About this Recording
8.571310 - BACH, J.S.: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue / Partita No. 1 / French Suite No. 5 / English Suite No. 3 (Biret Solo Edition, Vol. 9)

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.

Bach published during his lifetime four volumes of keyboard pieces under the title Clavierübung, apparently a tribute to his predecessor as Cantor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, whose sets of Clavierübungen had appeared in 1689 and 1692, each containing seven suites, the second with an additional sonata. Bach’s Clavierübung began with a set of six Partitas, published between 1726 and 1731. The choice of the word Partita for the suites of the first volume of the Clavierübung similarly echoes Kuhnau. The first of the set starts with a Praeludium, followed by French dances, an Allemande, an Italian Corrente, an ornamented Sarabande, a pair of Menuets and an Italian Giga.

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 six English Suites have nothing particularly English about them, except their title. They were written perhaps in Weimar in about 1715 or possibly during Bach’s period at Cöthen. It was later claimed by Bach’s sons that the suites were written for an Englishman of some importance, but the only evidence for this is derived from a note made on his copy of the work by Johann Christian Bach, the London Bach, pour les Anglois. Suite No. 3 in G minor opens with a large scale Prélude, followed by an Allemande and Courante. The following Sarabande has a variation, while the first Gavotte returns to frame the second Gavotte or Musette, a dance movement derived from the French bagpipe with its single drone. The lively final Gigue offers a subject imitated by a second voice, an order reversed in the second part of the dance.

In 1720 Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, had died, at a time when her husband was away from Cöthen, visiting Carlsbad with his patron Prince Leopold. During the thirteen years of their marriage she had born him seven children, of whom four had survived. The following year Bach took a second wife, Anna Magdalena, daughter of a court trumpeter at Weissenfels, who had had musical training from her father and from her uncle, an organist. She was able to benefit further with the guidance of her new husband, who provided her with music for her performance. It was for her that Bach brought together a set of five French Suites, later augmented to six and forming part of the Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena. Suite No. 5 in G major starts with an Allemande followed by an Italian Corrente under the title Courante. The slow Sarabande leads to a Gavotte and a Bourrée, with a Loure, a baroque form of slow gigue. The rapid final Gigue follows convention in allowing a lower second voice to enter in imitation of the upper voice, a procedure reversed in the second section of the work.

Keith Anderson

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