Bach was the first great composer to be forgotten by the general public and then to reemerge to take his place as one of the masters. However, The Well-Tempered Clavier, his encyclopedic two-volume keyboard collection, never went unplayed. Within thirty years of Bach’s death, Mozart was busy studying The Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven was learning to play the piano by practicing its twenty-four preludes and fugues. The entire generation of composers born around 1810—Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Liszt, etc.—thought of Bach as essential to the foundation of music itself, and they considered The Well-Tempered Clavier as the bedrock of their keyboard technique. Bach’s collection remained a touchstone for the most adventurous composers of the twentieth century as well. Charles Ives and Igor Stravinsky played one of the fugues every morning before breakfast, to start the day fresh. Arnold Schoenberg, who made a full orchestral transcription of the E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue (Saint Anne), liked to call Bach “the first composer with twelve tones,” thinking of the b minor Fugue from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in which all twelve steps of the chromatic scale appear in the opening subject.
Yet we know surprisingly little about Johann Sebastian Bach. The details of his life are vague beyond the basic résumé of court and church positions; they make for no more than a one-dimensional figure. “Since he never wrote down anything about his life,” his son Carl Philipp Emanuel said, “the gaps are unavoidable.” With dozens of students to teach, music to write on order, and ten children to raise (another ten died in infancy), he was too busy to worry about posterity. A great deal of Bach’s music survives, but, incredibly, there’s much more that didn’t. It is speculated that over two hundred compositions from the Weimar years are lost, and that just 15 to 20 percent of Bach’s output from his subsequent time in Cöthen has survived. Two-fifths of the cantatas he wrote in Leipzig have never been found. There also are many unanswered questions about the music by Bach that we do have.
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in b minor, BWV 1067 COMPOSED 1738-39 INSTRUMENTATION flute, strings, continuo
The numbering of Bach’s four suites is a convention that has little to do with their order of composition. The first and fourth suites originate from around 1725, with the third dated, with some certainty, from 1731. The second suite, with its hybrid mixture of concerto elements and suite form and the extraordinary virtuosity of its flute writing, dates from 1738–39 and hence counts as Bach’s very last orchestral work. All four orchestral suites were likely performed by the musicians of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, which Bach led from 1729 to 1737 and then again from 1739 until his death in 1750. Founded by Tel- emann at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Collegium Musicum was a musical society known for its casual concerts at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house on the main street of Leipzig on winter Friday evenings and in his garden on Wednesday afternoons in the summer.
The Orchestral Suites, while adhering to a specific pattern in their organization of movements, all have in common an overture that serves as an opening movement — a tradition going back to the ballet suites in 17th-century French opera. The dances’ standard conventions are audible, however, Bach transforms them through elaborate ornamentation and by pushing traditional French dances past formal bounds, such as the strict canon at the fifth between the flute/first violins and bass in the Sarabande, the ornate flute figurations in the Polonaise and the flute fireworks of the extremely rare and virtuosic Badinerie.
Today’s leading Bach scholar Christoph Wolff posits:
By composing dances Bach significantly refined his musical language, not so much in the basic realm of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar but notably in the area of articulation and expression. Nowhere else but in his suites of dances do we encounter a more systematic, sophisticated, and far ranging exploration of the subtleties of musical articulation and along with it the fine tuning of musical expression.
BACH Concerto for Three Violins in D, BWV 1064R
INSTRUMENTATION three solo violins, strings, continuo
The keyboard concertos, like the details of Bach’s life, pose more questions than answers. We are not sure when they were composed and for whom, and, in many cases, even what instrument they originally were written for, since most are arrangements of earlier works. Of the fourteen surviving concertos for one, two, three, or four keyboards that Bach composed in Leipzig in the 1730s, only one was actually written with the keyboard in mind. Of the rest, we know for certain the original scoring of just three.
It was only after Bach had taken charge of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in the 1730s that he began to produce keyboard concertos at all, and his usual practice was to adapt music he had composed earlier. The idea of writing for more than one keyboard may simply have been suggested by the large number of musicians in the Bach household, in particular his two oldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is generally believed that all of these works are actually arrangements of preexisting concertos for other instruments. Scholars have worked to reconstruct the “original” concertos from these secondary sources, and the Concerto for Three Violins in C Major (performed at this concert in the preferred key of D), after the Concerto for Three Harpsichords in C Major, is one of these re-created works. The version is, therefore, more an act of plausible reconstruction than an arrangement; it is actually Bach’s version for three harpsichords that is the arrangement. Most scholars think that the surviving source is itself an arrangement of a lost violin concerto. That means that when we hear this concerto performed on violins, we might be hearing something closer to what Bach originally wrote, but reconstructed from an arrangement of the original.
The word concerto poses two possible definitions: 1) from the word consere, “to consort” or 2) concertare, “to compete”. Bach fully embraces the duality of the concerto as “harmonious contention.” In the first movement, the solo violins expand on thematic material – ritornello - presented by the full ensemble. Most interesting, though, is what Bach does between the ritornelli - inventive, improvisatory passages for the soloists that recall thematic material. The soloists come to the foreground in the Adagio, in an intricate conversation around a lyrical melody. In the final Allegro, the virtuosic dialogue between soloists and ensemble continues with precipitous haste and sheen.
BACH Four Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier arr. Stravinsky; ed. Hogwood
COMPOSED 1722 (publication of volume 1), ca. 1740 (volume 2)
April–June, 1969, Stravinsky arrangement
INSTRUMENTATION three clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, strings
The Well-Tempered Clavier was Igor Stravinsky’s daily bread at the end of his life—he began the day by playing a page or two as a way of exercising his fingers and jump-starting his thoughts. Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s long-time colleague, said that after the composer died, he found the music of Bach’s e-flat minor Prelude from Book I still open on the piano. It was the last piece Stravinsky had played, just three days earlier.
Stravinsky’s final project—in a career that stretched over seventy years—was an orchestration of four of Bach’s preludes and fugues. The scoring for three clarinets, two bassoons and strings is a combination never before employed by Stravinsky, although his previous project of 1968, an orchestration of Two Sacred Songs by Hugo Wolf, used a similar grouping in three clarinets, two horns and string quintet.
He began work in April 1969, a year largely given over to serious illness and to treatments in New York and Los Angeles. After much difficulty, Stravinsky completed the Bach project in June. “My transcriptions from The Well-Tempered Clavier were finished in the hospital,” he later told Craft, “and the next day, my birthday, as it happened, I was paroled back to the hotel.” These final pages from the great twentieth century master were unknown for many years after Stravinsky’s death. They were not discussed in the Stravinsky literature, and remained unpublished until 2011, when Christopher Hogwood completed his own edition, heard this evening.
In an interview with Robert Craft for the New York Review of Books, Stravinsky said:
“As for my ‘aim’, if I must pretend to have had one, I simply wished to make the music available in an instrumental form other than the keyboard, which may have also been Mozart’s ‘aim’; in transcribing five fugues from the same collection for two violins viola and bass. But I could not have done any more than that in the case of the middle pieces. The act of writing was probably the psyche’s way of defending itself, and it was all that mattered then, not what was written – so more than therapy, an intended orchestration.”
The marvel of these arrangements is found at the intersection of purism and invention. The composer who once made history by completely redecorating Pergolesi’s music in Pulcinella is remarkably faithful to the Bach scores he loved, while infusing the genius of Stravinskian sonority: Fugue XI for three clarinets, bass pizzicato at the end of Fugue X, and the dividing of a single line between viola and cello in Fugue XXIV. Stephen Walsh, in Stravinsky: The Second Exile, points out “the mere existence of these arrangements is astonishing testament to the resiliency of the creative spirit.”
Swingle Singer Selections
Trained in classical music and jazz, Ward Swingle (1927-2015) was born in Alabama and studied in Europe with the eminent pianist and composer Walter Gieseking, and worked as an accompanist for Roland Petit’s Les Ballets des Paris.
Swingle founded the renowned Swingle Singers almost as a lark in Paris, where he had lived intermittently since the 1950s. In 1962 or thereabouts, while he was working as a studio session singer, he and seven French colleagues, wanting something novel to put their voices to, tried vocalizing Bach much as a jazz singer would, using scat syllables.
The result, backed by string bass and drums, was a 1963 album released as “Jazz Sébastien Bach” in France and “Bach’s Greatest Hits” in the United States. Featuring Swingle’s arrangements of Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue, the album spent more than a year on the Billboard chart and won a Grammy Award for best performance by a chorus. Swingle also won the Grammy for best new artist of 1963 and the Swingle Singers went on to win three more Grammys in the 1960s.
The Swingle Singers have performed at the White House, at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully, and Town Halls and the Village Gate in New York, and at La Scala in Milan. The group has collaborated with artists and ensembles including the Modern Jazz Quartet, the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and the New York Philharmonic.
They were esteemed by the contemporary composer Luciano Berio, whose 1968 orchestral work Sinfonia, commissioned for the Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary season, included texts spoken and sung by them.
The original Swingle Singers disbanded in 1973. Reconvened by Swingle in England not long afterward, the ensemble was known first as Swingle II and later as the New Swingle Singers. Today, the Swingles comprise of seven men and women; their repertoire, sung a cappella, spans an eclectic range of styles.