From 1729 to 1741, Bach directed the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, an ensemble of talented amateurs founded by Telemann during his student days. To fill the weekly programs at Zimmerman’s coffeehouse, Bach brought in his earlier instrumental music as well as pieces by other composers. He also contributed new secular repertoire occasionally, working around his primary duties to provide sacred music for weekly services at the Thomaskirche. Compositions that originated at the Collegium include the seminal keyboard concertos (recycled from older material) and the four orchestral suites. The second suite was actually composed last, in 1738 or 1739, and it may have been Bach’s final orchestral composition.
Each suite begins with a long Ouverture—borrowing a style developed by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) in the court of King Louis XIV—before continuing through a series of shorter dance forms. Some of the dance styles favored by the French aristocracy grew out of local folk traditions, such as the bourrée and menuet; others introduced international flavors, for example the Polish-inspired polonaise and the sarabande from Spain’s Latin-American colonies. By Bach’s time, composers freely abstracted and stylized the forms, using them as suggestions for particular rhythms and moods without intending the music to be used for dancing.
The Suite No. 2 uses the smallest ensemble of Bach’s suites, with one flute, strings and basso continuo. The flute has a starring role, particularly in the Ouverture, the contrasting Double section of the Polonaise, and the final Badinerie. Much of Bach’s flute music was labeled flauto, which in his time indicated a vertical instrument, like the modern recorder. The suite, however, specifically calls for a flauto traverso or transverse flute, held sideways like today’s flutes. The flute part requires superb agility and breath control, and the Badinerie has become a favorite showpiece for flute virtuosos.
The substantial Ouverture begins in a broad tempo with the trademark dotted rhythms of the French style; it then moves to a faster fugal section before returning briefly to the opening material. For the next movement, the Rondeau indication suggests a certain pattern of how themes return, rather than a particular dance style for the music, which in this case mimics a gavotte dance with two strong upbeats. The Sarabande is refined and elegant, a civilized adaptation of the fast triple-meter dance first spread by Spanish guitarists. There are two related Bourrée movements, the second featuring flute over a sparser scoring, followed by a recap of the first. The Polonaise has a stern character driven by a walking bass line, while the intervening Double section strips down to a bare chamber music texture of flute and basso continuo. The short Menuet prepares the brisk finale, the Badinerie. This fairly uncommon heading does not match any particular dance; it simply indicates music of a playful, jesting character.
Aaron Grad ©2011
In May 1747, Bach — already an elderly man by the measure of the day (he was 62) — visited the court of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia and employer of Bach’s son, the composer and keyboardist Carl Philipp Emanuel. At their meeting, Frederick presented Johann Sebastian with a theme intended to confound even his legendary skill as a contrapuntalist. Bach improvised a three-part fugue on the spot and, two months later, sent Frederick The Musical Offering, which includes the present astounding six-part fugue, one of the great masterpieces of counterpoint.
Nearly two centuries later — the year was 1935 — Anton von Webern received a commission from his publisher to arrange the Fugue for small orchestra. His orchestration emphasizes the adventurous harmonies of Bach’s fugue, using the different solo instruments to underline dissonances and other “modern” aspects of Bach’s writing. Of course, the orchestration also serves to elucidate Bach’s contrapuntal argument, throwing it into sharp and clear relief.
John Mangum ©2008
Felix Mendelssohn was one of music’s most precocious prodigies, creating mature compositions while just a teenager. Still, at age 20, he did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour.” With extended visits to the British Isles and Italy, Mendelssohn expanded his worldview and brought home inspiration for future projects. Scotland would be memorialized in the Scottish Symphony and the Hebrides Overture, while Italy sparked an Italian Symphony. True to their origins, Mendelssohn’s Scottish works are misty and stormy, while the southern climate of Italy produced, in Mendelssohn’s words, “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
Mendelssohn sketched part of the Italian Symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and completed the work in 1833. He used the piece to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Italian Symphony (the nickname came from the composer) debuted in London in May of 1834. Besides the clear, sunny nature of the work, especially in its ebullient first movement, Mendelssohn confirmed the Italian origins with specific folk references. He dubbed the finale a saltarello — a leaping Italian folk dance — and he also incorporated elements of a tarantella, a devilishly fast dance from southern Italy to be undertaken (so the story goes) after a bite from a tarantula, until the dancer is cured or dies.
Later in 1834, Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the symphony’s final three movements. He intended to revise the first movement, too, but postponed that task. Eventually, he judged that too much time had passed for him to rework the first movement in a style consistent with the rest of the piece, so he suppressed the symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it actually came after the First and Fifth symphonies and was followed by the Second and Third. To further complicate the matter, the publisher worked from the original London score instead of Mendelssohn’s revised version, which itself existed in various iterations. A scholarly edition based on Mendelssohn’s revisions finally came out in 1999, but it is quite a different work than the one the public knows. Clearly, Mendelssohn’s final intentions have been misrepresented over the years, but millions of fans who love the original Italian Symphony likely would not want a single note changed. This raises an age-old question: Is the composer the ultimate arbiter of his own music? In the case of a genius such as Mendelssohn, we can probably agree that any version of his work is a treasure to have in our repertoire.
Aaron Grad ©2009
About This Program
###COMPOSER CONVERSATION SERIES Composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher, featured on this program, will join us for a Composer Conversation at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in Saint Paul on Wendesday, January 15 at 7:00pm. Composer Conversation Series events are FREE but reservations are required. More at thespco.org/composer-conversation-series.
SPCO concerts are made possible by audience contributions.