Program Notes for July 1st, 2010

1Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

Suite #3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (ca. 1731)
J.S. Bach (b. Eisenach, 1685; d. Leipzig, 1750)

Although he lived his life within a small geographical area – his place of birth and his major professional positions can be inscribed within an 80-mile radius – Bach is best remembered for his transcendent musical internationalism. Living in German-speaking lands, working in Francophile courts and able to converse musically in the operatic Italian style, he cultivated the notable aspects of each national tradition. In his “Italian” Concerto he outdid Vivaldi in showing off the latest Italian fashions. In his Lutheran chorale preludes he showed complete mastery of a long-standing German practice. In his “French” Suites he composed stylized versions of dances from the French court.

The art of the dance was an essential element for 17th- and 18th-century composers. Mozart wrote of starting a new composition student’s instruction by requiring the composing of a minuet. When Corelli wrote a sonata, he would compose a series of dances, labeling it “chamber music” when the dances were listed by name and “church music” when they were not. Bach, like many other composers of his day, collected dances into larger groups and called them “suites.” Bach composed nearly four dozen such suites of dances for various media, including orchestra, keyboard and unaccompanied string instruments. The four orchestral suites stem from different stages of his career, and the numerical ordering does not reflect the order of composition.
Since the suites, like most of Bach’s other works, were not published during his lifetime, it is often difficult to establish their circumstances of composition. He probably composed his Suite #3 in connection with his duties in Leipzig as director of the Collegium Musicum, a group of professionals and students who gave frequent concerts.

Bach began each of his orchestral suites with an Ouverture, a movement of substantial length suggesting the pomp of the French courtly style. A stately beginning in long-short-long patterns runs without pause into an animated section using fugal techniques. The suite continues with a series of dances, each consisting of two repeated sections and establishing a characteristic mood. Bach’s audience would have known the steps and understood the implied moods, but they would not have expected to get up and dance. In the Suite #3, the second movement is titled Air, a beautiful, song-like piece that took on a life of its own in a later arrangement by the German violinist August Wilhelmj, who called it “Air on the G String.”
Two stately Gavottes form a pair, as the first Gavotte flows directly into the second and then the first one returns, literally without missing a beat. The suite concludes with an upbeat Bourrée and a buoyant Gigue. Throughout, Bach fuses Italian lyricism, German purposefulness and French courtliness into a style that bears his own unique, international stamp.


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Flute Concerto in D Minor (1747)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (b. Weimar, 1714; d. Hamburg, 1788)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Flute Concerto in D Minor resembles in outward respects the threemovement concerti of his famous father, Johann Sebastian Bach: It is in the standard succession of three movements, fast-slow-fast; it alternates statements by the orchestra with solo passages featuring the flute; and it allows scope for both lyricism and virtuosity on the part of the soloist. The model for all of these features is the Baroque solo concerto as refined by Vivaldi and reinterpreted by J.S. Bach. The interior aspects of C.P.E. Bach’s concerto, however, are quite new. In order to grasp the profound differences between the work of father and son, it is necessary to jump into the intellectual ferment of the mid-eighteenth century. The Concerto in D Minor is based on a new psychology, the concept of being sensitive to the stimulus of the moment. In this way of thinking, the music acquires a new freedom to change moods, subtly or abruptly, within a short compositional span. This is in marked contrast to the music of J.S. Bach, in which each movement of a composition tends to etch a unified picture and to eschew sudden diversions.

Daniel Webb, a contemporary of C.P.E. Bach, summarized the new aesthetic well when he described the normal human response to stimulus. He asserted that one’s reception of pleasure is “not, as some have imagined, the result of any fixed or permanent condition of the nerves and spirits, but springs from a succession of impressions, and is greatly augmented by sudden or gradual transitions from one kind or strain of vibrations to another.” It would be difficult to find a more apt metaphor for describing the difference in outlook between the elder and younger Bachs.

By 1747, C.P.E. Bach’s fame as a composer had eclipsed that of his father. Any mention of “Bach” as a composer would automatically have been taken to refer to Carl Philipp Emanuel or to his half-brother Johann Christian. Several of the musical traits that made C.P.E. Bach’s music seem so fresh appear in the Concerto. In the opening Allegro, angular, jumping melodic lines vie with falling, “sighing” passages to create a “succession of impressions” going “from one kind or strain of vibrations to another.” C.P.E. Bach’s employer, Frederick the Great, was a fine amateur flutist who should particularly have appreciated the slow movement (un poco andante), with its melody rich in surface ornamentation, like the splendid decoration in the very room where Bach would have accompanied Frederick. The spirited finale (Allegro di molto) creates a storm that looks back to the tempests of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while pointing the way toward a future Storm and Stress style of a later generation of composers.


Ludwig van Beethoven painted by Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by
Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Symphony #2 in D Major, op. 36 (1802)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

In the spring of 1803, Beethoven agreed to compose an opera for the Theater an der Wien. Eventually this resulted in the production of Fidelio, but the immediate effect was that Beethoven got to produce a large concert of his own works. For this occasion he composed an oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, finished his Piano Concerto #3 and dusted off his previously premiered Symphony #1. He also brought out a recently completed work, the Symphony #2 in D Major.

Beethoven’s Symphony #2 ranks among his most cheerfully sunny works. It is clearly the work of a composer who has already gained considerable experience in composing for orchestra. The symphony’s first movement exudes confidence from the first chord of its majestically slow introduction to the last chord of its exuberant, harmonically astonishing coda. The Larghetto is one of the composer’s most ennobling symphonic slow movements, and also one of the longest. The third movement carries the first appearance of the Scherzo label in Beethoven’s nine symphonies, presenting a series of good-natured musical jokes in place of the expected dance-inspired Minuet. In the final movement, the composer even outdoes his teacher Haydn in catching the listener offguard with surprises, all in the spirit of good-natured fun.

Appearances can deceive, however. Beethoven’s world was not entirely sunny when he composed the symphony. “Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster…that refuses to expire,” wrote a Viennese critic. As Beethoven was completing work on the Symphony in 1802, he began a letter to his brothers with the words, “O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me…” The document has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, after the resort town where Beethoven was working; when the composer died, the letter was found among his personal papers, with the instruction “For my brothers…to be read and executed after my death.” Beethoven goes on to describe the humiliation, loneliness and anguish that he faced daily because of his progressive deafness. He mentions thoughts of suicide but also realizes that it would be “impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce.” It is, in fact, his great statement of unshakeable confidence in his own work.

It is Beethoven’s conviction that carries the symphony far beyond the circumstances of its composition. Symphony #2, along with the composer’s other even-numbered symphonies, has sometimes been marginalized, being viewed as “non-revolutionary” when compared to the towering structures of the third, fifth and ninth symphonies. Beethoven’s defiant resolution in the face of hardship, however, presents the Symphony #2 as arguably his most eloquent version of the Heiligenstadt Testament.


Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.