For decades, I have performed a host of Bach compositions of varying arrangements and ensemble sizes. J.S. Bach has always been one of my favorite composers for piano and cello, and it was a labor of love to do further research on his life’s works for a concert that I headlined last month with my pianist Alfred Miller.
We decided to alternate between solo cello selections and our duo selections throughout the program so that we could better illustrate Bach’s ingenuity and range involved in composing his masterful works. Below are the program notes from the concert. Even though I’ve studied Bach for years, I was delighted to learn some new facts about him and his music as I prepared for this performance.
Program Notes #1
Johann Sebastian Bach is without question one of the greatest composers of all time. He wrote hundreds of pieces for the organ, choir and many other instruments. He spent most of his life as a church organist and choir director. His music combines profound expression with clever musico-mathematical feats like fugues and cannons in which the same melody is played against itself in various ways. Bach composed six suites for cello that showcase a great diversity in mood and presentation. Of all his 6 suites, Suite I is the lightest in temperament. It is quite likely that these works were never played publicly during Bach’s lifetime. His cello suites wouldn’t have survived at all were it not for Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, who made a copy of them from the original manuscripts.
Cello: Prelude from Suite I – This movement is reminiscent of the Preludio I from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the use of pedal points heard throughout. The pedal inflection is heard in the very distinct bottom note of the broken chords.
Cello: Allemande from Suite I – The Allemande is originally a German invention in which the broken harmony is supposed to reflect a satisfied, orderly and tranquil mood.
Program Notes #2
Bach is probably the best Baroque era composer to have ever lived. He was born in 1685, died in 1750 and is revered for his complex stylistic innovations. You may be familiar with some of his best known compsitions such as the ‘Mass in B Minor’, the ‘Brandenburg Concertos’ and ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’. He came from a family of musicians that stretched back for several generations. He took on various organist positions during the early 18th century, and his Lutheran faith influenced his later musical works. It is believed by historians that Bach learned the violin from his father who also worked as a town musician in Bach’s birthplace of Eisenach, Germany.
Bach also created musical interpretations of the Bible using arias and choruses. This is how he created some of his most famous religious masterworks such as ‘The Passion According to St. Matthew’ and the ‘Mass in B Minor’.
Piano & Cello: Arioso – In classical music, an arioso is usually a solo vocal piece. Though originally a vocal form, the arioso’s melodic format was extended to instrumental compositions. One of the most famous arioso instrumentals is Bach’s. This is a very popular wedding and performance piece.
Piano & Cello: Gigue – The Gigue is a lively Baroque dance that originates from the British jig. It was probably never a royal court dance, but it was danced by nobility on social occasions. Several court composers, including Bach, wrote gigues. The Gigue to be performed is written in 3/8 time which was the norm for this musical form.
Piano & Cello: Chorale – Bach harmonized hundreds of chorales which he typically used at the end of his cantatas and as the concluding scenes of his Passions. Traditionally, hymns were sung to the chorale melodies in Protestant and Lutheran churches.
Piano & Cello: Bouree – A bouree is essentially a country dance. As its name suggests, the Bouree has something full and solid about it, but not without some softness and a little bit of charm.
Program Notes #3
When Bach was 18, he landed his first musician job playing violin and occasionally the organ for the Duke of Weimar. Bach’s reputation as a great performer and his amazing technical skills would then earn him the position of organist and music instructor the the New Church in Arnstadt. He accomplished all of this before his 21st birthday. At the New Church, he constantly clashed with church officials and didn’t get along with his students. After leaving the church, he gladly accepted another church organist position that unfortunately didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped. Bach’s gift for creating beautifully complex melodies put him at odds with the church pastor who felt that church music should be simple. During this time, Bach created on of his most famous cantatas entitled ‘Actus Tragicus’.
Cello: Courante from Suite I – Bach chose to compose this Courante in the Italian style. The general tone of this movement is supposed to be one of sweet hope, happiness and cordiality. The racing movement of the notes justifies the name, even though it should always remain pleasant and full of tenderness.
Cello: Sarabande from Suite I – The Sarabande was intended to be pompous dance that is distinguished by a certain Spanish haughtiness. It was written to express no other passion but pride and solemn grandeur.
Program Notes #4
By the time he was 10, Bach had already lost both of his parents, so he went to live with his church organist older brother, Johann Cristoph, for the next 5 years. As a young boy, he had a beautiful soprano singing voice which helped to earn him a spot in a school in Luneburg. He later switched to playing the violin and harpsichord as his voice began to change. During his life, Bach was better know as an organist than composer which is why most of his works were published after his death. He was considered to be an expert at musically telling a story and invoking emotion due to his keen sense of musical style and richly detailed compositions. He often used musical styles from across Europe as inspiration for his works. He’s definitely one of the most important characters in classical music.
Piano & Cello: Ave Maria – Ave Maria is a much loved and recorded piece with arrangements done for almost every instrument you can think of. The cello melody line was written by the French composer Charles Gounod and was specifically designed to be performed on top of Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C major which was written some 137 years earlier. The lyrical text is also sung in the tune of the melody.
Piano & Cello: Sarabande – The Sarabande is a dance that is believed to be of Mexican and Spanish origin. It was danced using double lines of couples with castanets and is always in triple metre (meaning that it was counted in 3). At first, the dance was thought to be indecent which is what got it banned in Spain. In the 17th century, the dance spread to Italy and then to France where it became a slow court dance.
Piano & Cello: Forlane – The Forlane is a traditional Italian quick folk dance that is counted in 6. This piece is written almost entirely in running eighth notes and makes considerable use of syncopation. Bach incorporated his Forlane in his 1st orchestral suite.
Piano & Cello: Allegro Moderato – As the title suggests, the Allegro Moderato is one of Bach’s inventions that is played at a moderately fast tempo. You will hear a lot of running eighth notes passed back and forth between the piano and cello parts.
Program Notes #5
Bach worked for a lot of nobles and Royal courts to include quite a few Dukes and Princes. Unfortunately, this is what got him locked away in jail for several weeks when he attempted to leave Duke Ernst’s employment to work for Prince Leopold. Bach actually wrote his famous ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ in tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg.
Cello: Minuet I and II – Both of the minuets feature expressive melodies that reflect joy. Minuet I is played first then Minuet II before finishing up with another round of Minuet I minus the repeats.
Cello: Gigue from Suite I – The Gigue ends Suite I in a happy and optimistic mood. This was customary of Baroque composers since gigues were intended to be lively folk dances. The ordinary gigue, or English gigue, is characteristically vibrant with a dash of anger that gets quickly appeased.
Program Notes #6
Bach has been described by historians to be a devoted family man. He had 7 children with his first wife who was also his cousin. When she died, he had 13 more children with his second wife who was the singer Anna Magdalena. In those days, it was common for children to die young, and this was the case, unfortunately, with most of Bach’s children. A few of his surviving children did follow in his footsteps and also became accomplished musicians in their own right.
Piano & Cello: Siciliano – The sciliano is a musical genre that started in the Baroque period and is often included as a movement within larger pieces of music or instrumental works. It’s typically in 6/8 or 12/8 time and written in a minor key. Loosely associated with Sicily, the sciliano is supposed to evoke a pastoral mood that is often characterized by dotted rhythms.
Piano & Cello: Minuet – A minuet is a social of French origin that was mean for 2 people and is usually written in 3/4 time. Until 1970, this Minuet in G had always been contributed to Bach. Now, it is believed that this composition could have actually been the work of the German composer and artist Christian Petzold.
Piano & Cello: Pastorale – The pastorale is a musical form intended to portray an idealized version of country life. A common time signature for this style is 6/8 which happens to be the case for the Pastorale that will conclude the program.