My Bach Partitas
I got to know Johann Sebastian Bach before I started playing, with the Motets on an LP disc that I wore out listening to, and with a short passage from the St Matthew Passion that I sang while my father accompanied me on the piano. Bach has always been present in my musical life and has been the safe harbour from which I have departed to discover other routes and then return regularly.
The Partitas of the first part of the Klavier-Übung represent the apotheosis of the suite, its sublimation and its disintegration. Each has its own colour, its own language and a different world of expression: from the tender festivity of the first in B flat major, to the sunny majesty of the fourth in D major, to the visionary intensity of the sixth in E minor. Not one dance is similar to the others, even though it respects their metrics and formal structure. The Partitas require from the performer a flexible, expressive, lively interpretation and a mastery of the polyphonic style; from the harpsichord, they demand all possible dynamic range.
This is why the Bach Partitas were an exciting point of arrival for me, and why it was so exciting to record them all at the age of 62, after sharing so much music and with so much human experience, emotion and gratitude.
Notes © Francesca Lanfranco
In the age of the internet, virtually every person can make virtually everything public, i.e. “publish” it. This has led – as is widely known and frequently deprecated – to a proliferation of information, in which excellency is often submerged by the useless, by the unchecked and by the superficial. At Bach’s time, publication was an entirely different matter. Ideas, drafts and even finished works could circulate – at times surprisingly well – in manuscript copies, and this was the fate of the overwhelming majority of Bach’s own works during his lifetime. Still, manuscript copies required time, patience and care; they frequently contributed to disseminate errors and imprecisions and, when Bach’s autograph is missing, scholars can find it very taxing to establish an authoritative text on the basis of such copies. Moreover, these copies bore the mark of the scribe’s personality and of the intended destination. They could be supervised by the composer, who could add embellishments, corrections or performance suggestions; at times, these were not intended as universally valid prescriptions, but rather as acceptable variants, sometimes tailored on the skills and weaknesses of the copyist or recipient.
Publication proper, i.e. the process of engraving and printing a musical score, was dramatically less frequent, and, in Bach’s case, was something he reserved for a very limited number of works. These certainly are among his finest, but other, equally superb compositions (such as the Well-Tempered Clavier or the St. Matthew Passion, to name but two) were not selected for publication and did not appear in print for decades.
We can therefore observe a seeming contradiction in Bach’s personality and behaviour. On the one hand, he was an extremely prolific composer, who wrote an immense output of beautiful music. On the other, he was extremely selective in what he decided to print during his lifetime. Yet, the contradiction is only apparent. In fact, compositional fecundity did never imply carelessness on Bach’s part; even the music he wrote for the daily needs of worship never shows the marks of negligence and rush. Undeniably, however, the works he favoured among his own composition received a special treatment; he revised them, collected them, organized them into ordered unities, and took special care in their dissemination and preservation.
Whilst, for example, the B-Minor Mass is an exemplary case of Bach’s desire to give structure, shape, coherence and perfection to previously composed works, to print a work such as that would have been extremely expensive and certainly not remunerative. Put bluntly, who would have been able to afford the purchase of a major orchestral score of a gigantic Mass which could have little chance of being performed?
On the other hand, the economic effort of publishing a collection of keyboard works could be viable, and potentially lucrative. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Bach opened the series of his published works with the six Keyboard Partitas, recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album. Although keyboard playing was not as widespread in the eighteenth century as it would become in the following century, still there was a very high number of professionals and amateurs whose skills could be not inferior to those of the professionals – only, they did not need to play in order to make a living. To them, a collection such as that of the Partitas could certainly appeal.
Bach, already in his forties, and having written most of his greatest masterpieces by then, committed to print his First Partita in 1726, dedicating it to the newborn son of his former employer, the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. Allegedly, the publication was supervised and partly realized by the composer himself, helped by one of his sons. In the following years, he published, one by one, the six Partitas, and then issued them collectively in a magnificently printed publication. This happened in 1731, and the collection of the six Partitas appeared as the first volume of the Clavier-Übung.
This term is very difficult to translate adequately. “Clavier” indicates any keyboard instrument, including the organ (in fact, one of the later volumes of the Clavier-Übung is specifically destined for the organ, although, for example, it would have been very bizarre to play the dance movements of the Partitas on the organ). Übung can be translated as practice, exercise or study; yet, all of these terms are currently understood as implying something dry, perhaps boring and certainly repetitive. This is absolutely not the case with Bach’s Partitas (and, one could say, the same applies to Couperin’s Exercises or to Scarlatti’s Essercizii).
Bach’s elegant titlepage reads: “Clavier Übung / Bestehend in / Praeludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden, / Giguen, Menuetten, und andern Galanterien; / Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertiget / Von / Johann Sebastian Bach”. The “Keyboard Practice” offered by the composer consists therefore of dances (those listed by him “and other Galanterien”). Significantly, Bach adds a specific destination for the collection: “for the enjoyment (or spiritual delight) of the music lovers”. These pieces, therefore, were intended for the pleasure of their performers firstly; an audience was entirely expendable. Moreover, and in spite of the seemingly lighter character of dance pieces (in comparison, for example, with Bach’s sacred output), a “spiritual” dimension was certainly intended. Though there is no evidence of a hidden religious program behind these pieces, certain among them are unmistakably serious in style and content, and it is not far-fetched to imagine an underlying spiritual dimension. Bach’s “sacred” works abound with dance moments (such as, for example, Et exsultavit from the Magnificat, or Ich will dir mein Herze schenken from the St. Matthew Passion), and, conversely, his “secular” works have many intensely mystical passages.
This spiritual dimension is also found – perhaps surprisingly in our modern eyes – in the very ordering of the musical material. In the view of Bach’s contemporaries, to shape in an orderly fashion a given material was to mirror the order and beauty of Creation. Thus, the six Partitas, in their published form, follow a precise tonal order: their keys form a pattern of increasing ascending and descending intervals. This pattern continues with the two works published in the second volume of the Clavier-Übung (i.e. the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, respectively in F major and B minor, indicated as “H” in the German system), thus covering the gamut and beginning with Bach’s initial B, in order to conclude with the last letter of his name, H.
As happened with the so-called “French” and “English” Suites (two other collections of six suites each), the elements of each suite follow a rather precise ordering, although the scheme is more flexible in the Partitas and is clearly conceived so as to confer great variety to the collection. Bach not only aimed at a financial success (which he obtained) but also, and perhaps primarily, at displaying his refinement and accomplishment as a composer. Thus, the opening movement of each Partita is labelled always differently: we can discern Bach’s precise will behind this choice, since some of these movements are found in earlier handwritten collections where they were simply called “Preludes”. In the published version, Bach decided to use titles such as Praeludium, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Ouvertüre, Praeambulum and Toccata. A similar variety is found in the genres and types of the dances. For example, there are both Courantes (with a French title and a French style, i.e. not excessively brisk) and Correnti (with an Italian title and an Italian style, lighter and more flowing). Similarly, there are extremely long dances (such as the Allemande of the fourth Partita, an extensive masterpiece lasting nearly ten minutes) and others with a more unpretentious character. There are even pieces which cannot be described as dances proper, such as the Burlesca or the Scherzo; one of the Partitas contravenes one of the most observed dogmas of Bach’s suites, i.e. the presence of a concluding Gigue: the Second Partita ends with a Capriccio, which is found nowhere else in this position in Bach’s output. There is even a Gigue in a binary tempo signature, which is another extremely rare case.
Among the various Partitas, the First is characterized by levity and grace, and has been defined as having an almost pre-Mozartean quality. Its concluding Gigue, with an abundant use of hand-crossings, can be interpreted as a keyboard version of structures, idioms and musical material typical for lute music, corresponding to the generally lighter style of the entire First Partita. The Second Partita, in C minor, is more solemn in its overall pacing. However, in its mysterious character, the Rondeau stands out for its liveliness and brilliancy. The third Partita is the most atypical, with its “non-dances” and the very idiosyncratic style of the classical dances. The fourth Partita, in the “royal” key of D major, is full of the majestic and shining traits found also in the third Orchestral Suite, whilst the following composition, the fifth Partita, is more immediate and confidential. In the midst of its generally smiling features, the Sarabande stands out for its intense expressivity and lyricism. Finally, the sixth and last Partita is perhaps the most complex and demanding of the set, both technically and musically. In the melancholic key of E minor (reminiscent of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion), it is one of the greatest examples of keyboard suite ever written. Still, it does not lack moments of lightheartedness, such as, for example, in the Gavotte.
The six Partitas, thus, represent a challenge for all performers, yesterday as today, and one of the summits of the entire keyboard literature. They demonstrate that, in Bach, the boundary between dance and prayer is sometimes very thin, at times inexistant; they display the full gamut of his inventiveness and creativity, creating an impressive catalogue of technical ideas, musical situations, dramatic possibilities and expressive contexts. They are, and remain, “delights” for the “soul” of all those who love music, as Bach had hoped and wished.
Liner Notes © Chiara Bertoglio
Born in Turin in 1958, she obtained the "1er Prix de Virtuosité" in harpsichord at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique in Geneva under the guidance of Christiane Jaccottet. She studied with Alda Bellasich at the "Niccolò Paganini" Conservatory in Genoa, graduating with honors, and with Bob van Asperen and Kenneth Gilbert at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, obtaining the Award of Merit. She also graduated brilliantly in piano at the Conservatory of Turin under the guidance of Annamaria Cìgoli and Gabriella Galli Angelini. Winner of the First Prize at the Harpsichord Competition in Bologna, she has performed in concerts for prominent associations in Italy and abroad as a soloist, as a chamber musician and as a continuist. She has also recorded several monographic discs including the complete harpsichord works of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guèrre, Francesco Geminiani's Pièces de clavecin, Prospero Cauciello's Trio Sonatas and Manuel Ponce's chamber works for guitar and harpsichord with Brilliant, Rivo Alto and Tactus labels. In addition to her concert activity, she has always been a teacher: winner and first prizewinner in the national competition for examinations and qualifications in 1994, she became professor of harpsichord and historical keyboards at the “A.Vivaldi" Conservatory in Alessandria, where she continued to teach for 21 years. Today she is a professor at the "G.Verdi" Conservatory in Turin.
Her vast favorite repertoire includes the great 17th and 18th century French harpsichordists Louis and François Couperin, J.H.D'Anglebert, J.S.Bach, Karl Philip Emanuel Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, G.Frescobaldi and amongst others, various 20th century composers such as György Ligeti, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ohana.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.