his position as organist at the Jakobikirche in Sangerhausen to study in at the University in Jena, where he died the following year. The Fantasia, designed as an extended prelude to a fugue, is an impressive work, with its arpeggios and elaborate figuration, and antiphonal use of right and left hand.

The six Partitas, published singly between 1726 and 1731, form part of the first book of Bach's collected Clavierübungen (Keyboard Exercises). The title chosen for these suites echoes the title used by Bach's predecessor in Leipzig, Kuhnau, as does the title chosen for the whole collection. Partita No. 2 in C minor starts with a Sinfonia, a dramatic slow introduction, an ornamented aria and a lively final fugal section. There then follow the expected dances, Allemande, Courante and Sarabande, with a less usual final Rondeaux and a Capriccio that replaces the customary Gigue.

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