The Bach Project II - Music for Bach's Favorite Instruments

These program notes were written by Elise Groves for a program of solo Bach works for cello, harpsichord, and organ presented by The Bach Project on May 12, 2019.

Of all the music of J.S. Bach, perhaps none of it has fascinated researchers, performers, and audiences as much as the six suites for unaccompanied cello. Much of their popularity in the 20th and 21st centuries is due to the influence and work of Pablo Casals, who performed and recorded all six suites in the 1930s, bringing them back into the public eye (and ear). But even before that they captured the attention of performers and composers alike. The suites have been transcribed for solo instruments from violin to tuba to saxophone to ukulele. Robert Schumann wrote piano accompaniments for them. Bach himself transcribed the fifth suite for lute.

Yet some of the most magical qualities of the cello suites are the things that Bach implied but never stated – the harmonies suggested by the shapes of the melody, the polyphonic motion and counterpoint that seem to be there to listeners but are nowhere to be found on the page – and these are the things that are frequently lost in transcriptions, accompaniments, and orchestrations. Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009 in particular shows a unique side of Bach with its energy and athleticism. Always pushing the boundaries of what was possible for a particular instrument, Bach brings his talents as a keyboard player to the cello, especially in the Prelude with its scattered pauses and dense chords.

The cello suites were probably composed between 1717-1723 while Bach was living and working in Köthen for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Prince Leopold was a musician and had great respect for Bach’s abilities despite the fact that, as a Calvinist, the prince did not have a need for his talents as a composer of sacred (Lutheran) music. Without the pressure to provide new music for weekly church services, Bach was free to focus on secular composition, especially instrumental genres.

The dance suite was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially among the French for whom dance was an important part of court entertainment. It usually consisted of a prelude or overture followed by a number of different movements, each based on a different baroque dance with specific requirements for mood, tempo, and metric pattern. The prelude was originally intended to be improvisatory; some preludes were simply an indication of a sequence of chords and it was up to the performer to improvise a melodic part and appropriately set the mood for the dances that were to follow. The order of the dances varied widely from composer to composer and suite to suite, but by the end of the 17th century this had been standardized by publishers, who would rearrange movements to fit their own idea of appropriate order regardless of what composers had intended. By Bach’s time, composers had mostly conformed to the order set by publishers.

Though Bach devoted significant attention to the dance suite while he was living in Köthen, it wasn’t his first foray into the genre. The Suite in E minor, BWV 996 most likely dates from 1708-1717 while Bach was living in Weimar and working as organist and chamber musician for Wilhelm Ernst and his nephew Ernst August, the dukes of Saxe-Weimar. This was a fruitful time for Bach – he was working with a large, well-funded group of professional musicians in the court and he and his first wife Maria Barbara welcomed several children, including Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann. It was also during this time in Weimar that Bach began to write the preludes and fugues that were later compiled into The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The instrument Bach had in mind for this suite is a subject of much debate. Some believe that the writing is best suited to lute, while others argue that, being a keyboardist, Bach would have played all his lute pieces on the harpsichord. Arguments over the details of lute construction, baroque tuning systems, harpsichord textures, and Bach’s tendency to write his lute music in score rather than in tablature make for fascinating reading for those who care about such things but yield few answers. The name “Lautenwerck” comes from an unidentified annotation in a collection of one of Bach’s students. The lautenwerck was a keyboard instrument similar in construction to a harpsichord, but with gut strings rather than metal. Bach owned two lautenwercks at the time of his death, so it is possible that this instrument – played as a keyboard but with the mellower sound of the lute – would have been the ideal compromise.

The trio sonata was another common Baroque instrumental genre, usually performed by two solo instruments and continuo. In the case of the Trio Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 525, Bach assigned all three parts to the organist. The collection of trio sonatas for organ was compiled in the late 1720s after Bach’s final move to Leipzig. They were likely intended as pedagogical exercises for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. Though these pieces were intended to strengthen technique, they are also beautiful works of art in their own right and are considered by some to be among Bach’s most difficult organ compositions. Always one with an eye for symbolism, Bach imbued this particular sonata with a dose of “three”: three parts for the organist to play (two manuals and pedal), three movements, and three flats in the key signature.

Unlike the trio sonatas, which represent some of Bach’s later instrumental music, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 was written early in Bach’s career, sometime between 1706-1713. At its heart, a passacaglia is just a theme and variations – a common musical form throughout history. Early in the Baroque era, the passacaglia was a general harmonic progression, and performances were a combination of improvisation and composed variations. By the time the passacaglia made it to Bach’s hands, it had become a basso ostinato – a repeated bass line over which variations are played. In an early instance of “go big or go home”, Bach wrote 21 variations and then, deciding that a final variation was not a strong enough ending, followed the variations with a massive double fugue using the first half of the passacaglia ostinato as the first subject of the fugue.

When looking at Bach through the lens of his secular music, it is easier to see his ego, temper, and complicated personality. Bach had his share of struggles – he was fired, rejected for jobs, ghosted by potential employers, saddled with difficult working conditions, frequently not paid for his work, and suffered significant personal loss – not that different from the challenges faced by many musicians today.