(1685 – 1750)
arr. Wim Ten Have
(1862 – 1918)
(1756 – 1791)
IV. Allegretto con variazioni
Ricercare a 6 from “Musikalisches Opfer”
Bach’s instrumental music is “polyphonic,” which simply means made up of many independent voices playing different melodic lines at the same time. Frequently the voices are rhythmically independent of each other. He was the master of counterpoint, the science and poetry of blending the voices into a coherent whole. Listen to the distinctive voices “doing their own thing,” but note how marvelously they all work together and produce exquisite harmonies. Incidentally, the fugue is the Mt. Everest of musical forms, the proving ground of an aspiring composer.
Bach’s Ricercare a 6 grew out of a meeting on May 7, 1747 in Potsdam with Frederick the Great of Prussia. Frederick had 15 recently invented pianos in his palace, and he challenged Bach to use one to improvise a fugue based on a dramatic and musically complex theme the king played for him on the keyboard. So far as we know, this was Bach’s first experience with the piano. Undaunted, Bach improvised first a three-voice fugue, then in four and five voices. But when Frederick asked for six voices, Bach demurred, saying he would need time to work on the score, and that he would send it to the King in due course. Six months later, Bach sent to Frederick a piece he called Musikalisches Opfer, or Musical Offerings, the centerpiece of which is a six-voice fugue for keyboard based on the King’s theme. Bach called it a Ricercare which was a simpler early baroque form from which the more complex fugue evolved. Three-voice fugues are hard enough, but six? No wonder the esteemed pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen called this piece Bach’s “greatest fugue” and “perhaps the most significant piano work of the millennium”. The rich theme itself is noble and has a depth of expression that in Bach’s hands makes it a transcendent companion for reflective meditation.
Bach’s Prussian Fugue has been arranged for many instrumental ensembles. This concert features an arrangement by Wim ten Have, a Dutch instrumentalist and composer. Her work is uniformly first-rate.
If, like me, you have a hard time understanding how a six-voice fugue can be played on the piano, check it out on YouTube. There are a number of fine versions. You will marvel at Bach’s genius. He takes a simple theme and, as Eric says, "turns it into a revelation."
To quote Milton Cross, “In whatever form he wrote, Bach blended science with poetry, technique, and emotion. Too often in the hands of Bach’s predecessors, these forms had been mere technical exercises. But with Bach, they became the channel through which he transmitted great and moving art.”
Danses sacrée et profane
In what seemed like a good idea at the time, the Pleyel and Company in Paris (whose pianos were the favorite of Frederic Chopin) decided to eliminate the pedals. They came up with a “chromatic” harp with a separate string for every pitch; no complicated footwork. Pleyel’s harp had not one but two rows of strings – and obviously many more of them.
Excited about their innovation, Pleyel needed a splashy way to showcase it to the world. Who better to endorse it than the composer of the harp-notorious Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Claude Debussy. In 1904, Pleyel approached him with a commission for a new work for the debut of their new instrument. He was a natural for the assignment, turning out in short order Danses sacrée et profane. Not surprisingly the piece was an instant hit, but the chromatic harp was not. It was an instant bust. It was too cumbersome with its two rows of strings (of which there were now too many), too heavy, difficult to keep in tune (no electronic tuners in 1904), and not nearly as resonant as the pedal harp. Off it went to the museum. The pedal harp breathed a sigh of relief; the Danses survived.
Now to the dictionary. “Profane” in French does not mean “irreverent”, “impious”, or “blasphemous”. It simply means “secular” in contrast to sacred with no negative connotation attached to it. So don’t expect anything sacrilegious when Debussy switches gears five minutes into it.
Debussy’s Danses is in two parts, written more to explore the chromatic potential of the harp than to explore the implications of its title, so disregard the title and just absorb its luscious music backed by a string quartet. It’s a beauty, intoxicating.
Every music book I ever read calls Debussy’s music “impressionistic”, which he denied with considerable irritation. But it is impressionistic, and I don’t understand why he disclaimed the compliment. It shares the same diaphanous and luminous characteristics as the paintings of his contemporary Impressionists Monet, Degas, and Renoir. Why run from that crowd? Oh well, it’s his to define, not mine.
Concerto for Clarinet in A Major
The clarinet benefits from a diverse palette of tones and a wide range of notes that give the instrument its vocal qualities. The tone colors it can produce are virtually unlimited. Mozart recognized this potential when he heard Stadler play it in 1781, and he began immediately to use it in many of his compositions. In his opera La Clemenza di Tito, for example, he wrote famous duets for the clarinet and singers, using its versatile vocal qualities to full potential.
In October of 1791, Mozart wrote his lustrous Concerto in A Major for his friend Anton. Seven weeks later, Mozart died. This piece was his last instrumental work. Unfortunately, his autographed manuscript disappeared, and the surviving version we’ll hear tonight was assembled by his publisher after Mozart’s death and calibrated to accommodate the modern instrument. Essentially, the score is the same with the exception of a few notes which could be played only on Stadler’s pioneer instrument. But musicologists love a mystery. What happened to the original? Did Stadler steal and sell it? Mozart’s wife, Costanza, thought so. They are still hoping it might show up.
This piece is a standard three-movement concerto, but there the prototype ends. The entire work is a splendid instrumental opera with no words but a full spectrum of emotion. Mozart’s clarinet sings every note. The second movement, an adagio, is a moving aria straight from the heart. The third movement is a brilliant rondo mostly in a major mode. Almost imperceptively, however, Mozart slides occasionally into a minor key. He always inserted a few dark clouds into his Elysium.
Before Mozart, the clarinet had not been fully accepted as a worthy orchestral instrument. After people heard what he had done with it, that dam broke. One can only wonder what marvels he would have bequeathed us had he lived beyond thirty-five years of age.
WRITTEN BY THE HONORABLE STEPHEN S. TROTT
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