Johann Christian Bach was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He was fifteen years old when his father died in 1750, after which he went to live and study with his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel in Berlin for four years. In 1754 he went to study and work in Milan where he was active as an organist and opera composer for eight years. He emigrated to London in 1762, and settled there for the rest of his life. Thus he is known as the “London” Bach. As a composer, he was a master of the galant style, a style that is free of the contrapuntal complexities and other musical profundities of his father’s music. His instrumental works are mostly elegant and enjoyable, full of tuneful melodies with pleasing harmonies, sometimes dramatic and brilliant and sometimes intimate and simple. It was music that appealed to London audiences of the time.
He was also active as a conductor and impresario. With the viola da gamba virtuoso Carl Frederich Abel, he founded one of the most important concert series in London, which was an important part of London concert life from 1765 until his death in 1782. It was at these concerts that most of his music was first heard, including his three “London” Sinfoniettas for strings, two of which are included in this program. These are called sinfoniettas (small sinfonies) mainly because each has only two movements instead of the customary three of a sinfonie. In the Sinfonietta in A Major, the first movement is in sonata form with a full recapitulation, and the second is a gavotte in rondeau form: ABACA. In the Sinfonietta in D Major, the Andante movement is in binary form, and the Menuet has a trio section in D Minor.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar in 1714, but spent most of his life in Berlin and Hamburg. In Berlin, he was a court musician and accompanist to Frederick the Great, who was an ardent flute player, for thirty years; and in Hamburg, he was director of music of the five principal churches for twenty year. He was considered the leading keyboard player and teacher of his time, and also enjoyed renown as an author and composer. His treatise on keyboard playing was deemed the most authoritative. He was above all an important composer with innovative and revolutionary ideas about music and aesthetics. At a time when dynamics in music were mainly determined by the harmony, he made dynamics a separate dimension of music unrelated to the intensity of the harmony, and juxtaposed unexpected loud and soft passages at random. These surprises plus frequent irregular phrase structure, quick changes of mood, rhythm, harmony, and melodic figures all combined to give his music the quality of a fantasy, which he considered the most suitable vehicle for expressing one’s feelings and emotions. Both Haydn and Mozart expressed their indebtedness to his musical ideas and inspiration. Some musicians today are inclined to consider him the first romantic composer.
Among C.P.E. Bach’s orchestral works, the six sinfonies for strings composed in Hamburg in 1773 deserve special notice because they contain some of the most audacious musical ideas of the composer. These works, commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Austrian ambassador to the Prussian court, were among the compositions that he introduced to the Viennese audience at his concert series, and hence were works that Haydn and Mozart knew.
The Sinfonie in G Major begins with a witty and paradoxical movement in sonata form without repeats, in which highly dramatic music is created with simple thematic material solely by the juxtaposition of unexpected dynamics and the use of surprising harmonic modulations. The main theme consists of just three variants of the broken-chord. This leads without pause to the lyrical second movement in the surprising key of E major. The oddly asymmetrical theme appears three times, but with deviations, which makes it seem improvisatory. The first time it is eleven measures long; the second is expanded by five additional measures. Thereafter follows a strangely comical moment when after only three measures of the theme the music stops abruptly, as though halted by the realization that it was in the wrong key (a step too low). The third appearance enters correctly, but only the seven-measure antecedent of the theme is heard, and the movement ends strangely with a passage in which the two distinctive motives of the theme are developed.
In contrast to the previous movement, the fast gigue-like Presto is a well-wrought and well-balanced finale. The two halves of the binary form are in essence of equal length, with the first half ending in the dominant key of D major and the second half returning to the tonic key of G major as customary. However, this normal outline belies the inherent quirkiness of the music, for these two simple modulations are brought about in an uncommon manner, in the first half by descending stepwise harmonic sequences and in the second by ascending ones. Moreover, the seemingly innocent theme is actually made up of five-measure phrases.
The Sinfonie in B-flat Major is another idiosyncratic work, in three movements. The first movement is also in sonata form without repeat. However, the development section is mainly a repeat of the exposition in the dominant key rather than a working out of thematic material. The primary musical excitement of this movement results from the circuitous ways of traversing between the tonic and dominant tonalities that occur in the transitional passages: the circle of fifths, the step-wise sequence, and the parallel major-minor relationship. Without pause, the restlessness of harmonic activities gives way to a highly emotional and lyrical slow movement in D major, in which the clearly articulated melodic line and its phrase structure suggest poetic declamation. But this moment of repose is all too brief, for without warning the Presto finale enters with a flow of fast notes. Thus this sinfonie ends on a joyful note with a brilliant and substantive movement in binary form with two themes and a full recapitulation.
Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most prodigious musicians and prolific composers of the nineteenth century. In his relatively short life of 38 years, he was recognized as a leading composer, virtuoso pianist, pioneering conductor, music educator and administrator. Born in Hamburg in 1809, he lived his formative years and early maturity in Berlin, 1811-1824. His principal teacher was the composer and conductor Carl Zelter, Director of the Singakademie, who was a J. S. Bach enthusiast. It was he who gave Mendelssohn encouragement and the opportunity to conduct the Singakademie in the revival performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Closer to home, his great aunt Sara Levy, a harpsichord student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and a collector of music by the Bach family, also contributed to Mendelssohn’s interest in, and knowledge of Bach. Thus the musical pedagogy that Mendelssohn received in his youth was most likely that of J. S. Bach lineage. It is therefore not surprising that we encounter in his thirteen sinfoniens for strings, composed between 1821 and 1823, a young teenager who possessed a mastery of contrapuntal writing.
Sinfonie No. 12 in G Minor was composed in 1823, when Mendelssohn was 14 years old. It is a work of nineteenth-century symphonic dimension and romantic expression that is rich in Baroque polyphonic texture. The first movement is reminiscent of a French Baroque overture, consisting of a slow majestic introduction and a fugue with two subjects. The descending chromatic first subject in G minor is introduced in the first exposition, the ascending diatonic second subject in B-flat major in the second, and both subjects combine in the two subsequent expositions. With the simultaneous appearance of the two subjects, the movement continues in double counterpoint (either subject can be the upper or lower voice) and both subjects become varied by devices such as diminution, augmentation, inversion, retrograde, or any combination of them in the episodes. The last episode is a rousing stretto of imitations, which ends with the final statement of the first subject played in unison.
The Andante movement in 6/8 meter is a gentle lullaby in repeated binary form. Its slumbering nature is enhanced by its five-part texture (with a second viola part), which allows the continuous rhythmic motion to occur evenly throughout the tessitura of the orchestra, and also enriches the orchestral sonority with a darker hue.
The Allegro molto movement is a grand finale of 435 measures in sonata form. The exposition includes the first theme that is a bourrée, the second a fugue, and the closing theme a free-flowing transition. The development section, which is as lengthy as the exposition, includes the extensive working out of all three themes, which is followed by a complete recapitulation. A short coda, marked più allegro, brings this virtuoso work to a brilliant close.
©2007 John Hsu