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Harpsichord Gems, vol 2. The Great Transcriptions


Text of the booklet "Harpsichord Gems, vol 2. The Great Transcriptions"

They say that a strict father Johann Sebastian Bach looking at his youngest offspring cited a verse by Gellert “He will go far guided by his stupidity!” But even if this story is true, Bach-the-elder was surely kidding: his youngest son was his favourite. And he really went far. By the way, he lost his father when he was only 15 and people are seldom wise at this age.

Father gave Johann Christian the first lessons of music and probably it was for him that he created the second book of “Das wohltemperierte Klavier”. And it means that for both father and son the art started with keyboards (in his childhood Johann Christian could play the clavichord, harpsichord, organ; later he grew fond of a new expensive and rare instrument at that time – pianoforte). Early compositions of Johann Christian were also for clavier: a young composer wrote minuets and polonaises in the “Clavierbuchlein” of Anna Magdalena, his mother. He might have been very excited when after his father’s death he inherited three of his harpsichords! His childish reminiscences could have been so strong that no matter what he was keen on later, whatever genres took his fancy, he continued to compose for clavier for the whole of his life. In adolescence it was small compositions, in his youth and maturity they were large-scale concertos and sonatas; some of his works for pianoforte were so popular that owing to them that costly novelty was in increasing demand in music shops.

Leaving Leipzig after his father’s death Johann Christian moved to Berlin (to continue the education with his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel). His first large-scale compositions were five harpsichord concertos. A few years later Bach left for Milan to start living on his own. Whether it was, to please Italians or to act according to his convictions, but he abandoned Protestantism embracing the Catholic faith and becoming an organist at Milan Cathedral. In relation to that his attention was focused on liturgical music based on canonical texts. His compositions for clavier also appeared: a few sonatas and toccata by “Giovanni Bacchi” were carefully kept by Padre Martini, a famous teacher in Bologna Academy, who was giving Johann Christian the lessons of counterpoint. Thus, during the Milan period the compositions for clavier remained in the background; however, spiritual music did not prove to be appealing to the composer for a long time either: Johann Christian took a fancy to opera. His desire to compose music for the theatre was so strong that after a success of “Artaserse” in Turin he could no longer perform the duties of the organist. Causing displeasure of Milan authorities by neglecting the position that became boring to him, he set out to travel in Italy composing new operas. Thus, “Catone in Utica” and “Alessandro nell’Indie” appeared, an overture to “Artaserse” was published. Johann Christian became famous, and coquettish pride can be discerned in his letters to Padre Martini.

“For some time past I have almost had to put my studies aside, being every day called upon to write something for concerts – a symphony, concerto, cantata and so forth for Germany or Paris”, – he wrote to his teacher. He was not exaggerating. However, symphonies and cantatas, concertos and ensembles appealed to him less than opera. And when he was invited to the King’s Theatre, London, he gave up his appointment at Milan Cathedral (together with an opportunity to compose concertos and symphonies) and headed for misty Albion. That journey was a crucial event in his life; in Italy he spent a little more than 10 years while in England he lived for 20. So, Johann Christian was called “Milan” or “London” Bach in contrast to his brothers working in Germany.

In London Bach found himself in the brilliant company, his friends being an artist Thomas Gainsborough and Carl Friedrich Abel – a splendid composer and outstanding performer on the viola da gamba. Charles Burney, a famous musicologist and historian, was one of his admirers. But it was no less important that the success of his new operas “Orione” and “Zanaida” won him the favour of King George III and his young wife, Queen Charlotte. Charlotte was German in origin, very well educated; she understood art and generously gave to charity. No wonder that the enlightened monarch noticed the talent of Johann Christian so that he was appointed as a composer at the royal court, gave music lessons to the Queen, in the evenings accompanied George III (who played the flute) and directed the royal orchestra. He dedicated Six keyboard concertos op.1 to Queen Charlotte, introducing a set of variations on the anthem “God Save the King” to the finale of the last one. The queen’s favour never left Johann Christian to the end of his days though the last years of life of the man who seemed to be a favourite child of fortune, were quite sad. He was sick for several years, his health gradually declining while he was watching how he was being pushed out from all the spheres of London musical life. To add to his troubles, he was defrauded by his servant who escaped with a large sum of money secretly drawn out from his master’s bank account. Bach died being practically ruined and after his death it was Queen Charlotte who paid his debts and awarded his widow, former prima donna Cecilia Grassi, with life pension.

Judging by the portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough, Johann Christian was handsome and charming; he was a success with women and had a reputation for a hedonist. Comparing himself with Carl Philipp Emanuel he remarked: “My brother lives to compose, I compose to live”. However, he was too artistic to become an art trader.

In 1764 Bach was sincerely drawn to the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who came to London. They often met and performed duets (later on they were destined to have another meeting in Paris in 1778). The influence of the senior musician on the junior one is hard to overestimate, it was long-term and versatile. It was under the impression of Bach’s symphonies that the daring eight-year-old boy started to compose in the same genre; Mozart carefully studied Bach’s operas afterwards (in particular, Lucio Silla, as he was writing an opera on the basis of the same plot), sonatas, chamber music.

“London” Bach composed a lot of symphonies (some of them with soloing instruments), concertos for clavier and various instruments (oboe, flute, bassoon) accompanied by strings or orchestra, a lot of chamber ensembles, and of course, a number of sonatas for clavier solo written either for the royal students or for his own pleasure.

Although the artistic method of Johann Christian Bach well fitted the aesthetics of style gallant, with its cult of clear, lucid, melodious tunes imbued with light sensuality, it undoubtedly possessed remarkable individual features. The music of Johann Christian is full of light in an Italian manner and is restrained in the best of the English style, but it would remind an expert of the lofty counterpoint skills of J.S.Bach as well as of daring harmonic experiments of Johann Christian’s elder brothers, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. This “heartfelt memory” breaks not only through the minor-keyed works of Johann Christian (they reflect the elements of “storm and stress” that in fact were not close to his nature), but also in his major-keyed compositions. With German meticulousness he carefully listens to all the voices accompanying the sweet cantilena of the soloist or skillfully uses the art of chiaroscuro, depriving the melody of its purely Italian serenity by a few exciting harmonic flashes.

As C.F.D. Schubart suggested, the “English” Bach should suffer from being torn between the desire to public recognition which made him indulge in fashionable taste, and suppressed craving for self-expression only seldom bursting through: “He was never satisfied with his compositions, and when he played the clavier for a long time he used to finish with thoughtful fantasia and exclaim bringing it to the end: “This is how Bach could play if he was only allowed!” Bach junior was prone to conceal the depth of his identity, however it is still discerned through the alluring clarity of his music.

No wonder that young Mozart was simply charmed with the skillful art of Johann Christian. In 1772 he arranged three of Bach’s piano sonatas op.5 No 2, 3, 4 (they became concertos for clavier and strings KV 107, No 1, 2, 3). Some of the Mozart’s compositions use the themes of Johann Christian (f. i., the slow movement of clavier Concerto in A major KV 414 written in 1782). It is considered that this precise citation must have been made to pay tribute to the memory of recently deceased Bach. What we now identify in Johann Christian’s music as “Mozartish” was in fact “Bachish” for Mozart himself.

It goes without saying that in spite of stylistic similarity of both composers the difference in the scale of their talent is obvious. Creating a fascinating melody Bach sometimes just enjoys it whereas Mozart develops it intensively. Where Johann Christian is inspired with a single beautiful image, Mozart creates a whole gallery of unforgettable characters. Complicated ideas involving difficulties in composition and performance are not typical of Johann Christian Bach’s music. This music cannot be considered “light”, however, to enjoy it one should be neither a philosopher nor a virtuoso.

The six sonatas op.5 published in London in 1766 and soon reprinted in Amsterdam and Paris became the first work in England with the words “for the harpsichord or pianoforte” on the title. In contrast to his father critically estimating the Silbermann fortepiano which he practiced playing in 1747 in the palace of Friedrich the Great, Johann Christian enthusiastically welcomed the instrument which allowed to “sing” on the keyboards.

In 1768 he played the pianoforte at the concert for the first time and thereafter he contributed much to bringing this instrument into fashion (as a merchant he sold English pianofortes to France, one of the instruments was purchased by the daughter of the Encyclopedist Denis Diderot). However, the music by Johann Christian could be performed on any of keyboards at hand including harpsichord or clavichord. At that time the harpsichord was to be found in practically every home while the pianoforte remained an expensive novelty. Even the texture of Bach’s compositions could not be called typical of pianoforte as there are no chords, octaves, masterly passages and other complicated technical methods in his works. On the other hand, it is not abundant in fine ornaments inherent to the harpsichord music of the first half of the XVIII century. Three out of six sonatas op.5 are presented in this album (No 1, 2, 3), although it seems worthwhile to discuss the whole cycle.

The themes of both movements of Sonata B-dur (No 1) caress one’s ear with decorative triplets and melodic embellishment, typical of gallant manner. Three-movement Sonata D-dur (No 2) strikes one by the brilliant concerto manner and can be a rival to some of symphonies of that time. However, Sonata G-dur (No 3) does not open with the virtuoso movement but with “singing allegro”, the favourite of that time (the “London” Bach was considered one of its creators). The opening theme of this composition enchanted Mozart to such an extent that he “recalled” it in his violin Sonata G-dur KV 301. The second movement, a theme with variations, is also imbued with a delicate charm and sincere warmth. In Sonata Es-dur No 4 the first Allegro reminds of the overture to the Italian opera seria; pianoforte or harpsichord should imitate the orchestra. On the contrary, rondo is a beautiful aria, its dreamy mood harbours the future images of Mozart’s Cherubino or even Donna Elvira. Another wonderful aria for soprano with imagined orchestra is the middle movement of Sonata E-dur (No 5) placed between two sprightly toccata compositions. The most unusual in the cycle is Sonata No 6, all of its movements are written in one key but in contrasting styles: the melancholic Grave is followed by an energetic double fugue and then a gentle rondo in the genre of gavotte. It seems likely that this sonata was written much earlier than the others as here Johann Christian uses the language of his father and senior brothers (not without reason the fugue from this sonata is sometimes performed by organists).

Sonatas op.17 had quite a long history. They were composed in 1772 – 1773, and in 1774 they were published in Paris as op.12. Johann Christian Bach seemed to set a high value on that opus in particular since he arranged its new publication in London in 1779 as op.17. And indeed, these sonatas, also intended “for the harpsichord or pianoforte” reveal a wider scale and are more imposing than their predecessors. It is sufficient to compare the compositions written in the same key and expressing similar feelings. Thus, Sonata G-dur op.17 No 4 is kindred with Sonata from op.5 in its “spring” mood but is wider. If in op.5 the form of Allegro dates back to the old manner of composing sonatas, in op.17 it is a true sonata form with quite a long development.

Significant differences are revealed between two sonatas written in C minor. Sonata op.17 shows no signs of baroque archaism, this key is interpreted in a different way, in the context of high drama inherent in the music of Viennese classics. This beautiful composition of Johann Christian cannot be compared to the Sonata in C minor by Mozart (KV 457) or to Sonate Pathetique by Beethoven, but all of them go abreast developing in the same direction. There are heroic motives in the first movement of Sonata op.17 while the development displays chromatic passages unusually tough for Johann Christian. Andante is a real masterpiece. This is an instrumental aria in which, however, not only the lyric confessions of the soloist are important but also all the nuances of the imagined orchestra voices: gloomy cellos, chilly sweet winds, mysterious French horns… But Prestissimo is a boisterous tarantella, the music of which seems to be overwhelmed by a spontaneous upsurge but does not ruin the laws of the form or harmony on its way. Sonata in C minor op.17 is the most rare case in the clavier music by Johann Christian Bach when all the three movements of the cycle are written in the sonata form. It seldom happened even in the compositions by Viennese classics.

The charming Sonata in A major (No 5) immediately appeals to you by the smiling grace of its opening theme. The key A major seems to be “Italian” for both Johann Christian and Mozart, well suited for sweet confessions as well as playful chat dominating in the second theme of the first movement or for the carnival merriment of the finale.

Learning about the death of Johann Christian Mozart wrote to his father: “What a loss to the musical world!” He knew that beauty had the right to be light-minded while the depth could be clear.


Roman Nassonov, translation by Amanda Calvert

Text of the booklet "Harpsichord Gems, vol 2. The Great Transcriptions"


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