Bach and Brahms Festival
One of the most exciting and features of our 2011-12 season will be a four-concert Bach-Brahms Festival next month. Four complete concerts will be devoted to the immortal music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral – Brightmusic’s long-time home, and one of the finest acoustical facilities for chamber music anywhere – will be the host venue for the Festival. The concerts will be held on Saturday evening, May 26; Sunday afternoon, May 27; Tuesday evening, May 29 and Thursday evening, May 31.
Concert 1 – Saturday, May 26, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 7:30 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
Johann Sebastian Bach, Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 (organ)
Johannes Brahms, Sextet for Strings in G major, Op. 36
Concert 2 – Sunday, May 27, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 4:00 pm
Johannes Brahms, Sonata No. 2 in E-flat major for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120
Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonata No. 3 in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 108
Johannes Brahms, Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115
Concert 3 – Tuesday, May 29, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 7:30 pm
Johann Bach/Johannes Brahms, Chaconne for the Left Hand (solo piano)
Johannes Bach, Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079.
Johann Brahms, Trio for Piano and Strings in C major, Op 87
Concert 4 – Thursday, May 31, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 7:30 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Johann Sebastian Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903 (solo piano)
Johann Sebastian Bach, Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564 (organ)
Johannes Brahms, Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34
A reception with the musicians will follow the May 31 concert.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born into what David Dubal called “the most prodigiously musical family of all time.” He lived in Eisenmark until age 9, when both of his parents died. For several years he lived with his oldest brother, an organist and student of Pachelbel. At age 15 he moved to Lüneburg to sing at St. Michael’s Cloister, where he attended Latin schools for two more years. Rather than pursue a university education, Bach became a Lutheran church organist, first in Arnstadt (1703-07) and then in Mühlhausen (1707-08). He soon became known for his organ virtuosity – as well as for his stubbornness and occasional arrogance. From ages 23-32, he served as a court musician and concertmaster for the Duke of Weimar; during this time he married Maria Barbara and fathered six children. At age 32, he accepted a prestigious position with Prince Leopold in Cöthen. Insulted because Bach had not asked his permission to leave Weimar, the Duke arrested and imprisoned Bach for four weeks before “unhonorably discharging” him. From 1717-23, Bach served Prince Leopold, a real patron of the arts. In Cöthen, Bach’s seventh child was born. After his first wife died in 1720, Bach remarried and fathered 13 more children with Anna Magdalena. (Only 10 of Bach’s 20 children survived childhood.) At age 38, he realized his goal to work in Leipzig. For the second half of his career, he served as Cantor of St. Thomas Church (and thus became the most prominent Lutheran church musician in Germany) and as Leipzig City Music Director. At age 57, Bach began to withdraw from official and public functions. By age 64 he was nearly blind. A botched eye operation by an English surgeon made him completely blind. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a stroke; he revived long enough to revise parts of The Art of the Fugue; and he died at age 65. By 1750, Bach’s musical style was considered old-fashioned and unduly ornate, even by his sons, four of whom achieved fame in musical careers of their own. Bach is buried in the Church of St. John in Leipzig. About 80 percent of his surviving autograph manuscripts are archived in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. Bach’s only known assessment of his own work was, “I worked hard.”
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany in near-poverty. His father was an alcoholic musician who had grand hopes for his son. Although this meant that the family found a way to afford music lessons for him, it also meant that he was forced, in his adolescence, to earn money as – literally – the piano player in a bawdyhouse, frequented by sailors on leave in the grimy port city. These years of emotional, and perhaps even physical, abuse left permanent scars on him. Thankfully, two of his music teachers recognized and fostered his talent for composition. Brahms was a perfectionist. His first surviving piano work was preceded by more than 100 compositions that he burned, a practice that he followed throughout his life. As a young virtuoso pianist and composer, he made the acquaintance of several influential musicians – the young violinist Joseph Joachim, the 42-year-old Franz Liszt and especially Robert and Clara Schumann. The Schumanns were absolutely dumfounded by the talent of this 20-year-old. Robert, a music critic as well as a composer, proclaimed Brahms the next great German musical genius after Beethoven – which proved to be as much a curse as a compliment. Brahms lived with the Schumanns in Düsseldorf for a while; he visited Robert after his confinement in a mental hospital; and he maintained a close, lifelong friendship with Clara until her death, less than a year before his own. In 1863 at age 30, he moved to Vienna, where he lived the rest of his life. Brahms was a bundle of contradictions – he could be kind and abrupt; as a friend, he could be thoughtful and thoughtlessly ill-tempered. After he became famous (and wealthy), he championed the careers of younger composers, including Dvořák. Brahms’ musical style fused classical forms with Romantic warmth. “Brahms was the classicist who dealt with abstract forms and never wrote a note of program music in his life, much less an opera.... With Brahms the symphony as handed down by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann came to an end” [Schonberg]. Brahms died of liver cancer, his same disease that killed his father, one month shy of his 64th birthday. He is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.
Concert 1 program notes
Bach, Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: Bach wrote six suites for unaccompanied cello about 1720, while he was Kapellmeister and director of chamber music at the Court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen (ages 32-38). The cello suites were not well known until the 20th Century. The 13-year old Pablo Casals was said to have discovered a copy of them in an old music shop in Barcelona. He began to learn them, perform them and in 1925 recorded them. Their popularity has grown ever since. No autograph manuscript survives, but a hand-written copy by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, does. Each suite contains six movements, reflective of different dances: 1. Prelude, 2. Allemande (a German dance), 3. Courante (a faster dance), 4. Sarabande (a Spanish-derived dance), 5. Galanteries (a minuet in Cello Suites 1 and 2), and 6. Gigue (a jig). Music scholar David Dubal has written, “The six cello suites are the cellist’s bible. They demand unmitigated labor and devotion.”
Bach, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582: Most of Bach’s organ works date from the early portion of his career, when he first achieved fame as a virtuoso organist. He wrote the Passacaglia and Fugue about 1706-1713 (ages 21-28), either while he was the organist at The New Church in Arnstadt, while he was the organist at the St. Blasius Church in Mühlhausen, or after he became the court organist in Weimar. The ostinato (the eight-bar melodic theme) may have come from the work of André Raison, a French Baroque organist and composer. The Passacaglia consists of a statement of the ostinato, followed by 20 variations. Robert Schumann described the variations as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.” The Fugue is a double fugue: the first half of the ostinato is used as the first subject of the fugue, and a transformed version of the second half of the ostinato is used as the second subject of the fugue. This work illustrates why David Dubal said that, “if Bach had composed nothing but organ music, he would still be immortal.”
Brahms, Sextet for Strings No. 2 in G Major, op. 36: Brahms composed his second string sextet at age 31. It was completed in 1865 and published in 1866. It received its American premiere in Boston in 1866 and its European premiere in Zurich in 1867. It stands in contrast to his first string sextet – more refined, quieter, reflecting a feeling of resignation. Its composition paralleled the painful breakup of Brahms’ intense relationship with the singer Agathe von Siebold. Agathe and her friends thought she was as good as engaged, but not Brahms. He wrote to her, declining to propose marriage because he did not want to “wear fetters.” Tired of Brahms’ “commitment issues,” Agathe broke off their relationship entirely, leaving Brahms despondent. The sextet has four movements: 1. Allegro non troppo; 2. Scherzo: Allegro non troppo; 3. Poco Adagio; and 4. Poco allegro. For Brahms, this work constituted the emotional closure to a failed romance. “Here I have freed myself from my last love,” he wrote to a friend.
Concert 2 program notes
Brahms, Sonata No. 2 in E-Flat Major for Clarinet and Piano, op. 120, no. 2: Late in his life Brahms was inspired by the playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. In 1894 at age 61, Brahms wrote a pair of clarinet-piano sonatas. They were published together in 1895 as opus 120 and were dedicated to Mühlfeld. This sonata contains three movements: 1. Allegro amabile, 2. Allegro appassionata-sosteneto and 3. Andante con moto–Allegro-Più tranquillo. Blair Johnston has described this sonata as “rich-textured, songful, indeed, more truly songful than any of the string sonatas.” It is “not at all filled with the kind of hair-raising drama that has made the D minor Violin Sonata so famous.” Stay tuned for hair-raising drama: Brahms’ D Minor Violin Sonata is the next work on tonight’s program.
Brahms, Sonata No. 3 in D Minor for Violin and Piano, op. 108: Brahms wrote three sonatas for violin and piano, all of which are “indispensible to the violin literature” [David Dubal]. Brahms began composing this sonata in the summer of 1886 while vacationing in Thun, Switzerland. He put it down for two years and completed it (at age 35) only when he returned to Thun in 1888 for another vacation. Brahms premiered the work in Budapest in December 1888, playing the piano part himself. The sonata has four movements (his other two violin sonatas have three): 1. Allegro, 2. Adagio, 3. Un poco presto e con sentimento, and 4. Presto agitato. Clara Schumann described the third movement as “like a lovely girl playing with her love.” Critics have described the overall work as having a “wide emotional landscape” – “restless,” “powerful” and “dark.” Blair Johnston characterized the third violin sonata as “athletic, fibrous, and at times an even nervous affair that offers drama of [an] epic nature” . . . and “full of hair-raising drama.”
Brahms, Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B Minor, op. 115: Many music scholars regard Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet as his supreme achievement in chamber music. Brahms had already retired from composing when the orchestra conductor Fritz Steinbach brought the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld to Brahms’ attention in March 1891. That summer, at the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, at age 58, Brahms composed the Clarinet Quintet. The quintet proceeds in four movements: 1. Allegro, 2. Adagio, 3. Andantino and 4. Con Moto. The overall mood of the work is one of “autumnal elegiac beauty” [David Dubal]. The premiere performance was given in November 1891. Richard Mühlfeld played clarinet and the string ensemble was led by Brahms’ long-time friend, Joseph Joachim.
Concert 3 program notes
Bach, Chaconne from Partita for Violin No. 2, BWV 1004, arranged by Brahms for left hand piano: The Chaconne is the fifth movement of Bach’s Partita in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, written between 1717-1723 (ages 32-38), while Bach was in the service of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. Joshua Bell has said that the Chaconne is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” Brahms knew and loved the music of Bach at a time that it was mainly of historical interest. His respect for Bach’s Chaconne was reverential: “The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument, [Bach] writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.” In 1877 (age 44), when his close friend Clara Schumann injured her right hand, Brahms arranged Bach’s Chaconne for left-hand piano. Brahms told Clara Schumann that, only by arranging the work this way could he understand the technical difficulties faced by a violin soloist.
Bach, Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079: In May 1747, the 62-year-old Bach was invited to visit the palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, where Bach’s son Carl Philip Emanuel was a court musician. There, Frederick showed Bach a novelty – a pianoforte built by Gottfried Silbermann – and asked Bach to improvise a fugue on a complex musical theme that Frederick gave to him, often called the Royal Theme. On the spot, Bach improvised two fugues, one for three voices and one for six. After returning to Leipzig, Bach composed a Trio Sonata for flute, violin and pianoforte, as well as ten canons for unidentified instruments or combinations. He added these new materials to his improvised fugues, had them engraved and sent them to Frederick as a “Musical Offering.” The Trio Sonata is performed sometimes as an overture to the Musical Offering, sometimes in between the fugues and the canons, and sometimes as a stand-alone work, as Brightmusic will perform it tonight. The Sonata contains four movements: Largo, Allegro, Andante and Allegro. The Royal Theme is most prominent in the flute, which was Frederick the Great’s instrument.
Brahms, Trio for Piano and Strings No. 2 in C Major, op. 87: The Brahms who wrote his second piano trio was the mature Brahms: respected as the composer of his first and second symphonies, internationally famous and financially successful. He had grown a beard two years before he started work on this trio, causing one person to comment that, before he grew his beard he looked like Clara Schumann’s son, and after he grew it he looked like her father. It took Brahms two years to complete this trio, from 1880-82 (ages 47-49), but he was openly pleased with the work. Clara Schumann agreed, calling it “a splendid work” and “a great musical treat.” The trio contains four movements: 1. Allegro moderato, 2. Andante con moto, 3. Scherzo: Presto, 4. Finale: Allegro giocoso. The pattern of these movements follows that of his symphonies. In addition to its structure, Brahms’ compositional techniques make it a large and imposing work of truly symphonic nature. In the second movement, for example, Brahms uses double-stopping to make the two strings sound like four or more. “In the hands of Brahms, even the piano trio can be a large and imposing work,” said Michael Morrison, a work in which “a highly romantic voice surges” throughout [Howard Posner]. The trio was first performed in Frankfurt in December 1882.
Concert 4 program notes
Bach, Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008: Bach wrote six suites for unaccompanied cello about 1720, while he was Kapellmeister and director of chamber music at the Court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen (ages 32-38). The cello suites were not well known until the 20th Century. The 13-year old Pablo Casals was said to have discovered a copy of them in an old music shop in Barcelona. He began to learn them, perform them and in 1925 recorded them. Their popularity has grown ever since. No autograph manuscript survives, but a hand-written copy by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, does. Each suite contains six movements, reflective of different dances: 1. Prelude, 2. Allemande (a German dance), 3. Courante (a faster dance), 4. Sarabande (a Spanish-derived dance), 5. Galanteries (a minuet in Cello Suites 1 and 2), and 6. Gigue (a jig). Music scholar David Dubal has written, “The six cello suites are the cellist’s bible. They demand unmitigated labor and devotion.”
Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for Solo Keyboard, BWV 903: Bach may have composed this harpsichord work while still in Weimar, but many scholars believe that he composed it in Cöthen, shortly after the death of his first wife Maria Barbara in 1720, as a commemoration. In form, Bach biographer Martin Geck points out, the fantasy portion of this work is really a toccata, and “during his life, and more after his death, the Chromatic Fantasy was considered the unrivaled pinnacle of the form.” This is the only time in the history of music, according to German music scholar Arnfried Edler, that “such different structural and expressive elements like figuration, free-floating improvisational arpeggios, and instrumental recitative [were] so compellingly combined.” Beethoven was familiar with the Chromatic Fantasy, and linkages can be found between it and his 29th and 31st piano sonatas. Concert pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher says that “various editions of this magnificent piece are founded, not on an original manuscript of Bach, but on copies made by his friends and pupils,” which has lead to “many different interpretations.”
Bach, Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564: Most of Bach’s organ works date from the early portion of his career, when he first achieved fame as a virtuoso organist. He wrote the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue about 1712 (age 27), while he was the court organist in Weimar. This is the only surviving organ work in which Bach departed from his customary toccata-and-fugue or prelude-and-fugue formats to write a three-part Toccata, Adagio and Fugue. The pedal solo in the first movement of this work is the longest known pedal introduction in the works of Bach or his predecessors. The Adagio is often performed as a free-standing organ work, as well as in a famous cello arrangement. This work illustrates why David Dubal said that, “if Bach had composed nothing but organ music, he would still be immortal.”
Brahms, Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, op. 34: “Here is a full-blooded Brahms in the full sap of youth” [David Dubal]. The 28-year-old Brahms wrote this work three times in 1861. His first version was composed for a string quartet. Violinist Joseph Joachim persuaded Brahms to rewrite it for piano. (Characteristically, Brahms destroyed this version of the quintet.) Brahms then presented a two-piano version of the work to Clara Schumann for her comments. She didn’t like it that way, and persuaded him to write it for a piano-string combination. The third time was a charm. The quintet “is rich in thematic material, as the piano and strings meld in perfect union” [Dubal]. Brahms dedicated the work to Princess Anna of Hesse. If either Joachim or Clara Schumann felt slighted, after serving as midwives to the birth of the work, they didn’t say so. The quintet features four movements: 1. Allegro non troppo, 2. Andante, un poco adagio, 3. Scherzo: allegro and 4. Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo – Presto non troppo. James Reel has said that this quintet “displays Brahms at his least risk-averse.”