Steven Ledbetter’s Program Notes for 9/21/2013

PROGRAM NOTES   ~~~   By Steven Ledbetter

St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble’s
September 21, 2013 Debut Performance

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
“Air” from Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
A very large part—we will probably never know how large—of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is lost. Every now and then some new pieces turn up in hitherto overlooked manuscripts, but in general we must assume that the surviving “orchestral” works of Bach—the six Brandenburg concertos, the four orchestral suites, and upwards of twenty solo concertos—represent only the tip of the iceberg. (I used quotation marks for “orchestral” because today works of this size would be regarded as large chamber compositions.)

Most of the surviving works were composed (or at least put into present form) during the six years (1717 to 1723) that Bach spent in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt‑Cöthen. The prince’s court was Calvinist (with virtually no music during the church services except unaccompanied hymn singing). Thus, this appointment was the one period in Bach’s life when he had no official church duties and devoted himself entirely to the production of secular music—birthday cantatas, chamber music, and orchestral works—for his music‑loving patron. (Only when the prince, in December 1721, married a woman who was “not interested in the Muses” did the happy relationship between composer and patron crumble; this event no doubt partly motivated Bach’s decision to seek other employment.)

The numbering of the four orchestral suites is conventional; it has no connection whatsoever with their order of composition. The First and Fourth suites come from the Cöthen period, though their precise date of composition or first performance is unknown. They call for a much larger orchestral ensemble than the Second and Third suites, which were evidently composed in Leipzig roughly a decade later.

The term “suite” is also a modern convention, used to describe a composition consisting of a series of dance movements that follow one another in succession. Bach himself called these works after their first and largest component, a grand overture, and, indeed, they are published as Ouvertures (the French language indicates the musical style). The French overture, which originated in the ballets of Jean‑Baptiste Lully in the 1650s, quickly spread throughout Europe to be used as a festive musical introduction for operas, ballets, and suites.

The third suite has long been one of the favorites in the series, largely on the strength of its second movement, a sustained melody of ravishing tranquility that Bach simply called “Air,” though it is most often referred to today by the incongruous title “Air on the G string,” after an arrangement for solo violin made by August Wilhelmj in 1871, placing the melody more than an octave lower than the pitch at which Bach wrote it, so that it could be played on the violin’s lowest string (the one tuned to G) with rich effect.

Quintet in A major for clarinet and strings, K.581
Clarinet: the very name of the instrument tells us that its earliest proponents considered it a “little clarino,” that is, a substitute in some sense for the brilliant high trumpets (clarini) of the Baroque era; and for most of its early history (extending through virtually the entire eighteenth century), players tended to specialize in either the high or low end of the instrument, known as the clarinet and chalumeau registers respectively.

No modern instrument owes more to the imagination of a single composer than the clarinet does to Mozart, who wrote for his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, music that exploits both registers of the instrument and at the same time gives it a real personality. From the time he composed Idomeneo in 1780, clarinets became an essential and memorable part of his opera orchestra, and they contribute to the special color of Symphony No. 39. But most of all Mozart wrote three works in which the clarinet is especially featured: the Kegelstatt Trio, K.498, in 1786, the present quintet in 1789, and the Clarinet Concerto, K.622, not quite two months before his death in 1791.

In his earlier chamber works, matching flute or oboe with stringed instruments, the color of the woodwind instruments virtually forced Mozart to write in a concertante style, i.e. with the wind instruments opposed to the strings. But he had learned in the trio, K.498, how elegantly the clarinet could blend with the viola in the middle of its range, and this evidently suggested a rather different treatment of the wind instrument when he came to write the Clarinet Quintet three years later. The quintet, which Mozart himself called “Stadler’s Quintet,” was completed on September 29, 1789; Stadler, of course, played the first public performance, on December 22 that year, with Mozart taking part on the viola; it was a benefit concert given in Vienna by the Society of Musicians for the benefit of widows and orphans.

From beginning to end the quintet celebrates that particular passion for sheerly beautiful sound that Mozart cultivated in his last years. At the same time he exploits with rare efficacy the special characteristics of the clarinet, from its shimmering arpeggios in the development section of the first movement to the large skips in the first variation of the finale.

The opening theme of the first movement has long since become a locus classicus of serenity and classic beauty. Brahms quoted its first three notes in his own homage to Mozart, his Clarinet Quintet, composed on the centennial of Mozart’s death: he began his slow movement with the first three pitches of Mozart’s theme, and then—or so it seems—gave up, dropping the quotation, as if to say that only Mozart can be Mozart. More recently the same music featured in the final episode of the popular television series M.A.S.H., where the other-worldly beauty of Mozart’s music offered an ironic counterpoint to the absurdity of humanity’s tendency to solve problems through warfare. The carefully cultivated contrast between the serene A-major of the opening theme—entirely diatonic, that is, not introducing a single pitch from outside the scale of A-major—to the expressive chromaticisms of the second theme, always hinting at deep feeling without once losing its air of classical poise, is one of the magic elements of Mozart’s art. The development is filled with wonderfully subtle variations on materials we have already heard, delicately revealing new worlds with the gentlest possible insinuation.

The Larghetto has the strings muted throughout, creating a veil on the sound that softens the colors to pastel, while the clarinet sings a meltingly lovely melody (with a rare and subtle, but effective, use of the instrument’s low register). The removal of mutes from the strings before the Menuetto brings the proceedings sharply back to this world with, for example, the physicality of the dance implied by this movement. Though the clarinet prominently characterizes the quintet, Mozart does not let it dominate the proceedings entirely. The first Trio of the Menuetto is for string alone in a pure quartet character, strikingly varied then by the dialogue between first violin and clarinet in the second Trio, where the countrified character of the tunes suggests dancing more in the outdoors than in the courts of Vienna.

The main tune of the finale sounds like a folk song, though it is surely original with Mozart; he embellishes the perky melody with six variations. The clarinet dominates the first variation, showing off its ability to make large leaps in playful character. The second and third variations are mostly for the strings, with the clarinet adding a touch of color in a counter-melody (while the use of the minor mode in variation 3 creates its own change of mood). The fourth variation brings back the clarinet in a more virtuosic way. The fifth variation is an Adagio with a touch of world-weariness held over from variation 3. After a short clarinet cadenza, this moves to the perky return of the theme in its final variation—now Allegro—to drive away autumnal thoughts.

J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
“Gavotte (en rondeau)” from Partita No. 3 in E major for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1006
Bach’s set of six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin are the most extraordinary works ever composed for that severely restricted medium, in that they manage to suggest combinations of melodic lines and contrapuntal complexities that cannot actually be sustained on the instrument. But by a clever manipulation of the violin’s technique, the composer and player can fool the listener’s ear into resolving what is basically a single line (with a few extra notes played by multiple stopping) into a full contrapuntal texture.  Bach copied out the six works (BWV 1001‑1006) into one of his most beautiful manuscripts in the year 1720.  He labeled the odd-numbered works “sonata” and the even-numbered works “partita.” But beyond those few simple facts we know virtually nothing of their composition or purpose.

The partita in E major, BWV 1006, is, like the other two partitas, freer in character than the three sonatas; unlike them, it is more French than Italian in style. The “Gavotte (en rondeau)” is a characteristically French dance in a duple meter that begins in the middle of the measure. The phrase “en rondeau” indicates that the piece is laid in a French equivalent of the Italian rondo, with a principal theme that keeps returning after alternating with other themes. In Italy, the rondo tune is often lively and energetic; in works marked “en rondeau,” the music tends to be more gracious and elegant, suggesting a party among the nobility of the French court.

The other dance movements of this partita are also in a French style, which may indicate that Bach conceived this particular partita for a French violinist, but we have no real evidence. But no matter–the work itself is graceful, charming, and ingratiating for the listener, while making remarkable demands on the virtuosity of the player.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Septet in E flat, Opus 20
Beethoven composed this charming work between the summer of 1799 and March 1800. Following a private unveiling at the home of Prince Schwarzenburg, it was given publicly in Vienna on April 2,1800—Beethoven’s first concert in Vienna under his own auspices. This concert, which also included the premiere of the First Symphony, was one of the greatest successes Beethoven ever enjoyed. In December he wrote to the publisher Hoffmeister to offer him, among other things, the First Symphony and the Septet, which, he assured the publisher, “has been very popular.” It was, in fact, the last of his works that his erstwhile teacher Haydn fully approved of, a fact that irked Beethoven, who was surely conscious of the weight of the great Viennese tradition. For a time relations between the two composers grew cool, though after Haydn’s death in 1809 Beethoven never spoke of him with anything but the greatest admiration. Still, as time passed, Beethoven more and more belittled the significance of the Septet in an attempt to draw attention to his later work. In the meantime the Septet was endlessly arranged for other instruments from wind band to guitar duet (the arrangers included musicians as eminent as Hummel and Czerny). Its lasting popularity may be gauged from the fact that at the auction of Beethoven’s effects after his death, the manuscript of the Septet fetched 18 florins as against the 7 florins bid for the autograph of the Missa solemnis.

The Septet has an unusual and attractive instrumentation: violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The size of the ensemble risks being turned into a miniature symphony, but Beethoven keeps the chamber music atmosphere with kaleidoscopic regroupings of the instruments, giving each a chance to shine. (Even the horn, which was then still a valveless instrument limited in the pitches it could play easily, gets special treatment with thematic ideas designed especially to show off its strengths.) The six-movement layout recalls the leisurely structure of eighteenth‑century serenades and divertimentos, though the energy of the Septet is typically Beethovenian for all its grace. (If the serenade genre was reactionary, Beethoven’s Septet was nonetheless not the last example of the type; in 1824 Schubert wrote his delightful Octet, modeled directly on Beethoven’s Opus 20 with the addition of a second violin and surpassing its precursor.)

The Adagio introduction, a gracefully extended dominant pedal, leads to a fiery movement of great energy in Beethoven’s most characteristic tempo marking, Allegro con brio. The beautiful Andante cantabile has a melody of bel canto lyricism, and Beethoven gives each instrument a chance to sing its song. The minuet theme is a self‑borrowing, taken from an easy piano sonata that Beethoven composed about 1796 (he was later persuaded to publish it in 1805 with the misleadingly high designation of Opus 49, No. 2). Scholars have attempted to trace the folk-like tune used for the variations in the fourth movement. It was published in 1838, apparently as a folk song, with the text, “Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer,” but there is no evidence that the tune predates this Septet. The lively Scherzo is a companion piece to the third movement of the First Symphony, but in the symphony Beethoven still followed convention in calling it a Minuet. In both cases the verve of the music takes it far out of the sphere of the courtly dance. The final movement reveals Beethoven’s indebtedness to Muzio Clementi, from whose E‑flat piano sonata, Opus 23, No. 3 (composed not later than 1789) he adapted the theme for the Presto. Beethoven’s version, though, is much faster and livelier; it whirls the Septet to a brilliant conclusion.

© Steven Ledbetter