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9.70169 - BACH, J.C.: Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 5 (Heard)

Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782)
Six Sonatas for the Fortepiano, Op. 5


Born in Leipzig, but commonly referred to as ‘The London Bach’ because he lived out the last twenty years of his life there, Johann Christian Bach composed in virtually every genre of his day, including chamber music, opera, oratorio, sacred music, concerto, symphony, and solo keyboard music. Bach was a master of the galant, the light-textured and charming style that became fashionable in reaction to the weightier, highly ornamented music of the Baroque. He enjoyed more international fame during his lifetime than did his father or his older brothers.

Johann Christian was the tenth of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twelve children by Anna Magdalena, his second wife. Like his older brothers, he was trained in music from a young age. When his father died in 1750, Johann Christian was only fifteen, so he went to live in Berlin with his famous half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, with whom he continued his music studies. For ten years, his brother had been chamber musician and harpsichordist to King Frederick II (‘The Great’). The two brothers, far apart in age, could hardly have been more different in personality, and this was reflected in their music. Emanuel was already famous for his rhetorical flourishes, sudden dynamic changes, and unexpected events—all hallmarks of the Empfindsamkeit style.

Johann Christian explored a different aesthetic, toward the natural simplicity of the galant style. His beautiful slow movements were widely regarded as music for connoisseurs. His fascination with the newly emerging fortepiano led him to begin composing for that instrument, in which he saw expressive capabilities far beyond those of the harpsichord. In Berlin the younger Bach gained quite a reputation as a keyboard performer, surely benefiting from lessons with his brother, author of the most important manual on keyboard playing in the eighteenth century, the 1753 Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments).

Another defining influence on his compositional style came from his eight years in Italy, where he studied with Padre Martini and absorbed Italian opera. His cantabile melodies set over simple accompaniments, usually in the form of an Alberti bass, show the influence of opera, as well as the Italianate keyboard styles of Alberti, Marcello, Platti, and others.

While employed as organist at Milan Cathedral, Johann Christian began receiving commissions to write operas. Soon after operatic successes in Milan and Naples, he began receiving offers from Venice and London. In 1762, he petitioned his employers at the cathedral for a year’s leave of absence, and moved to London to fulfill two opera commissions from the King’s Theatre. By 1763, he had resigned his position in Milan and became official private teacher and music master to the very popular Queen Charlotte, the German-born former Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. That same year, Bach became friends with another compatriot, Johann Zumpe, the first important piano maker in England, and he began enthusiastically promoting Zumpe’s new square grand piano. In 1768 at a concert on St. James Street, advertising ‘a solo in the Piano Forte by Mr. Bach,’ he introduced the British public to the novel concept of the piano as a solo instrument. Zumpe’s square grands soon became fashionable, and it was to socially ambitious amateurs that Bach marketed his solo piano sonatas Opp. 5 and 17. Notably, each set begins with a sonata within the technical abilities of most amateurs, to entice prospective buyers to purchase the entire set. Bach soon became the most sought after piano teacher in London. He had gained enough renown as a composer that he had to deal with unauthorised editions of his music. He approached the king for help, and George III issued a ‘Royal Licence and Privilege,’ protecting him from copyright violations. In spite of this, in 1773 he sued the publishers Longman and Lukey for unauthorised editions of a ‘lesson’ and a sonata, asserting that both works had been ‘very Ignorantly & much to the Discredit of the plaintiff as a Composer adapted to Instruments not intended by the plaintiff.’ Although the aforementioned pieces have not survived, one may have been a published two-movement work that was only discovered in 1984: a considerably altered first movement of Bach’s later sonatas Op. 17 No. 4 coupled with the last movement of Op. 17 No. 1—but with an additional variation (!). It is easy to understand Bach’s frustration.

One cannot underestimate the importance of the Op. 5 sonatas composed by J. C. Bach. In fact, nos. 2, 3, and 4 were so loved by the young Mozart that he used them as templates for three of his earliest keyboard concertos (K. 107, nos. 1-3). This influential set of six sonatas, dedicated to Duke Ernst of Mecklenburg, was originally intended for either harpsichord or pianoforte, as was indicated on the title page: ‘pour le Claveçin ou le Piano.’ Most of the sonatas feature dynamic indications, evidence of Christian’s keen interest in the new instrument’s expressive possibilities. Eager to please, Bach seemed to understand the need to compose sonatas which included compositional styles for both instruments, including the newest Italian operatic lyrical style, and the older, more learned contrapuntally-driven or toccata style. These sonatas also accommodate technical features for both the amateur (possibly intended as lessons for the young female students), and the more skilled keyboardists of the day. Most include a first movement employing the new sonata form, which was being explored extensively by composers for the first time. In keeping with galant practice, many of these sonatas have only two movements. Before he moved to England, Bach’s multi-movement keyboard works (solo sonatas, concertos, accompanied sonatas) had followed the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) German format. But in London, he marketed some of his Op. 5 and 17 sonatas as works in the Italian style, with either two movements in the tradition of Alberti, or in the fast-slow-minuet format of the Italian sinfonia.

Op. 5 No. 1 is a modest work in two movements, perhaps written expressly for an amateur player. It ends with a beautiful minuet. The popular three-movement Op. 5 No. 2, in D major, is often used as a clear example of the new galant style. The Andante di molto second movement could easily be mistaken as a work by Mozart, with its elegant Italianate lyricism. The G major sonata Op. 5 No. 3 not only demonstrates Bach use of the galant style, with his abundant use of the Alberti left hand accompaniment, but also an earlier toccata-like harpsichord style. The concluding Allegretto second movement is in a theme and variation format, demonstrating the newest form of written-out improvisatory style, soon to be adopted by later composers. The two-movement Op. 5 No. 4 in E-flat major opens with a fully-developed sonata form first movement and concludes with a lyrical Rondeaux: Allegretto movement, affording keyboardists opportunities to vary the ‘A’ theme upon its return. The Op. 5 No. 5 in E major is the most ambitious of the set, with technically difficult passages throughout the first and third movements. The Adagio second movement is, once again, beautifully Italianate in style. The concluding Op. 5 No. 6 in C minor was most likely written at an earlier time, since it demonstrates an older compositional style. The opening movement (Grave) is stately and serious in nature, and leads directly into an Allegro moderato fugue.

In 1764 the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (age seven) came to play at the court of Queen Charlotte, as part of the famous ‘Grand Journey’ organized by his father to showcase his talent to the world. Wolfgang took immediately to the warm and kindly Bach, on one occasion reportedly sitting on his lap while the two improvised on the same keyboard for two hours in front of the King and Queen. But it was J.C. Bach’s music that had the most lasting impression on Mozart, whose music builds upon his stylistic inheritance. The two met again in Paris in 1778, when Mozart was 22, and going through a difficult time immediately after the death of his mother. Wolfgang wrote to his father, ‘As you well know, I love him with all my heart, and I have the highest regard of him.’

Lynn Raley

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