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A career illustrated in music

By David Garrett

1703 - Court Musician, Weimar
1703 - Organist, Arnstadt
1707 - Organist, Mühlhausen
1708 - Court Musician, Weimar / Toccata BWV 912 c. 1710 / Canonic Trio Sonata, BWV 1040 c.1713
1714 - Promoted to Konzertmeister, Weimar
1717 - Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at Cöthen
1720 - Partita No.1 in B minor for solo violin BWV 1002
1721 - BWV 1055 as Concerto for harpsichord
1723 - Thomaskantor, Leipzig
1727 - Cantata BWV 56 Trinity XXII, 27 October / Cantata BWV 82 Purification, 2 February
c. 1729 – 31 - Air, from Orchestral Suite in D, BWV 1068
c. 1738 – 9 - BWV 1060 as Concerto for two harpsichords
1750 - Dies in Leipzig

How do we think of Johann Sebastian Bach? As the bewigged church musician? As the keyboard virtuoso? As the solver of intricate musical puzzles? As the hot-headed young man who got himself locked up after a brawl with a fellow musician? As the father of 20 children? He was all these things, and our take on him will vary with the music we have in our ears.

Air (‘on the G string’ from the Orchestral Suite BWV 1068) is beautiful, and more – its beauty is of a kind that reaches the heart. Played as Bach expected, this Air dances as well as sings. Bach knew what he was doing: he was arousing, in amazingly varied ways, what he called the passions of the soul.

The idea comes from language and philosophy; indeed, it is the title of a treatise by Descartes, part of the intellectual furniture of Bach’s education. Philosophy is expressed in language, and since classical antiquity rhetoric has been the study of how words influence their audience. Musicians often deal with words – but not always. Bach and musicians of his time used musical figures of speech even where no words were heard. They also believed that musical language – musical gestures, tonality (part of musical grammar and syntax), and instrumental colour… all these could be codified. The listener may not need the code explaining how passions are stirred, but the musician is conscious of using the devices.

(Kreuzstab) in Cantata BWV 56 is both a metaphorical and navigational instrument. The pilgrim’s suffering is symbolised in the very opening phrase, and followed by the long dragged-out bearing (dragging) of the cross. Yet note the word ‘will’. There is determination in the words and the music – this pilgrimage is in a major key (B-flat). Then, in a marvellously poetic recitative, Bach reveals more devices of musical imagery, evoking the waves of a ship journey, and landing musically on firm earth as the pilgrim steps ashore.

In the other Bach cantata for solo bass (Ich habe genug, BWV 82) the feeling is more elegiac. The words here give us the code to sacred themes, but the musical figures corresponding to them often recur in Bach’s music, even when it is ostensibly secular. The minor key (G) and the references to death, are explicit in the last aria, where the singer rejoices in his coming end. This cantata’s text is a poetic expansion of the Nunc Dimittis, the song of the old man Simeon, who can die now that his waiting has been fulfilled by the coming of the Saviour of the gentiles. At the core of this Cantata is a serene lullaby: blissful sleep as renunciation of this world. We know that it was with intent that Bach chose the oboe to dialogue with the bass voice in the fast movements, for the character that comes with its colour – when he reworked the cantata for soprano voice, he gave the part to a flute.

When Bach needed keyboard concertos for his Collegium Musicum concerts in Leipzig (concerts not unlike tonight’s) he often drew on concertos he had composed in earlier years, mainly in Cöthen where the Prince’s musical requirements were mainly for instrumental pieces. Most of these concertos were for violin, some – we now realise – for oboe as well. The two concertos in this concert are played, as they probably were originally, one instrument to a part. They are plausible reconstructions. The first to be ‘detected’ and restored (as a Concerto for oboe and violin, BWV 1060R) came down to us as a concerto for two keyboards (harpsichords). There was a striking difference between the two solo parts: one had a range much more restricted than the other. Taking into account the transposition Bach usually made when adapting for keyboards, the range corresponded to the oboe’s. It didn’t take much guessing about Bach’s intentions to make violin and oboe solo parts, by removing the elaborations in the keyboard parts, added by Bach to make them more effective on the non-sustaining harpsichord.

The Concerto in A for harpsichord (BWV 1055) was also identified as a possible ‘lost’ oboe concerto that Bach had adapted. Sir Donald Tovey was one of the first scholars to notice that nothing in the harpsichord part seemed particularly violin-like, and he used the argument of range to posit that the original soloist was the oboe d’amore (which happens to be an oboe in A, the key of this concerto, a third below the ‘regular’ oboe). In Bach’s manuscript you can see how he transformed the original, removing even the few places in the original where the wind player could sneak a breath!

A canonic trio (BWV 1040) is a demonstration of learned skill, one of Bach’s strengths. This one also shows how he could hide his learning from all but the initiated, making a delightful effect with the imitation which is the essence of a canon. This trio is an offcut, if you like, from two cantatas, one secular, one sacred. Nicholas Kenyon’s Pocket Guide to Bach protests that ‘BWV 1040 does not really need a number of its own since it is the wholly delightful trio sonata that springs as a postlude from Cantata 208 and then Cantata 68’. Quite possibly the music was first heard when the ‘Hunt’ Cantata (208) was performed for the birthday in 1712 or 1713 of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. The characteristic pastoral key, F major, went with the hunting, rural theme. 

In 1720 Johann Sebastian Bach made a fair copy of six works he had composed for unaccompanied violin. The beauty of this manuscript, reveals the shape and gestures of the music and the title page states in a wonderfully flamboyant hand: ‘Sei Solo – a violino senza Basso accompagnato – Libro Primo da Joh. Seb. Bach ao. 1720’. In 1774 C.P.E. Bach, wrote about his father, that ‘he understood perfectly what was possible on all stringed instruments and this is exemplified by his works for solo violin and solo violoncello. One of the greatest violinists has told me that he knows of nothing more perfect for learning to become a good violinist’. The somber mood of the Sarabande, and the harmonic richness of this piece offer a moment of repose, connecting us with Bach’s continuity of human endeavour and the universality of the artistic impulse. 

Bach’s widest fame in his time was as a keyboard virtuoso, on harpsichord and organ; as a young man he was especially prone to show off. A toccata is a showing off piece, and all Bach’s toccatas were composed when he was at Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar – before he was 25. A discursive kind of piece, a Toccata gives the player the opportunity to get the fingers going, to explore the instrument, and to range widely from one tonality to another, staying long enough to enjoy its feeling, then leaving for passions new.

David Garret (2017)

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