Program Note: The Great QUINTET Caper


Note by Kenneth Cooper

I am very pleased to share with you the latest email communication from the great Johann Sebastian Bach, received just yesterday. Our program has reminded him of a great occasion in his past, his 100th birthday celebration on March 21, 1785, when he attended (or overheard) some extraordinary performances mounted in his honor. After some effusive and flattering remarks about Berkshire Bach and its exciting work, Bach goes on to reminisce and praise us for reviving such a pleasant memory.

“It was a stimulating birthday for me, having often dreamt about what the future of music and the world would be. Although I witnessed many problems – conflicts between different factions, weakening of certain musical values, etc. – I was immensely pleased by so many astonishing developments in European musical culture. A concept I had heartily endorsed, but which had only begun to be accepted in my day, was by the 1780s widely accepted by many folks, especially those of the more liberated middle-class: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood). In the musical world, this democratic spirit had its realization in a new sort of chamber music, in which all instruments were “created equal”, as people said then, and no instruments were there simply to accompany others.

“By the 1770s, a new keyboard instrument with more expressive and dynamic capability than ever before had made a prominent appearance on the scene. It was called a fortepiano.  Of course I knew about pianos – played them, wrote for them, even sold them for my friend Silbermann – but they had improved mightily since my day, developing the ability to mingle on an equal footing with winds and strings. Many pieces therefore were composed with fully written-out solo keyboard parts; in the old days, we improvised most of these, although I think I started the ball rolling with the obbligato keyboard writing in some of my flute, violin and gamba sonatas. I am glad to see that, for your Quintet Caper (I have to look up that word), you selected four magnificent works by two of my favorite sons and by two great musicians I discovered at that birthday party who overwhelmed me with their amazing genius and scintillating personalities. Their names were Haydn and Mozart.

“My second son Philipp Emanuel, then liberated from his job of pleasing the king (Frederick the Great), had more than fulfilled his promise as a player and composer. His espousal of the empfindsam (sensitive) style, a bit nervous in the early days, became sublimely focused and very beautiful. He had always been a witty guy – a worse punster than I was – and the bustling finale of his G major quartet was definitely reminiscent of our lively family dinners. I did have the extreme pleasure here in Elysium of a reunion with my next-to-youngest son, Johann Christian, who had died only a few years previously. I learned about his phenomenal career in Italy, where I always longed to go, his lofty position as Music Master to the Queen of England, and astonishingly for a Bach, his conversion to Catholicism. No wonder Philipp Emanuel quipped that Christian had “gone far”. I was also impressed that his Italian operatic style was so influential on the young prodigy Mozart, whom he befriended in London when Mozart was a mere tot. My kids certainly weren’t writing music when they were five years old, and I myself hardly by fifteen. Mozart also developed his love for the piano then, as Christian was an acclaimed artist on the fortepiano and the first to play it in a public concert in England.

“At my birthday celebration, I overheard Haydn explain to one of those inquisitive reporters that he had been willing to write quintets, but that “no one ever asked me.” He had clearly forgotten about this early masterpiece, composed for violin, bass, keyboard solo and two high descant horns, which no one can play any more. Haydn, who never met Philipp Emanuel, did correspond with him and was profoundly influenced by his work. We know he read Philipp’s famous Essay from cover to cover, which I am doing with great pleasure now that I have some spare time. Judging by this quintet, Haydn inherited Philipp’s pronounced sense of mischief, as he amply demonstrated in his extraordinary string quartets.

“The quintet by Mozart was composed on May 23, 1791, while he was working on The Magic Flute and just months before his very untimely death (he no longer believes that Salieri poisoned him). He was then experimenting with some new sounds: sleigh-bells, music boxes, glockenspiels, side-drums and glass harmonica, for which this quintet is written. This instrument, invented by the brilliant American diplomat Benjamin Franklin on what must have been a slow news day, consisted of a series of sized glass bowls revolving in a pool of water, and had a tone similar to a foghorn. We are all grateful to your imaginative keyboardist, Dr. Cooper, that he never learned to play this thing, and has chosen a more celestial substitute.

“As an overture to this treasure-trove of chamber music, I am most pleased that Berkshire Bach is performing a brilliant work by my old friend Fasch – he is pleased too and sends his celestial regards. It is an entertaining work featuring solos for our wonderful horn-players, and containing yet another bustling buffa (comic opera) finale. We are both delighted that the Berkshires will finally be able to hear this work and bring it back into Fasch-ion. (Sorry, that was one of Philipp Emanuel’s jokes.)

“The finale to your program looks to be a fascinating experience. I have gotten to know Brahms – we are all friends up here – we even had dinner with Wagner the other night – but he never told me he had written a suite in “my” style. He composed it for an extraordinary pianist he knew well and loved deeply, Clara Schumann, for her birthday on September 13, 1855. It was she that called it “Suite in the style of Bach” when she played parts of it in London the following year. The individual movements have since been published in bits and may have been performed occasionally by enterprising pianists looking for unusual Brahms works, but I have never heard this work re-assembled into its original form. Dr. Cooper has orchestrated it with his usual devotion to style and character, and he says that the instrumentation “is intended to explore the work’s potential as a chamber work.” Brahms apparently did the same, later reworking the Gavottes for his F major Quintet (Op. 88) and G major Sextet (Op. 36). In describing Brahms’ efforts to write like Bach, Cooper says “it is fascinating to watch him rethinking the old style, sometimes confused as to which way to turn, and sometimes infusing it with romantic light, warmth and brilliance.” I am deeply honored and grateful to Berkshire Bach, not only for their devotion to my work, but to their unearthing of interesting related material. The premiere of this Brahms work a la Bach is certainly a jewel in their crown and in mine.

“I again thank Berkshire Bach for giving me such a delightful reminder of my 100th birthday, and from these exalted heights, where “the children are all above average”, it will be a sublime pleasure to hear the wonderful artists of the Berkshire Bach Ensemble with Herr Capellmeister Cooper deliver their usual stirring performances. My membership dues are in the mail. I particularly love Rose Tannenbaum’s flyer with its delightful graphic; she is obviously an artist with a rare playful gift. I must beg off now, as my twenty kids and two wives are summoning me to breakfast, a leisurely event I rarely enjoyed in my years on earth – and never with all of them together. I wish Berkshire Bach all the very best luck and success.  Most sincerely,”