JS BACH – Six trio-sonatas

If only God had made our world as perfect as Bach made his divine. Cioran

During his years in the service of Prince Leopold Anhalt-Coethen, Bach, Lutheran musician in a court of Calvinist faith, put aside service-intended compositions, cantatas and organ works, to dedicate himself exclusively to instrumental music. Arriving in Leipzig in 1723 as Cantor of the Saint Thomas Church, no doubt Bach found joy in composing the sacred vocal works required by his new duties: without delay, and in order to enrich his church with a fresh repertoire, he begins work on what will become nearly three complete cycles of cantatas for the Sundays and the feasts of the liturgical year. This work occupies the greatest part of his artistic activity, and Bach will wait until the end of the decade to offer the organ vast preludes and fugues, as well as the chorale settings that are today a summit of the instrument’s repertoire.

The composer nevertheless keeps an eye on the musical education of his young children, and Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, reports that it was for the purpose of improving the flexibility and accuracy of his son Wilhelm Friedemann’s fingers and feet that Bach pens, sometime between 1723 and 1729, the three voices of his six Organ Sonatas. The ambiguity still remains, however, as to which instrument they were first intended for. The manuscripts give the indication “à 2 Clav. e Pedal,” and it is not sure whether this is used solely to distinguish the three voices of the compositions, or if it actually refers to the piped instrument. Hence, it is possible that Bach and his sons practiced these pieces at a harpsichord fitted with a pedalboard—a few of these instruments were in the family’s possession—as well as at the organ. What is certain is that these compositions are secular works, pure instrumental music.

The baroque trio sonata, as perfected by Corelli, usually calls for four instrumentalists, two of which are assigned to the bass line, and it is only at the end of the 18th century that the designations of “trio” and “quartet” start refering to the number of instruments required, rather than to the polyphonic organization of the composition. The Organ Sonatas—we shall retain their title—are thus trios which ask for one musician when played on two keyboards and pedals, but which can also conveniently adapt themselves to the four-party composition of the trio sonata.

Such transcriptions were far from unusual for Bach and his contemporaries; unless he is asking for a precise symbolic meaning or exploiting a particular intrumental technique (which is rare), Bach does not hesitate to assign his melodic lines to a variety of instrumental tones. This is certainly true of the Organ Sonatas, since more than half their movements are reworked earlier pieces, or will later serve for the elaboration of new compositions; only Sonata No. 6 is entirely original. Thus, for example, the first movement of Sonata No. 4 was originally the Sinfonia for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba, and continuo that opens the second part of Cantata BWV 76 (hence its four-bar introductory Adagio), the second movement of Sonata No. 3 will later find itself in the triple concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord BWV 1044, and there is of the two Allegros of Sonata No. 1 a manuscript version in which they are arranged for violin, cello, and continuo.

In the six Sonatas, the counterpoint is woven first and foremost between the two upper voices, and its elaborate and inventive rigour recalls that of the Inventions. These two wonderfully supple lines, harmonically supported by a bass line which occasionally suggests the dance rhythms of the gigue or the sicilienne, engage in dialogue, exchange motives, at times inverted, and constantly interweave. The influence of the Italian masters is everywhere present: the Sonatas not only adopt the three-part form of the Vivaldian concerto, but certain movements—the first movements of Sonatas Nos. 2 and 6, for example—also follow the Italian’s structural design, opposing the alternations of the soloist’s imitative lines to the tutti-like effects obtained from homophonic motives at the unison or the third. Many years earlier, Bach had transcribed for solo organ and harpsichord numerous Italian concerti, perfectly assimilating both their form and their luminosity: merging sonata and concerto on the one hand, Italian transparency and German expressivity on the other, the Organ Sonatas present themselves as the crowning achievement of a long progression. On a different level, we know of Bach’s interest in numerology and preoccupation with number symbolism. Through these, he hoped that his works could reflect the harmonia mundi, as defined by Christian and hermeneutic traditions, as well as by the Neoplatonic movement. Three numbers oganize the layout of the Sonatas: they are written in 3 voices, have 3 movements each, and they are 6 in number, for a total of 18 pieces. In the first place the 3: it represents the principle of synthesis, since it resolves the dialectic evoked by the 2; it is the sacred number par excellence, that of the Trinity. Plato had united as a triad Good, Beauty and Truth, Hellenistic thought did the same with Mind, Soul and Body, while Christian tradition divided in 3, besides God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the theological virtues, the faculties of the mind and the attributes of God, not to mention the Magi and the days Jesus was in the tomb before Resurrection.

As for the 6, we find it in all the cycles of Bach’s instrumental music: the Brandenburg Concertos, the Sonatas for violin and harpsichord, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, and the Partitas, English Suites, and French Suites for harpsichord. Perhaps the composer assembled them as such with the idea of future publication in mind—sonatas and concertos were published at the time in series of 6 or 12—but it is strongly possible that Bach also had in mind the symbolic meaning of number 6, the most perfect number in the Neoplatonic conception of the world, since it is both sum and product of 1, 2, and 3. The 6 indeed represents the perfection of the created world: it is found in the honeycomb, the snow flake, as well as in the faces of a cube. It is also the number of Christ’s virtues, and the number of the wings of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision. And since the Creation took 6 days, 6 evokes the amount of work necessary before the 7th day’s rest—a direct reference to the didactic vocation of the Organ Sonatas.

Finally, the number 18—only relevant here, since it is the total of all the movements of the Sonatas—symbolizes, when obtained by multiplying 3 and 6, the fulfillment of faith through works conceived for the sole glory of God.

Besides the technical and esoteric features which supported the conception of the Organ Sonatas, commentators agree in praising the variety of their moods, their poetic nuances, their dynamic energy, their elegance and their richness. This unique group may appear as the most radiant of all of Bach’s offerings.

© François Filiatrault Translation: Alex Benjamin