About this Recording
8.570291 - BACH: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue / Aria variata / French Overture
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Keyboard Music


Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of a family that had for generations been occupied in music. His sons were to continue the tradition, providing the foundation of a new style of music that prevailed in the later part of the eighteenth century. Johann Sebastian Bach himself represented the end of an age, the culmination of the Baroque in a magnificent synthesis of Italian melodic invention, French rhythmic dance forms and German contrapuntal mastery.

Born in Eisenach in 1685, Bach was educated largely by his eldest brother, after the early death of his parents. At the age of eighteen he embarked on his career as a musician, serving first as a court musician at Weimar, before appointment as organist at Arnstadt. Four years later he moved to Mühlhausen as organist and the following year became organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. Securing his release with difficulty, in 1717 he was appointed Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and remained at Cöthen until 1723, when he moved to Leipzig as Cantor at the School of St Thomas, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches. Bach was to remain at Leipzig until his death in 1750.

As a craftsman, obliged to fulfil the terms of his employment, Bach provided music suited to his various appointments. It was natural that his earlier work as an organist and something of an expert on the construction of organs, should result in music for that instrument. At Cöthen, where the Pietist leanings of the court made church music unnecessary, he provided a quantity of instrumental music for the court orchestra and its players. In Leipzig he began by composing a series of cantatas for the church year, later turning his attention to instrumental music for the Collegium musicum of the University, and to the collection and ordering of his own compositions. Throughout his life he continued to write music for the harpsichord or clavichord, some of which served a pedagogical purpose in his own family or with other pupils.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, was apparently written during Bach's time at Cöthen, probably about 1720, and revised in Leipzig about 1730. The Fantasia, which exists in two earlier versions, opens in the expected quasi-improvisatory style, leading to a series of arpeggiated chords and a section of recitative, before the original figuration is resumed. The Fugue offers an extended subject, answered in the alto and then in the lowest of the three voices, the whole developed and leading to a final grandiose entry of the subject over a dominant pedal.

The A minor Aria variata alla maniera italiana, BWV 989, has been dated to a period before 1714. The quadruple metre theme is followed by a variation marked Largo. The second variation makes use of triplet figuration, with a third that continues the same transparent two-voice texture. The fourth variation is marked Allegro and makes a feature of syncopation, while the fifth, Un poco allegro, has a semiquaver upper part over a more measured bass. The sixth treatment of the theme, marked Andante, allows the upper part a dotted rhythm, the seventh, again Un poco allegro, is in 12/8, and the eighth, Allegro, allows an element of antiphonal writing between the two voices. The ninth variation is largely in semiquavers for both voices and the final tenth retains the simplicity of the theme, retaining the original harmonic structure.

The Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904, has been dated to Bach's early years in Leipzig, although the two movements do not appear together until about 1800, and the date of composition has been disputed by some, as has the intended instrument for their performance. The Fantasia is relatively formal in structure, with no hint of the improvisatory element found in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903. The fugal subject is announced in the top part, answered in the alto, with further entries in the tenor and the bass. A shorter, chromatically descending second subject is introduced in the bass, answered by the alto, followed by the top voice, the two subjects eventually brought together.

The Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894, belongs to Bach's period in Weimar, but was later used to provide material for the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin, harpsichord and strings, BWV 1044, adapted for use in Leipzig after 1730. It need hardly be added that the date of composition and, indeed, its nature, have been disputed, with some scholars postulating the notion of an earlier harpsichord concerto, from which the present work is supposedly derived. The Prelude survives in two versions and makes considerable use of triplet figuration, while including short passages of improvisatory virtuoso display. The fugue, in 12/16, offers its semiquaver subject in the lowest voice, to be answered in the alto, accompanied by a countersubject, followed by the soprano. The whole fugue is propelled forward by the constant motion heard first in the subject itself, ending only in the final bars.

Bach's B minor Ouvertüre nach französischer Art, BWV 831, was included, together with the Italian Concerto, in the second volume of his Clavier-Übung, which, in its four volumes, provided a complete summary of his achievement as a keyboard composer and performer. Clavier-Übung II provides an example of the two complementary sources, the Italian and the French, that were subsumed into Bach's monumental German synthesis of contemporary musical styles. The suite, which also exists in a slightly earlier C minor version, opens with a French Ouverture, the dotted rhythms of its formal introduction leading to a three-voice fugue, followed by the return of the opening. The series of dances starts with a Courante. The first Gavotte serves as a frame for the second, in the contrasting key of D major. The second of the two Passepieds is in B major, framed by the B minor Passepied I. The Sarabande leads to a pair of Bourrées, also to be played alternativement, and a Gigue. The suite ends with Echo, its title indicating the expected dynamic contrasts duly marked in the score.

Keith Anderson


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