Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (6)

The joy of his keyboard music

Since my teens I have had a deep love of Bach's music, and as a pianist have enjoyed playing much of his work, such as the Preludes and Fugues, Partitas and Suites, and the Goldberg Variations. As a young teenager I was also very passionate about the organ and even considered the idea of becoming a professional organist for a while, so naturally I played a large number of Bach's organ works, some of which I have since arranged for the piano. It would have been unthinkable for me not to include the music of Bach in my Queen Elizabeth Hall debut recital in London in 1984, when I played Bach's Goldberg Variations alongside music by Chopin (Funeral March Sonata) and Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit).

Here is a series recordings from my own archives, beginning with the earliest recording I have of my Bach playing. As those of you who have attended my concerts will know, I enjoy talking about music as well as playing it, and in the penultimate video below I give a brief spoken introduction to Bach's Goldberg Variations, followed by an excerpt from the work recorded live at one of my concerts.

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853

Here is Johann Sebastian Bach's incomparable Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853, no.8 from Book One of 'The Well-Tempered Clavier'. This ground-breaking first set of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys was completed in 1722 and written, in Bach's own words, 'for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.' Unusually the fugue of this work is written out in D-sharp minor, the enharmonic key of E-flat minor.

J.S.Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853, played by Jack Gibbons, recorded live in concert, July 1980, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Gigue from Partita no.4 BWV 828

Bach wrote six Partitas for keyboard, published from 1726 to 1730 (the 4th Partita, the largest of the six, was published in 1728). All six were then published as a set in 1731 under the title Clavier-Übung (or Keyboard Exercise). Eventually Bach would produce four such collections. The title page of the first Clavier-Übung bears the following words of encouragement: ‘Keyboard practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Menuets, and other Galanteries, composed for the agreeable diversion of enthusiasts by Johann Sebastian Bach'.

Gigue from J.S.Bach's Partita no.4 BWV 828, played by Jack Gibbons, recorded live in concert, September 1981, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue No.18 in G sharp minor BWV 887

Bach wrote two sets of Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys. They are known collectively as the 'Well-Tempered Clavier', a title Bach used because of the need for a new and more careful tuning system in order for the pieces to work in all 24 keys. This iconic collection is regarded as "one of the most influential works in the history of Western classical music". Many composers, including Beethoven and Chopin, were brought up on the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is as beloved today as the day the first volume appeared in 1722.

The Prelude and Fugue BWV 887 featured here is from the second set, completed by Bach in 1742. The fugue is known as a double fugue because it has two fugue subjects which in the course of the piece are developed simultaneously (for the layman: it's almost like having two separate pieces which can then be laid on top of each other). As usual Bach's compositional 'sleight of hand' can easily go unnoticed in the general enjoyment of the piece!

On the front page of the first set of Preludes and Fugues Bach wrote out a long and elaborate title, which in full reads: 'The Well-Tempered Clavier, or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study drawn up and written by Johann Sebastian Bach'. For the second set Bach opted for the shorter title 'Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues'!

Jack Gibbons plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor, from 'Das Wohltemperierte Klavier' ('The Well Tempered Clavier') Bk 2, no.18 (BWV 887), recorded live, June 1987, St John's Smith Square, London

J.S. Bach: Gavotte from French Suite no.5 BWV 816

The only manuscript that exists of the erroneously titled French Suites can be found in the Clavierbüchlein of Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena. Bach gave his wife this little instructional music book as a gift soon after their wedding in December 1721. The image of Bach coaching his much younger new bride with simple keyboard pieces (his first wife having died tragically young two years earlier) is a touching one. Listening to these pieces it is easy to imagine a new happiness in Bach's life, and romance that, like everything in Bach's life, revolved around music and his family.

Jack Gibbons plays the Gavotte from Bach's French Suite no.5 BWV 816, recorded live, April 1988, Cheltenham England

J.S. Bach arranged Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne from Partita no.2 for solo violin BWV 1004

This Chaconne, in its original form, is considered "a pinnacle of the solo violin repertoire" and "one of the greatest achievements of any man in history". Many composers have made arrangements of the work for piano, including Johannes Brahms who wrote of the piece, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind". The Italian composer Busoni, a life-long champion of Bach's music, made his own beautiful arrangement of the work in 1893.

It is thought by some Bach scholars that Bach may have written the work in 1720 as a memorial to his first wife Maria Barbara, who died tragically young at the age of 35.

Jack Gibbons plays Busoni'a arrangement of the Chaconne from J.S.Bach's Partita no.2 for solo violin BWV 1004, recorded live, April 1988, Cheltenham England

J.S. Bach: Partita no.1 BWV 825

In 1726 Johann Sebastian Bach published his Opus 1, the Partita no.1 in B flat BWV 825. Bach dedicated the six movement partita to the new born Prince Emanuel Ludwig (born 12 September 1726), son of his former employer at Cöthen Prince Leopold. Bach clearly retained an affection for the prince and for the happy years spent at Cöthen. He further celebrated the arrival of the prince's new born heir by writing a dedicatory poem to accompany the Partita Opus 1:

Serene and Gracious Prince, though cradle cov’rings deck thee,
Yet doth thy Princely glance show thee more than full-grown.
Forgive me, pray, if I from slumber should awake thee
The while my playful page to thee doth homage own.
It is the first fruit of my strings in music sounding;
Thou the first son round whom thy Princess’s arms have curled.
It shall for thee and for thy honour be resounding,
Since thou art, like this page, a firstling in this world.
The wise men of our time affright us oft by saying
We come into this world with cries and wails of woe,
As if so soon we knew the bitterness of staying
E’en this short time in weary travail here below.
But this do I turn round about, instead proclaiming
That thy sweet childish cries are lovely, clear, and pure;
Thus shall thy whole life be with gladness teeming -
A harmony complete of joys and pleasures sure.
So may I, Prince of all our hopes, e’er entertain thee,
Though thy delights be multiplied a thousandfold,
But let, I pray, the feeling evermore sustain me
Of being, Serene Prince, Thy humblest servant,

1. Praeludium

Jack Gibbons plays the Praeludium from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

2. Allemande

Jack Gibbons plays the Allemande from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

3. Courante

Jack Gibbons plays the Courante from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

4. Sarabande

Jack Gibbons plays the Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

5. Menuet I & II

Jack Gibbons plays Menuet I & II from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

6. Gigue

Jack Gibbons plays Gigue from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

An introduction to J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988

A short lecture at the piano, recorded in concert, describing the many wonderful aspects of this work of Johann Sebastian Bach, first published in 1741, and which makes up Bach's fourth Clavier-Übung (or Keyboard Exercise).

Jack Gibbons talks about Bach's Goldberg Variations before his performance of the work, recorded in concert, August 2007, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations part 1, BWV 988

Considered one of the most important examples of variation form in music, Bach published his Goldberg Variations in 1741, under the long heading "Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Nuremberg, Balthasar Schmid, publisher".

Jack Gibbons plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, part 1 (Aria and Variations 1-15), recorded live in concert, July 1983

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