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Bach & Beethoven

Johann Sebastian Bach  (1685 - 1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 
in F major BWV 1046  (1721)

At the beginning of the 18th century, after some five decades of experimentation, the concerto grosso at last attained perfection in the hands of Arcangelo Corelli, a Roman violinist of famous talent whose mortal remains are interred to this day in the ancient Pantheon. In the then ‘golden age’ of Cremona violin makers—Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari among others—Corelli dismissed all other instruments, save the harpsichord for its crucial continuo role of sounding the chords underpinning the sensuous Cremonese sonorities. But in Germany, students of Corelli’s work weren’t so ready to consign wind instruments to the dustbin. Among Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, one will discover flute, oboe, trumpet and horns. And even the viola da gamba, then virtually on its last legs.

Bach’s handsomely handwritten score of the concertos, dated 24 March 1721, was saved from oblivion by being filed away, apparently unheard by their dedicatee, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, in his library in Berlin. Upon its ‘discovery,’ the manuscript seemed to suggest that Bach wanted to one-up the competition by using different instrumentation for each of the six. That inspired the Early Music specialist Philip Pickett to discern allegorical characters and relationships behind the notes, and to advance his own theory in essays accompanying his 1994 recording of the set with his New London Consort of players.

According to courtly fashion of the time, landed gentry and aristocracy graced their walls with allegorical paintings, and their architecture and gardens with similar allusions. As Pickett explains, “Bach was honoring the Margrave as an ancient hero, but the presentation volume was also an object for study and contemplation. As in Vanitas paintings, the numerous symbols and allegories of the collection were open to a variety of interpretations - and they were also a means of moral instruction. Like the paintings the score was intended to be ‘read,’ the various symbols interpreted not only according to traditional associations but also according to the Margrave's personal perceptions, the depth of his knowledge and his powers of reason.”

Pickett then dreamed up allegorical titles for the six concertos, detailing them right down the instruments at hand. Given Bach’s near obsession with symbols, puzzles and anagrams, this theory is not farfetched.

Pickett assigns to Brandenburg No. 1 the title ‘The Triumph of Caesar.’ (No. 2 ‘paints’ ‘Fame, Homer, Virgil and Dante on Mount Parnassus,’ No. 3 is called ‘The Nine Muses and the Harmony of the Spheres,’ and so on.) The first concerto celebrates the hunt, symbolic of “chivalry, bravery and industry,” which explains the inclusion of two hunting horns. From the start, in the first movement, the horns play triplets against the cut time meter (a quick 4/4 played as two beats per measure), suggesting the pace of cantering horses, à la Vivaldi’s pictorial Four Seasons.

In Pickett’s imagination, which Caesar Bach was honoring remains difficult to discern, given the inclusion of the violino piccolo, an instrument tuned a minor third higher than the standard violin—the high-voiced Nero fiddled, they say, while Rome burned—and the minuet that is added to an already complete three-movement Italian style concerto. The minuet comes from the French suite, and this one includes three trios, the middle one in the style of a polacca, a rustic Polish dance, divided between ritornello reiterations of the original minuet theme.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125  “Choral” (1824)

At the dawn of the ‘Romantic’ 19th century, European music simultaneously expanded and contracted. While the deaf Beethoven concocted ever- larger panoramas, Franz Schubert’s Lieder (songs) were concentrating attention on the small. Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), scarcely more than two minutes long, finds itself almost lost in the solar wind of Beethoven’s back-to-back Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony.

The four-movement classical sonata for orchestra, called the symphony, was brought to perfection in the hands of Josef Haydn and made more deeply personal by Mozart. Their heir, Beethoven, imposed more aggressive qualities on the sonata form, whether for solo piano, string quartet, concerto or symphony.  He became especially famous for the process known as thematic development—just ‘development’ as it has come to be called—wherein confrontation increasingly turns into titanic struggle. What empowered the composer to release such vast amounts of energy from these purely musical jihads was his early mastery of theme and variations, the kind of thing he improvised at the piano in youthful competitions (with inevitably defeated challengers.)

Distilled to a short motto, a theme could then be highly concentrated in an intensely driven passage, popping up as disembodied fragments, recognizable but ephemeral, like quantum particles. While development can be part of any classical musical architecture, it is mandatory in the confusingly titled ‘sonata-allegro’ form: almost always the first movement of a symphony and, starting with late Haydn and Mozart, frequently the last. Development became the dramatic heart of the Beethoven sonata-allegro in all its manifestations, routinely leaving audiences shocked and awed, and craving more.

While the Ninth Symphony, completed and premiered in Vienna in 1824, summarizes Beethoven’s symphonic process, it also breaks considerable new ground. Where the traditional sonata-allegro developed two main themes into a synthesized recapitulation—analogous to the so-called Hegelian Dialectic’s ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis,’— in the last movement of the Ninth Beethoven dares to use not just themes, but forms themselves: variations as thesis and sonata-allegro within a fugue as antithesis.  In so doing, he synthesized an unprecedented new architecture.  

The symphony’s first movement opens with tremolo strings softly supporting the mysterious first theme, which soon erupts fortissimo. In a typically 15-minute performance, this theme grows for about two and half minutes before modulating into the dominant key and introducing the lyrical second theme. About two minutes after that, with the exposition now complete, the development begins, in the tonic D minor, and works up its way through both themes coming to a climax, about four minutes later, at the start of the recapitulation, now in D major. Normally, the first theme opens this section clearly but here Beethoven unleashes an avalanche of sustained blaring brass and pounding timpani that nearly blots it out. Only with the reprise of the second theme does the roaring snowslide subside. About three minutes before the end of the movement the coda begins with the second theme.  

The second movement, opening like the first in D minor, recycles the now well-established dotted rhythm of the first, but obsessively and at quick time in a 6/8 fugal exposition with two themes. This is literally repeated. Some commentators have identified the movement as a scherzo, with A sections surrounding a B ‘trio’ section. But it turns out the movement is a full-fledged sonata-allegro, the complex trio section corresponding to the development. Here the second theme emerges fully grown, and dances in duple time with the first in counterpoint. The recapitulation adds new ideas and turns of phrase; at its conclusion the second theme is recalled in a sigh lasting just five seconds.  
The third movement, in B flat major and 4/4 meter, features a melody of achingly beautiful shape and expression, laid out loosely as variations. About two thirds through it suddenly rises, twice, to fanfares of grand gesture and utterance.
The fourth movement’s introduction starts with a grinding fortissimo chord and ominously storming orchestra, finally giving way to an operatic-style recitative on double-basses that surveys, in order, the principal themes of the preceding three movements. The last of these recitatives introduces an eight bar-phrased “folksong” that will serve as the theme for the rest of the movement, firstly as three orchestral variations, which will end by repeating the brief section that opened the introduction. This in turn introduces the basso soloist who declares, in Beethoven’s own words, “O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of Joy.”

The composer then launches what the American pianist and scholar Charles Rosen called a “symphony within a symphony” that includes Friedrich Schiller’s humanistic vision ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’—the ‘Ode to Joy.’ (The ‘folksong’ melody first appeared in the composer’s song ‘Gegenliebe,’ from the 1790s, and in the Choral Fantasy of 1808.)

The poem’s strophic stanzas naturally spawn another set of variations, for chorus, vocal quartet and orchestra. The fourth verse concludes on the words “before God” summarizing the variations and, after a grand pause, leading to a marching ‘scherzo,’ in 6/8 meter, featuring the metal percussion of the Ottoman Turkish Janissary band. Soon, the solo tenor, joined by the male chorus, sings the next verse. Suddenly, the orchestra launches into a fierce fugal development. The chorus rejoins the orchestra with another iteration of the poem’s opening verse. The mood suddenly changes from alla marcia to andante maestoso, with the male chorus intoning “Be embraced, you millions,” at first stentorian, then richly harmonized into a mystical vision.

Now, in an allegro energico, the women lead the chorus, once again proclaiming joy. The orchestra begins the final allegro with the vocal quartet, plus the chorus, to reiterate key lines from Schiller’s poem. At last, the blazing prestissimo, with the Turkish metal joining in, leads to a thumping finish.

Notes by Michael Scott MacClelland



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