This disc contains some sonatas for wind instruments by Johann Sebastian Bach from his years in Weimar (1708-17) and Cöthen (1717-23), having in common – as they have come down to us or as several musicologists have proposed – their being intended for the recorder and/or the oboe. The interchangeability of instrumentation, linked to different creative periods, to practical contingencies, and to the inexhaustible desire for perfection that induced the genius of Eisenach, according to the testimony of his earliest biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, to continually revise his own works, often makes it difficult to go beyond their sterile catalogue dates in tracing their evolution. For this reason an experimental approach was chosen here, to bring back to their presumably original state what today is a handful of works, which were part of a much larger repertory. Chamber music was becoming the composer’s principal occupation in the time period under consideration, which was decisive in the progress of Bach’s career from organist to Konzertmeister (1714) and then to Kapellmeister of a Calvinist court (1717) essentially devoted to the cultivation of secular music.
Bach’s first documented works in the genre actually date back to the introductory sinfonias in his early sacred cantatas, where he not infrequently gave solo parts to woodwinds, such as the “Sonatina” of the Actus tragicus BWV 106 (Mühlhausen 1707) for a consort of two recorders, two viola da gambas and basso continuo, or the 24 bars that introduce Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir BWV 131, of the same period, for violin, oboe, two violas, bassoon and basso continuo. These small instrumental gems are, however, inseparable from their vocal context. When looked at closely, that constitutes their musical function as well, seeing as they exploit the thematic material or at least anticipate the affetto.
How these pieces were conceived began to show more autonomy later, often reflecting characteristics of chamber music forms then in vogue. A significant case is that of the sinfonia in G minor for recorder, oboe, viola d’amore and basso continuo – including a viola da gamba part – at the beginning of Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn BWV 152 (December 30, 1714). The piece is in two sections, a short “Adagio” in duple time and an “Allegro ma non presto” in 3/8, where the parts play a long fugue of 143 bars, on a subject very similar to that of the Fuga in A major for organ BWV 536. The fact per se adds little to the proven proximity of Bach’s instrumental works to his solo keyboard production (about which more will be said later). However, it is worth noting the fact that the cantata contains an aria for soprano “Stein, der über alle Schätze” in 4/4, marked “Adagio”, in the relative major key of B flat, in which the voice, instead of prevailing over the ensemble, engages substantially as an equal in dialogue with the recorder and the viola d’amore – even in the logic of the entrances, from which only the oboe is left out. This might imply the reutilisation in a sacred work of the first two movements of a pre-existent Sonata a quattro, one as originally drafted, the other after substituting a solo instrument by a voice, a procedure later refined in the Leipzig years (cf. for example BWV 35/2, 207/2, 249/3). Allowing for eventual modifications made when changing the destination of the piece, the hope in weighing this hypothesis is to offer a new angle of investigation in the never-ending debate on the complicated genesis of Bach’s vocal works.
A question, analogous in certain respects, regards the miniscule Trio in F major for violin, oboe and basso continuo BWV 1040, appended to the manuscript of the ‘Hunting Cantata’ Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd BWV 208, first performed in February 1713 in Weissenfels for the birthday of Christian, the ruling Duke. The trio, which develops in canon the bass of the aria “Weil die wollenreichen Heerden” (later added to the Finale of BWV 68/2) was considered an independent composition by many scholars, by others just a coda to the text of the piece. Its inclusion here favours the first view, if only in order to appreciate its essence. Indeed, its very nature, and its detached position in the source that transmits it, lead us to believe that its 27 bars are no more than a witty digression post festum, in the same way as was to happen decades later with the Fourteen canons on the Goldberg Ground.
Meanwhile, 1713 also marks the beginning of Bach’s process of acclimatisation to the modern Italian style, which would sanction his full affirmation as a composer of instrumental works. The occasion presented itself in the spring of that year with the return to Weimar of the 17 year-old prince Johann Ernst, stepbrother of the title-bearing duke and a proficient musician, after a long stay in Holland. In Amsterdam he was able to acquire, for his own library, a large quantity of manuscripts and editions of sonatas and especially of concertos – from the Estro Armonico of Antonio Vivaldi (1711) to the latest collections of Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello and Giuseppe Torelli – which the court organist began immediately to arrange for keyboard, exploring their structural techniques: in the first place, the alternation between ritornellos and solo episodes in the fast movements.
Bach’s renown concertos for one or more instruments, strings, and basso continuo, conforming to Vivaldi’s design, were born here, as was his parallel production of chamber music, often centered around the parameters of the so-called Sonate auf Concertenart. This term was coined in 1745 by Johann Adolph Scheibe to describe chamber works in which the characteristics of the sonata intersect those of the new concerto model. Its origins and the confines of its application are under much discussion today. What is certain is that, along with Georg Philipp Telemann, Bach was among the first German composers to test their potential effectiveness. The four sonatas that complete this recording are examples, at least in part, of these endeavors.
The Sonata in C major for recorder, violin and basso continuo is based on the well-known Sonata in A major BWV 1032, which the autograph (1736) designates ‘a 1 Traversa è Cembalo obligato’. The source occupies the three empty staves below the score of the Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords BWV 1062. Probably due to problems of conservation, six of the fifteen pages containing the initial ‘Vivace’ are totally missing, replaced by strips of grey paper by the author himself. Fortunately this circumstance has not hampered comprehension of the work, seeing as the surviving bars offer sufficient clues, according to the formal plan, for a plausible reintegration of the material lost (in this case Grete Zahn’s was chosen). But at the same time it is conceivable that Bach discarded without hesitation what might have been adapted only for one occasion. The presence of adjustments, in his hand, to fix problems of execution – above all raising notes by a third, or changing notes in the lower staves by an octave where the hands would otherwise have collided – not only confirms this opinion, but suggests that he was copying from a previous Trio in C major with the recorder in place of the traverso and the violin in the other concertante role, now given to the right hand on the harpsichord.
For reducing ensemble music for execution on keyboards, the organ was to become Bach’s favoured instrument, starting from his time in Weimar with his arrangements of the Italian concertos. The organ was even more effective when the parts to be transferred to “2 Clav: e Pedal” came directly from a sonata a tre. This was already a common practice in Cöthen where his students were frequently busy transcribing chamber music pieces for organ, as in the case of the Trio in G major Anh. II 46. Clear indications of this creative process emerge even more significantly in the collection that marks the culmination of the genre, the Six Organ Trios BWV 525-530, realised around 1727 as training exercises for his son Wilhelm Friedemann. A case in point is the Sonata IV in E minor BWV 528, the first movement of which, an “Adagio” in 4/4 followed by a fugato “Vivace” in 3/4 (the same pattern encountered in BWV 152), has a precedent in the sinfonia of the cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes BWV 76 (Leipzig, June 6, 1723), scored for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and basso continuo, and very possibly taken from the original version of the work, dating from six to eight years earlier. The stylistic coherence of its three movements is such that any suspicion of heterogeneity is disproven — even regarding the tonal relations, given the presence of an “Andante” in the unusual minor dominant. This has recently enabled Pieter Dirksen to produce a plausible reconstruction of the work.
By the same reasoning, but to the contrary, the genesis of the Sonata I in E flat major BWV 525 might have resulted from fusion. This is what Klaus Hofmann hypothesized, based on an anonymous version in C major dating from the middle of the century (“Concerto à Violino, Violoncello et Basso”), in which the “Adagio” in A minor is none other than the middle movement of the Sonata in A major BWV 1032 previously discussed. Assuming that the original key of that movement was G minor, he concluded that the fast movements were conceived in B flat major, envisaging a range particularly suited to the tessituras of the recorder and oboe. Obviously the question remains open given the quantity of variables to be considered, while the reconstruction furnished by Hofmann merits to be heard regardless, both for the quality of the operation in itself and for the opportunity to present, on this disc, a well-known page of Bach’s chamber music diversely clad.
The challenging Sonata in E minor for flute and basso continuo BWV 1034 completes the programme. Despite its slightly retrospective plan in four movements – the first of which an “Adagio ma non tanto” and the second an “Allegro” in the form of a fugue – the work is extant in a copy redacted around 1725. The title “Sonata per la Flaute Traversiere e Basso” might seem to make it a borderline choice here: not so much for the different instrumentation – we have seen how promiscuous, in that sense, the manuscript tradition is respect to certain solo parts – as for its chronological proximity to Bach’s second liturgical year in Leipzig, during which numerous cantatas assign a virtuoso role precisely to the transverse flute. Given the impossibility of resolving the dilemma, recourse is made to stylistic considerations, reinforced by the presence in the concluding “Allegro” of internal repetitions dynamically ‘in echo’ as in the Finales of some of the Sonatas for violin solo (1720). The possible gestation of the Sonata in E minor – or of part of it – in Cöthen would tie its origin, at this point, to the recorder, before the traverso began to acquire its own repertory, against the growing fortune it obtained in Germany during the first quarter of the 1700s: a change of course that, respect to Bach, has as its recognizable watershed the compilation of the so-called Brandenburg Concertos in 1721.
Francesco Zimei © 2021
Translation by Barbara Sachs
Ensemble La Selva: La Selva is an early music ensemble active since 2005. Founded by Carolina Pace, Michele Carreca, and Diana Fazzini, it has developed a wide repertoire, from Renaissance to late-Baroque music. The Ensemble La Selva toured in Europe, the United States, Brazil, and Algeria.
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.