Having trouble viewing this message? Click here. Monica Huggett, Bradley Brookshire, the Salon/Sanctuary Chamber Orchestra with James Waldo, cello S

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Bradley Brookshire and Monica Huggett

Saturday, November 28th 8:00pm
The Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, 417 East 61st Street

The music on Saturday's program has little to do with the position for which Bach is most well known. As Cantor of Leipzig), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) had no responsibility for writing instrumental chamber music. Most of that impetus came from two earlier professional engagements. The first was Bach’s 1707-1717 stint as Kapellmeister in Weimar (in the baroque era, a position combining the jobs of composer and orchestra leader). There, Bach performed and arranged the latest concertos by Vivaldi and Marcello. He systematically integrated the style and form of these works with his previous compositional training, first making keyboard arrangements of a number of them, subsequently writing his own works in the idiom. Of the works on tonight’s program, the Violin Concerto in A Minor (BWV 1041) is stylistically most closely related to that study, although it was composed after Bach left Weimar.


Portrait of JS Bach by E.G. Haussmann


The second was his 1717-23 service to the Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Coethen as Kapellmeister. Bach’s Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012) and his Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019) — as well as his “Brandenburg” Concertos and the Well-Tempered Clavier — stem from his service to Leopold. Bach also probably composed the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (BWV 903) in this stage of his career.

A smaller amount of Bach’s instrumental music comes from Leipzig, although not from his position as a municipal employee who oversaw music in the city’s four largest churches. Among Bach’s many sources of side income in Leipzig was the concert series that he and his sons managed at the Zimmerman Kaffeehaus, where music was savored in the rarefied atmosphere associated at that time with haute-bourgeois coffee consumption. Programs from this series do not survive, but Bach appears to have composed some new instrumental works and to have arranged a greater number of old ones for various combinations of solo violin, oboe, and any number of harpsichords.


Leipzig Town Plan, 1720

The Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor (BWV 1052) is very likely such an arrangement: it is probably a transcription of a lost violin concerto (almost certainly by Bach) designed to be played on one of the exceptional harpsichords in Bach’s personal instrument collection. The multi-tiered Zimmermann Kaffeehaus, with its three sets of balconies around the center, would have provided an ideal setting for hearing harpsichord concertos: the keyboard, sans lid, would have projected its sound directly up, while the more resonant strings would have projected their sound laterally and more obliquely to the listeners’ ears. Bach’s harpsichord must have been exceptionally strong in tone yet also easy to the touch if it was able to project as a concerto instrument over the sound of even a small number of string players.


Had Bach’s harpsichord not been exceptionally fine, it is doubtful that he would have proposed the novelty contained within the Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord. In these pieces, the harpsichord forsakes its normal role strumming right-hand chords over a left-hand melody for an entirely new texture in which the right hand now features a treble voice, forming a trio with the violin part. Like Mozart, Bach was a first-rate violinist and harpsichordist; these pieces’ brilliant, beautifully idiomatic writing for both instruments testifies strongly to that appraisal.

Of all of Bach’s concertos, the Violin Concerto in A Minor is the one that comes closest to Bach’s original models. It absorbs the style and techniques of Venetian concertos from the first decade of the eighteenth century so totally that one could almost pass it off as a concerto by Vivaldi. Of course, one could not: Vivaldi and other Italians at the start of the new century were experimenting with clarifying harmony and reducing contrapuntal complexity — two essential building blocks of the Classical style of which they were the first engineers — and Bach was firmly grounded in a Northern-German tradition that prized a rich harmonic lexicon and dialogue between independent, mutually referential melodic strands.

Dance music was typically performed by a string ensemble or a keyboard instrument, both of which are well adapted to providing full harmony and contrapuntal dialogue. Bach was not the first to squeeze instrumental idioms associated with into the confines of a solo string instruments — dancing masters had done so for generations, giving rudimentary representations of suite movements like the allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue for their pupils on the pochette, a small violin designed to fit in a pocket — but he was easily the most inventive. Bach’s Cello Suites, like their cousins for violin, are remarkable not only for the deftness with which they present melodies accompanied by complex harmony but also for Bach’s ability to weave a considerable amount of polyphony into the texture. Instead of limiting melodic interest to a theme played on the highest string, Bach uses the remaining three strings, which in lesser hands rendered arpeggios of rudimentary chords, to imply additional melody-bearing partners in conversation with the principal melody.

A half-dozen elaborate clavier fantasias by Bach survive, but none is like the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, which Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) particularly prized: “I have given much effort to find another piece of this type by Bach, alas in vain; this piece is sui generis.” The “chromatic” aspect of the title did not originate with Bach, although the element is present in the long, chromatic descent at the end of the Fantasy, which is mirrored in the subject of the fugue, which consists of two upward-moving segments of the chromatic scale. Mendelssohn particularly prized the piece, and performed it often on the piano.

—Bradley Brookshire © 2015

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