ABOUT THE MUSIC
Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is remarkable for its precision, its complexity, and its variety. His works are imbued with a profound respect for music’s power to lift our spirits. It is no wonder that this music appeals so strongly to everyone from musicologists to babies.
The year of Bach’s death, 1750, is counted as the end of the Baroque era. Although he consolidated and perfected the style, and invented several new genres, his music was considered old-fashioned at the time of his death, and
he was mostly remembered as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser rather than as a great composer. The next generation of composers—including several of his sons, most notably Carl Philip Emanuel Bach—made the transition to the new Classical style.
J. S. Bach’s compositions were largely forgotten until the Bach revival of the early nineteenth century, when Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and others began the effort to preserve and perform his music. It was not until the centennial of Bach’s death that the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was formed to collect, preserve, and catalog the composer’s extant works. The BWV numbers that appear after each title stand for Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Catalog of Bach’s Works), the systematic ordering of his compositions undertaken by that group.
From 1717 to 1723, Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. For this part of his career, he had no responsibilities for church music, since the Prince was a Calvinist, and that sect had minimal music in its church services. Many of his instrumental masterpieces, including the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, the Goldberg Variations, and the Brandenburg Concertos, were composed during this period.
The manuscript of these solo violin works say they are “senza basso accompagnato”—without the [usual] accompanying bass (basso continuo). But in fact, Bach has supplied an implicit bass line as part of the music. Instead of the steady bass line of an accompanying harpsichord or cello, here the bass is outlined and suggested by single violin notes interspersed among the melodic lines. Even though the bass notes are few and far between, the fast high and middle-range runs provide us with enough of an outline for our ears to fill in the chords.
Composers of the Baroque era often wrote down just the outline of the music, since improvisation was such a customary part of performance. Bach’s manuscripts, on the other hand, give detailed ornamentation. These details provide us with invaluable insight into how music sounded in the early eighteenth century, and also provide performers with guidelines for adding their own appropriate and authentic ornaments.
Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B Minor is organized as a suite of dances, a common musical genre in the Baroque era. The Allemanda was a German dance in moderate 4/4 time. Rapid changes from a melody in the lower register to one at a higher pitch gives the impression of melody with harmonic accompaniment. In this Partita, Bach adds a variation called a Double after each movement. This Double fills in the gaps of the Allemanda, giving each beat two or more notes. The Courante was a fast French dance in a triple meter. The Double makes it into a breakneck tour de force. The Sarabande was a slow, stately dance with a legato melodic contour. Opening arpeggios (chords played one note at a time) give this a majestic feeling. The same melody is presented in triplets (groups of three notes for each beat) in the following Double. The Tempo di Borea is a Bourrée, a French dance in 4/4 time with a lively dotted rhythm. In the Double, additional notes curl around the original melody in continuous runs.
Born in England and raised in the US, Martin Kennedy earned his doctorate at Juilliard. He is the recipient of numerous awards, and his music has been performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, and many others. As a pianist, he regularly plays concerts with members of the Saint Louis Symphony. He is Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at Washington University in St. Louis. Lara St. John commissioned him to write Variations on Being Alone for her, and this is the work’s world première.
Eugène Ysaÿe was a virtuoso violinist, conductor, and composer. He studied both
in his native Belgium and in Paris, where he was connected to Saint-Saens and
Fauré. He played the violin at the première of Debussy’s String Quartet. He was also a friend of the Belgian monarch, Queen Elisabeth, and gave her violin lessons over many years. In 1918 he came to the US and conducted the Cincinnati Orchestra. He championed the music of his French contemporaries, and revolutionized violin playing, emphasizing virtuosity but only in the service of the interpretation of the music.
He wrote many violin concerti and smaller works, including a set of six sonatas for solo violin. The Sonata in D Minor, Opus 27, No. 3 is in one movement, entitled “Ballade.” Ysaÿe writes in a modern musical language, but uses the same techniques Bach used to give the solo violin several simultaneous voices: double stops, melodic outlining, pedal points, and fast alternation between high and low registers.
Matt Van Brink is a composer, pianist, and accordionist living in New York City. Matt is currently piano faculty and composer at Concordia Conservatory (Bronxville, NY) and a composer in the BMI Musical Theater Workshops. He studied at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Indiana University, and Boston University, where he received his Doctorate. Zephyr was commissioned by Lara St. John, who performs the world première performance today at the Maverick.
Bach’s Sonatas for Solo Violin are each in four movements: slow, fugue, slow, and fast. In the Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C Major, the opening Adagio gives the instrument arpeggios and double stops (two notes at the same time). This introductory section uses a dotted rhythm, in the style of a grand processional overture. The fugue (Fuga—Alla breve) was typically added as the second movement of the sonata da chiesa (church sonata). Since a fugue is based on three or more voices playing against one another, it was a challenge for the composer (and is now for the performer) to produce the distinct lines on a melody instrument such as the solo violin. The third movement (Largo) is slow and legato, with a high melody accompanied by single notes and chords in the bass. In the lively finale (Allegro assai), high, middle, and low ranges can be heard as distinct voices.
All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy, publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Program Notes © 2010 by Miriam Villchur Berg