BACH – suite & concertos

« Soli Deo Gloria » (To the glory of God) The dedication that is found on most of the works of Jean-Sébastien Bach.

When J.S. Bach entered into service at the court of Köthen in 1717, Germany was still strongly influenced by France and Italy. As a country divided into small principalities, each with its own laws and customs, the nation had no homogeneity in terms of religion, evidenced by the coexistence of both the Lutheran and Catholic faiths as well as Calvinism. France, in spite of the death of Louis XIV two years earlier, continued to shine as a beacon over Europe and also to export more than ever its lifestyle and culture to its continental neighbours. At the same time, as a generous patron of the arts, Italy continued to produce a large number of artists who established themselves as expatriots in foreign lands, further propagating the artistic trends of the era. The great German musicians, Georg Friedrich Haendel (1685-1759) and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) among others, journeyed in the opposite direction towards major European cultural hubs, further encouraging the spread of musical styles and forms.

For his part, Bach would never actually leave Germany, but would, by the intervention of his contemporaries, immerse himself in the musical currents of his time and, in turn, to influence a number of musicians. As such, he arrived in Köthen with an accumulation of musical baggage including several masterworks of Italian and French music assimilated during his tenure as Konzertmeister in Weimar. But while the majority of Bach’s efforts were directed towards church music in Weimar, the small principality of Köthen, with its Calvinist leanings and complete dearth of religious music, afforded the composer the opportunity to write for one of the best orchestras in Germany. The five years that Bach spent as Kapelmeister in Köthen (1717-23) were arguably the most enriching of his entire career. Here he composed most of his chamber works, overtures for orchestra, the first book of the Well Tempered Klavier (1722), not to mention the six Concerti for various instruments, commonly referred to as the Brandenburg Concertos since their rediscovery by Philipp Spitta (1841-94) during the nineteenth century.

The exact dating of this celebrated cycle of concerti continues to be a difficult undertaking because some movements were very likely written in Weimar. For example, it is very probable that the fifth concerto was sketched in this city and later revised and expanded in Köthen. Nonetheless, one thing remains certain, the fifth concerto offers the most interest in terms of its composition. The first movement ends with an expansive, sixty-five-measure-long cadenza for the instrument, which leads scholars believe it was the first concerto ever written for the harpsichord. In the orchestral suites, another genre very much in vogue amongst Bach’s contemporaries—particularly with Telemann—a series of short dance movements preceded by a prelude or «overture», allows the composer a great deal of freedom in terms of form. Bach’s four orchestral suites are distinct for their integration of both French and Italian styles. This is the case for the first suite, which presents a good example of the French model established by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) where the strings are filled out by pairs of oboes and bassoons.

Although Bach appears to have been content in Köthen, the influence that religion exerted on his personality, coupled with an imperative need to live in a social context that conformed to his religious principles motivated him, after 1723, to opt for a more austere position in Leipzig. He would continue in the demanding role of cantor at the Thomasschule for the remainder of his career. In this capacity Bach also composed the majority of his religious music. This period in Bach’s life also saw the completion of two passions, The Art of the Fugue, the second book of the Well Tempered Klavier and several instrumental works including the Triple Concerto (BWV 1044). This last is based on fragments drawn from keyboard works (the Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 894) and the Sonata in D minor for Organ (BWV 527) as well as the Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C major (BWV 1061) which remains, to this day, the only known work for harpsichord composed by Bach that is not a transcription of a previously existing work.

Translated by Rachelle Taylor for Traçantes service de recherche, de rédaction et de traduction de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique.