hosted by the
516 Prospect Street, Maplewood, NJ 07040
February 1st - April 20, 2013
Presenter and Pianist: Birgit Matzerath
1. The composer
- The Composer - short overview of J.S. Bach’s life and work
Johann Sebastian Bach lived from 1685 to 1750 and he spent his entire life in Germany, in a fairly small region of the country. He was born in Eisenach into a family with many professional musicians. His father Johann Ambrosius was the director of the town musicians in Eisenach, it was from him that Johann Sebastian got his first instruction in harpsichord and violin.
His parents died within months of each other when he was 10 years old, and he was taken in by his older brother Johann Christoph, who was the organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf, a town not very far away. Under his supervision, J.S’ musical education continued. I read somewhere that Johann Sebastian never had any formal instruction in composition, but It has to be mentioned that in those days, learning to play a musical instrument went beyond mere instruction in playing skills. It included learning musical theory - getting to know the elements that constitute music, and applying them through improvisation. In real life, no church- or court musician could survive without producing a certain amount of his own music. “Copies” of other people’s music were not readily available, they had to be copied by hand, and the only way to hear another musician’s performance was to go there.
Johann Christoph exposed him to the works of the leading composers of the day, the Germans Jacob Froberger and Johann Pachelbel, the French Composers Marin Marais, Jean Baptiste Lully and Marchand, and the keyboard compositions of the Italian Girolamo Frescobaldi. Bach also attended the Gymnasium, where instruction consisted of Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Theology.
At age 14, his musical skills won him a choral scholarship to the prestigious school of St Michael’s in Luebeck, an institute where the sons of the nobility were educated and prepared for a variety of careers. The school had a good choir and good instruments. Living in Luebeck also enabled Bach to hear two of the leading organists of the day; Georg Boehm, and Reincken in Hamburg, which was not very far away.
In 1703, when he was 18, Bach graduated from the school and began his career as a professional musician. The options were to work either at a court or at a church, and Bach did both in the course of his life. His skills as an organist and his knowledge about the instrument got him positions in Arnstadt and Muehlhausen. In Muehlhausen, J.S. married his first wife, Maria Barbara, with whom he had seven children. Four survived into adulthood, among them Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanual, who became famous musicians themselves.
From 1708 to 1717 Bach was organist and court musician at the ducal court in Weimar. This gave him the opportunity to work with professional musicians. He composed many orchestral and keyboard works, among them a number of concertos transcribed from Italian masters. That kind of exposure to the Italian style had an impact on his own works as well. He began to work on the “Little Organ Book” for his eldest son; it contains elaborate arrangements of Lutheran chorales and is directed toward the training of organists. Bach also wrote some of the Preludes and Fugues that were later included in the “Well-Tempered Clavier I ” a collection of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all keys, published in 1722.
Between 1717 and 1723 Bach worked as director of music for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Koethen. The prince was a Calvinist, and that meant that the music played at the church service was plain, there was no demand for elaborate works. Bach wrote many secular works during this time, the Orchestral Suites, the suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Brandenburg Concertos.
In 1720, Bach experienced the probably greatest tragedy of his personal life. He was on a several months leave with the prince, and when he returned, he found his wife Maria Barbara dead and buried. She had died on July 7, the causes of her death are unknown.
The following year, Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena, a gifted singer, who was 17 years younger than he. The famous “Notebook for Anna Magdalena” , which is the first encounter with his music for many pianists, was his wedding present to his young wife. They had 13 children together, six of them survived into adulthood, Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich und Johann Christian became musicians.
|St. Thomas' Church, Leipzig|
From 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach held the prestigious position of Cantor at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig; and he was also the music director of the principal churches in the city; the Nikolaikirche and the Paulinerkirche. Leipzig was a lively, bustling mercantile city, much more vibrant than the places where he had lived before.
His duties as a church music director included the performance of a cantata - a work for choir, orchestra and soloists - on every Sunday of the liturgical year, and Bach usually wrote his own. Three complete cycles of cantatas exist today, the obituary even mentions five. Additional church holidays inspired works like the monumental the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John’s Passion - illustrating the suffering of Christ in music, involving choir, orchestra, soloists; there is the Christmas Oratorio - a collection of six cantatas for the six special days around Christmas, the B-minor Mass.
Bach continued to compose secular and also purely instrumental works. Among the most famous works of his last ten years are the Goldberg Variations, Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the “Musical Offering,” inspired by a theme that Friedrich the Great gave him on a visit to Berlin, and “The Art of the Fugue” his last work, which he did not finish. As far as we know, the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and the “Art of the Fugue” were not written for a special purpose, they were motivated by the composer’s interest to continue experimenting with contrapuntal music, developing it further, finding out how far he could go.
When Bach died at the age of 65 in 1750, his style of composing was already considered obsolete. It appeared complicated and artificial, audiences called for something more natural,simple and pleasing. His sons called him “an old wig” and wrote their own music, following the new “empfindsamer Stil” (“sensitive style”) brought them greater fame in their life time than their father ever experienced.
While Bach’s music largely disappeared from public performances for more than 100 years, professional musicians knew and continued to study it, especially the Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Today, J.S. Bach’s works, secular or sacred, are played all over the world and considered among the greatest music ever written.
The composition of the Well-Tempered Clavier is closely connected with the development of the keyboard instrument - more precisely: its tuning. Today, keyboards are generally tuned “well-tempered,” which means that the octave is divided into 12 equal half-steps. Practically, this allows us to play any tune from any key. According to the laws of acoustics, this is not really correct. The only interval ( distance between two pitches ) that is really in tune on the modern keyboard is the octave. Everything else is slightly off, but we don’t realize it, because we’ re used to it.
The pieces in both books were composed over a long period of time, and not all of them were originally written for the Well-Tempered Clavier. Some pieces in Book 2 were probably written before Book 1; so stylistically, there is quite a variety, from early to late style.
The structure of the round allows us to accompany the tune with itself, which sounds good as long as we start at the right place. Rounds are nice, but as the name says, they don’t go anywhere, there is no development of the music.
This changes once you accompany the melody with its augmentation (twice as slow; the opposite is diminuition; twice as fast), or with the inversion (the melody turned upside down)
Listen to the following versions of “Frere Jacques”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-b2iRpWrr0
1) the melody alone
- the melody, accompanied with chords
- as a round in 2 parts
- the inversion of the melody (the melody turned upside down)
- the melody and the augmentation (the melody twice as slow)
2nd example: Frere Jacques in 3 parts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V0btEaaPpg
The middle voice begins with the melody, after two measures, the lowest voice comes in with the augmentation. The soprano enters next, with the diminuition of the melody, accompanied by the inversion of the melody in the alto voice. The example gives an idea of something that happens in a Fugue: the material is changed, there is development, the music actually goes somewhere. With that in mind, let’s listen to the Fugue in C-minor, WTC 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uoa2ZKDYsXQ
- The piece begins with one voice stating the subject - like the subject of a conversation. Then, the second voice comes in and takes up the subject. When you compare the two, you will notice that the second entrance is a little different from the first - this usually happens in a fugue, because the second entrance starts on a different pitch, and you have to tweak it a little to make it fit the whole. The second entrance of the subject is generally called “answer”, and the “subject” and the answer will continue through the entire piece. The third entrance follows in M 4, it is a subject in the tenor voice.
In every fugue, there are sections where the subject does not appear - as in the conversation, the music “trails off.” Depending on their function, we call these sections “episodes” - if they connect two parts, or they can be “extensions” of the subject, or “codettas” - a section that finishes an idea. In this Fugue, a short episode follows the third entrance.
- The next entrance, the answer (A) in the tenor voice (T) in M 7 marks the beginning of a new section, we call it counter- exposition.
In Fugues, different sections merge into each other; if you don’t know about them, you may not even recognize them at first. In the beginning, every voice states the subject/answer once. When that has happened, the “Exposition” of the Fugue is complete. This Fugue is an exception in so far as it is marked as a Fugue in four voices, but you don’t have four voices at the same time until the last part of the piece,
The subject entrances in the counter- exposition are
M 7 Tenor: A, M8 Soprano: S, with rhythmic change, M10 Alto: A, M 11 Tenor: S
The counter-exposition ends in a big climax, and you could think this is the end of the piece - but it can’t be, because we’ve landed in a different key, and it’s a general rule that a piece has to end in the key that it started with - the composer has to bring it home.
- With M 14/15 we enter the “development section” of the Fugue. Even though I choose to play it very softly, for me, this has been one of the great moments of this fugue, ever since I heard it for the first time. After all the commotion, dissonance of the cadence before, here is the augmentation of the subject, and it feels like a rock in the surf, or a silver lining on the horizon. The augmentation of the subject is accompanied by the subject in the Soprano and the inversion of the answer in the Tenor. The technique of having the subject/answer overlap in different voices is called stretto.
- Right after this first stretto, there is another one in M 16-18 Alto: A, Soprano:S, Tenor: S. If you listen to them individually, you will find that there are changes, in order to make things fit harmonically - and sometimes, also to make things more interesting - the composer tweaks the subject on the way.
- The augmentation of the subject in the bass marks the first entrance of that voice. Interestingly, the subject stays in the bass for the rest of that section, presenting the inversion of the answer, and the answer - as if the bass was trying to make up for everything that voice missed out on so far. At the end of that section, we’re back in c-minor.
- A final section follows in M 23, again as a stretto - the subject overlapping in different voices:
Alto: S, Soprano: A; Soprano: S, Alto :S, Tenor: S, Bass: inversion of A; and , in difference to the beginning, we have all four voices together - maybe this fugue is a quest in search in search of a lost bass...
- A short coda concludes the piece, confirming the key of c-minor.
As a young piano student, I didn’t like to play Bach. The two-part Inventions, usually the piano student’s first encounter with serious polyphony, were on my secret boycott list, mostly for practical reasons. They are incredibly difficult, much more difficult than they sound. You have to exactly know which finger goes where - as you could hear in the fugue, the voices that come together form a texture, and if one thing falls through, everything unravels, it’s like a run in your stockings. When I was a teenager, I didn’t care for the kind of discipline that is required to master the task. Fortunately, I got over that when I was in college, where I really got to love Bach’s music, even though that applied more to his Suites, Partitas, Toccatas, the forms that are more playful and don’t appear as structured as the Preludes and Fugues.
In 2005 I was living in New Hampshire and preparing for a complete performance of Book 1. The house where I lived was being painted, and while the painter was working on the scaffold in front of the windows of my apartment, I was practicing 5, 6 hours a day. One day, when I went out, the painter approached me, and he said: “ What music is it that you’re playing, it is so comforting and calming,” and then he added “ it’s such a treat compared to the crap that’s on the radio all the time.”
In order to make a recording available that everybody can access and use, I’ve recorded all the Preludes and Fugues from Book 2 and uploaded them on Youtube. That also gives you an opportunity to participate if you can’t come on Sunday mornings. The recording was made on a very good instrument with a very good recording device, but it does not have the quality of a studio recording. I did not have a possibility to splice, so there are the occasional little glitches and wrong notes. If you prefer to listen to a studio recording, or to a different interpretation, please go ahead and find something you like.