The ensemble Four Centuries of Bach was formed by John Abberger to present historically informed performances of the works of J. S. Bach. As we celebrate the 300th anniversary of J. S. Bach’s individual [...]
They spoke about it
Orchestral Suites in their original instrumentation
Musical scholars have long idealized the final version of a musical work, or that version found in latest known copies, as representative of the composer’s most mature thoughts on a given composition. While this might be a useful paradigm for the works of 19th century composers, the patterns of transmission of the instrumental works of Johann Sebastian Bach surely oblige us to reconsider this concept in light of what we can observe of the composer’s creative recycling of his own works. The well-known concerto in D minor for two violins (BWV 1043) serves as a useful example. We can identify two versions of the work: the familiar one for two violins, and a concerto for two harpsichords in C minor (BWV 1061) evidently dating from Bach’s last decade of compositional activity. Observing the affinity of the writing for the violin, however, we can confidently identify the apparently earlier version as the original conception of the work, and the later version as an arrangement of the music for another occasion. Thus it is not merely by chance that the violin version is the one most often performed.
The Overture in B minor for flute and strings (BWV 1067)
The Overture in B minor for flute and strings (BWV 1067) survives from Bach’s time in a single set of parts. Two of these parts, the flute and viola parts, are in Bach’s own hand, the remaining parts having been copied by anonymous members from the Bach circle. Examining these parts more closely, Joshua Rifkin, the eminent musicologist and performer, has made an interesting observation. Based on corrected errors in these parts, it is apparent that Bach and the copyists were working from a version in A minor, a tone lower than the tonality of the (new) parts. This leads to the speculation that the familiar work for flute and strings was adapted from an earlier work in A minor. While the original key is advantageous for the string instruments, A minor would appear to eliminate the flute as the solo instrument, since the lowest note in the solo part now extends below the normal compass of that instrument (as it was known in Bach’s time). Moreover, a solo part that was already uncomfortably low in B minor is now in a tessitura that would leave the flute at a decided disadvantage. Since it seems unlikely that Bach would write a part with such apparent disregard for the featured instrument, the determination of the solo instrument for the earlier version of the work becomes a matter of conjecture. While no other feature of the surviving parts leaves us any clue as to what instrument this instrument might have been, the most obvious possibilities are the violin or the oboe. And if neither instrument can be conclusively ruled out, it can be noted that the oboe projects with ease in the lower tessitura of the solo part, stands out nicely against the strings in the solo passages, and can negotiate the entire work with only the smallest of adjustments.
Overture in D major (BWV 1069)
More substantial suppositions can be made concerning the Overture in D major (BWV 1069). The music of the opening movement survives in two different versions: an orchestral work scored for three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo, and the opening movement of the cantata BWV 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which adds four vocal parts to the above instrumentation. Comparing these two compositions, Joshua Rifkin has developed a compelling theory concerning the possible history of this music. In the cantata movement Bach makes effective use of the three instrumental groups at his disposal: a four-part trumpet and drum group, a four-part oboe group, and a four-part string group. In the orchestral work, however, we find the same music written for only two instrumental groups, (oboe and string), with the trumpet parts merely doubling one or the other of these two groups. We can also observe that in the cantata movement there are numerous small changes in the inner parts, which appear to have been made to accommodate the (new?) trumpet parts. The absence of these adjustments in the orchestral work creates small but significant problems that are quite uncharacteristic of Bach’s usual compositional care. Turning to the dance movements of the orchestral work, we can observe that the trumpet group participates only minimally. It performs only in the opening and closing bars of the Bourrée and Gavotte, not at all in the Menuet, and only sporadically in the final Réjouissance. Taking these observations together, we can surmise that the orchestral work did not originally include the trumpet group, and that when Bach decided to adapt the music of the opening movement in 1725 for the cantata movement, he added the trumpet group and reworked the composition to accommodate this addition. How or why the trumpet parts from the cantata came to be attached to the orchestral suite remains a mystery, but when the orchestral work is performed without the trumpet group the inventive interplay between the oboe and string groups becomes the main focus of a dazzling instrumental work, amply compensating for any loss of grandeur.
Expanding on the theme of arrangement and adaptation are the two chorale preludes presented here. Among Bach’s compositions for organ, the chorale prelude occupies a preeminent place. A devout Lutheran, Bach seems to have found a continuous source of deep inspiration in the German chorale repertory, as demonstrated by more than 140 works he composed in this genre. Of the many different possible treatments of the chorale melody, the two examples performed here represent the tradition known as the ‘ornamented chorale.’ In this compositional device the composer ornaments the chorale melody, and writes new underlying parts to establish an expressive affect, or mood, through the use of inventive figuration and rich harmonies. A purely instrumental arrangement of these keyboard works can be fashioned by extracting the ornamented chorale for performance by an appropriate instrument, and arranging the underlying parts for other accompanying instruments. Such an arrangement allows these works to be performed in a concert hall, thus providing a new means of experiencing some of the composer’s most personal musical statements.
The study of the works of a great composer is always a revealing process. The exploration of familiar works through the lens of earlier versions, with their subtle changes in tonality and instrumentation, allows us to experience them differently. As we note which elements are changed and which remain the same, our understanding and appreciation of the composer’s art are deepened. And once these hidden earlier versions are brought to light, who is to say whether or not they will find their place as accepted, or even preferred versions of these great works?
Four Centuries of Bach
John Abberger, oboe and director
Adrian Butterfield, Christopher Verrette, violins
Patrick Jordan, viola
Myron Lutzke, violoncello
Alison Mackay, bass
Borys Medicky, harpsichord