This week’s music is the Allemande from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello, performed by Mischa Maisky.
Bach wrote six suites for solo cello between 1717 and 1723 while living Kothen, Germany. The first suite, a part of which you will hear today, has become the most famous of the six. Each suite consists of six movements that represent common baroque dance forms: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bouree/gavotte, and gigue. An Allemande was a type of German court dance that involved dancers linking arms and making full or partial turns down a line. Visually, the allemande gave the appearance of a large weave or braid. It was performed primarily by German royalty, and there is an air of courtly majesty in the music.
The six cello suites of J.S. Bach are the foundation of the cello repertoire. Every cellist learns them, and every cello competition requires their performance. They vary in complexity, from simple melodies to rumbling chords, and challenge the cellist in nearly every aspect of technical and musical interpretation.
This week’s music is the Sonata in C Major for organ by J.S. Bach, performed by organist Ton Koopman on a Danish organ built in 1746.
We could not do a series on organ music without featuring Bach’s music. As kapelmeister (music director) for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, Bach wrote weekly organ compositions and performed daily as the court organist. Most historians agree that Bach’s instrumental mastery of the organ was greater than any other instrument. Bach wrote so much organ music that one organist’s attempt to perform all of it took fourteen recitals over five years!
In the late 1720s, Bach wrote six sonatas for organ. (The “six sonatas” thing seems to have been a theme for Bach – he wrote six sonatas for organ, six sonatas for solo cello, and six sonatas for solo violin). The C Major sonata, which you will hear today, is built on a slow-paced theme from one of Bach’s earlier compositions. Bach added fast outer movements to the sonata, effectively sandwiching the recycled theme within two movements of complex and invigorating material.
With Christmas right around the corner, this week’s music is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which tells the story of the birth of Jesus as described in Luke 2:1-21 and Matthew 2:1-12. As one of the most famous church musicians in Europe, Bach also wrote an Easter Oratorio and an Ascension Oratorio. The Christmas Oratorio therefore completes the trilogy of major moments in the Christian liturgical calendar.
The Christmas Oratorio includes six cantatas, one for each day of the Christmas feast. The first (to be performed on Christmas Day) depicts the birth of Jesus. This is the cantata you will hear today. The second and third cantatas feature the shepherds and are to be performed on December 26 and 27, respectively. The fourth cantata depicts the naming of Jesus (to be performed on New Year’s Day). Cantatas five and six focus on the Three Wise Men and are to be performed on the first Sunday after New Year and Epiphany, respectively. Each part features a different set of instruments and vocal soloists.
Our music this week is the Aria from J.S. Bach’s cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, performed by tenor Timothy Mead and La Nuova Musica. This cantata was written for the Sixth Sunday after the Trinity and was first performed on July 28, 1726.
Bach is widely regarded as the father of music, but things weren’t always that good. In fact, during his lifetime, Bach often struggled to find work. One of the few long-term employment situations he found was as the headmaster of the “Thomasschule” in in Leipzig, Germany. He was able to delegate most of his teaching responsibilities to other people so that he could focus on composing. And compose he did! Aside from writing dozens of works for choir, keyboard, violin, and organ, he wrote a full cantata every single week for more than a decade.
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust is one of Bach’s most well-known and beautiful cantatas. Today you will be hearing only the opening Aria (the entire cantata is roughly 20 minutes long), which introduces the thematic material that will be featured throughout the cantata. In addition to being drawn from the scriptures assigned for that day’s service in the liturgical calendar, the text of this Aria is also drawn from Georg Lehms’ Gottgefalliges Kirchen-Opfer (1711), which focuses on the human struggle to lead a virtuous life amidst the trials and temptations of life.
This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Violin by Bela Bartok, performed by the Albanian virtuoso Tedi Papavrami.
The mid-20th-century violinist Yehudi Menuhin asked Bartok to write a solo violin sonata for him to perform. Bartok was undergoing treatment for leukemia in Asheville, North Carolina, but he nonetheless agreed to write the sonata. When he showed the score to Menuhin for the first time, Menuhin was stunned. The piece was unplayable, he said. After a few revisions, Menuhin finally agreed to attempt it.
This is arguably the hardest piece ever written for the violin. Four-string chords are littered throughout the score, and the double-finger harmonics and massive harmonic intervals are enough to send most violinists into a panic. Papavrami, who came to fame as a child prodigy, meets the challenge exceptionally well. His technical mastery of the instrument is nothing short of astounding.
Those of you who have been with us for a while here at This Week’s Music may remember the famous sonatas for solo violin written by J.S. Bach. The truly dedicated listeners among us may also remember the sonatas for solo violin written – in homage to Bach – by the Belgian violinist Ysaye. This week’s music also fits in that tradition. It emulates Bach’s violin sonatas, including a complex Fugue, a light-footed Presto, a somber Adagio, and a monumental Ciaconna (Chaconne). This last movement is particularly prescient, for Bach’s most famous work for violin is the Ciaconna from the D-Minor Partita for Solo Violin.
Our music for this week is the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 in A Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is performed by David Fung and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.
When Bach wrote this concerto in 1721, the piano (or, in his day, the harpsichord) was a relatively new discovery. It is therefore tempting to think that the concerto was written as a way to showcase the range and versatility of the keyboard. However, Bach originally wrote this concerto for the oboe. When the piano burst onto the musical scene in the early 1700’s, he transposed the oboe concerto into a piano part to try to capitalize on the public frenzy over the instrument.
As is typical of most concerti from the Baroque era, this concerto contains three movements. The first and third movements are faster, while the second movement is more restrained. Those of you who have been with us for a while may notice that the piano solo part is not as prominent as the solo parts from Classical or Romantic-era concerti. In the Baroque era, composers sought to emphasize the ways in which the soloist wove in and out of the accompaniment parts, but later eras sought to feature the soloist in a more virtuosic setting. It is interesting to see that modern concerti (composed after the year 2000) are trending back toward a more Bach-like blended concerto style.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach simply must be on any “top hits” list, and there may even be a legitimate argument that the entire list be dedicated to Bach. Such is his importance and position in the world of classical music.
Bach wrote the six Brandenburg concerti around the same time that he wrote his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, showcasing Bach’s preoccupation with numerology and symbolism. They were initially not very popular. Bach had written them as a resume-of-sorts in a kapellmeister job application for a local Duke. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he had applied for using the Brandenburg concerti, leading snarky commentators to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.” They now stand atop the world of music as some of the most foundational pieces ever written. They define the Baroque era of music while simultaneously stretching the boundaries of that genre. They incorporate German, French, and Italian stylistic elements, and they feature a wide range of solo instruments.
You will hear the most famous of the Brandenburg concerti today. In this concerto, Bach utilizes the concerto grosso (small multi-movement ensemble featuring a group of soloists) format that gets introduced in the first concerto, but he decides not to feature a soloist. This was actually quite a controversial move, since the concerto grosso format was distinctly Italian (not his native German) and the featuring of soloists was considered a requirement of the genre. Bach, however, wasn’t deterred by the possibility of a negative public reaction. He continued to create controversy by adding something that we don’t often see until the mid-Classical period (18th century) – a cadenza (an opportunity for the solo instrumentalist to impress the crowd by improvising on top of the composition’s main themes). Listen for the lead violinist’s cadenza in the middle movement of this concerto.
We return this week to our mini-series on the piano trios of
Felix Mendelssohn to hear his Piano Trio #2 in C Minor.
You will hear four movements in this piece. They follow the
usual Romantic-era format: allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale. Mendelssohn
wrote this trio only two years before his untimely death in 1847 at the age of
This trio counteracts the lyricism and sublime beauty of the
first piano trio with a sombre, foreboding tonal scheme. Storms seem imminent
as the cello and piano trade their dark colors underneath violin’s tumultuous
worrying. The harmonic structure is never satisfied and shifts from one
tonality to another with unrelenting pace. Even the delicate second movement
contains these deep, dark sound colors.
However, the tumultuousness of the first three movements is dissipated in the upbeat finale (4th movement), which features as its main melody a tune that many know as the “Doxology,” a hymn often sung in churches around the world. Mendelssohn’s musical hero, J.S. Bach, apparently used this melody in one of his cantatas, and the young composer desired to use this melody as a form of homage to the father of classical music.
Glen Gould was one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould is regarded by most as one of the best in the world at interpreting the music of J.S. Bach. He was drawn from a young age to the intricate textures and complex polyphony of Bach’s music and – unlike every one of his contemporaries – had no interest in the standard Romantic repertoire. His vivid imagination enabled him to take his audience with him on fascinating journeys into Bach’s harmonic genius.
Gould was incredibly eccentric. For instance, he would not record unless the recording studio was heated to an almost unbearably high temperature. He would never play – in practice, recording, or a concert – with any other stool than the one his father had made for him in his childhood. He would never go outside, regardless of the season, without a hat and mittens on. Perhaps the most controversial of his eccentricities was his habit of humming or singing under his breath while he played. The habit was so unbreakable that he did it even while performing in concerts or recording sessions (he attributed this to his mother’s teaching him to “sing everything he played”). Many criticized his early recordings because they claimed that they could hear him humming in the background.
To me, the most amazing thing about Glen Gould is that he almost never practiced the piano. He studied his repertoire by reading it and mentally practicing it. In his view, physically playing the piano was one of the last steps in preparing a performance. As a musician who has practiced regularly for the past twenty years (and who is still nowhere near the level of Glen Gould), I find this concept of mental preparation fascinating. I’m sure his photographic memory helped him in this endeavor, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about the possible benefits of adopting his approach in our personal pursuits.
We are finishing our series on Bach’s Brandenburg concerti with the sixth concerto in B flat major. This concerto is Bach’s way of throwing the audience (as they say in Boston) a “wicked” curveball. For instance, he limited the 6th concerto’s ensemble to only strings and harpsichord – no wind instruments whatsoever. An even more shocking move is the exclusion of any violins from the concerto – only violas, violas da gamba, and cellos are utilized. Given the frequency with which Bach used the violin as the lead voice in the previous five concerti, this was a significant change. As a result of this change, the violas suddenly became the lead voice and the entire tonal register is lowered, creating a denser and more weighty sound.
You may remember our past series on Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello, in which we talked about his trailblazing effort to feature as a solo instrument an instrument that was, at that time, considered to be purely for accompaniment. We see this same trailblazing effort in the 6th Brandenburg concerto; this time, Bach is trying to highlight the oft-maligned viola.
P.S. Leave a comment and let me know what you would like to see in a future series!