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
At twenty, Mendelssohn did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour” through Europe. Whereas Scotland inspired the stormy “Hebrides” Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony, a visit to sunny Italy sparked a symphony that, according to the composer, was “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
Mendelssohn sketched part of that symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and he completed the work in 1833, using it to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the symphony’s final three movements in 1834, and he intended to revise the first movement, too, but he postponed that task and finally suppressed the symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it was actually composed third.
Mendelssohn’s bright impressions of Italy are borne out by the bouncing themes and running triplet pulse of the Allegro vivace movement that opens the symphony. Still, this is no mere musical “postcard”—just note the finely wrought development section, which shows the work of a composer equally fluent in Bach’s formal counterpoint and Beethoven’s obsessive manipulation of recurring themes. The Andante con moto may have been influenced by a religious processional Mendelssohn witnessed in Naples, an image that fits with the movement’s walking bass and grave harmonies.
The moderate pace and smooth flow of third movement resemble the minuets native to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, as opposed to the more rambunctious scherzos popularized by Beethoven. In the contrasting trio section, the horns and bassoons indulge in spacious phrases that impart an outdoor quality, until the mood turns momentarily menacing with the interjection of trumpets, timpani and a stern minor key.
For the symphony’s whirlwind finale, Mendelssohn borrowed lively rhythmic patterns from Italian folk dancing. He named the movement after the saltarello, a dance from central Italy defined by its fast triplet pulse and its leaping movements.
Aaron Grad ©2017
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.