Pamela Thorby - recorders
Rachel Podger - violin
Susanne Heinrich - viola da gamba
William Carter - theorbo, archlute, guitar
Bach Trio Sonatas
NO COMPOSER WAS FONDER of arranging his works into orderly and logical structures than Bach, and so it comes as not surprise that in the course of instructing his son Wilhelm Friedemann in organ playing and composition, he should assemble a collection of trio-sonatas for the organ.
The set of six sonatas includes arrangements of earlier instrumental movements, together with some newly composed and older organ works. It seems to date from around 1730, and definitely before 1733, when Wilhelm Friedemann crossed the threshold of a professional musician's career by gaining the desirable post of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden.
The sonatas resemble very few other works for organ, instead, their texture imitates the instrumental trio-sonata. Bach assigned the role of the bass instrument to the pedals to the organ and dispensed entirely with the customary harmonic filling or continuo (the keyboard's usual duty). In doing this, he created works of intricate beauty and complexity, where one organist plays the music ordinarily allocated to four musicians.
The sonatas give an interesting insight into Bach's priorities as an organ teacher. Their very clear texture and the total independence required of hands and feet make any faltering of rhythm or fingering instantly audible to the listener. They only come to life when played really well, at which point (as many organists have found) they sound rather easy!
Although the integrity of Bach's part-writing is such that much of his music is successfully adaptable for other media (a fact the encourages covetous performers to follow Bach's own frequent example) the trios, with their instrumental texture have always invited special attention. The first arrangements date from the 18th century, and included some by Mozart for string trio. Adaptations have continued to the present day, and no doubt these same trio-sonatas will exercise the ingenuity of future musicians as well.
In our version of four of the sonatas, we have simply given the two upper voices to the violin and recorder, the bass line to the viola da gamba, and added the implied continuo harmonies. We followed the standard 18th century practice of transposing works upwards a third or fourth to fit the lower range of the recorder, and found that this also put the also part into a more comfortable register for the violin. The resulting higher bass lines sing out naturally on the viola da gamba (whose top string is tuned a fourth higher than the cello) and indeed resemble the high bass lines favoured by Bach's French contemporaries who wrote with the bass viol in mind.
Our programme also includes the four duetti from Part III of the Clavierübung (1739), works which resemble larger and more adventurous two-part inventions. These wonderful pieces are too rarely performed, perhaps because organists find the two-part texture anomalous, and harpsichordists think of them as organ music. Whatever the case, they fit easily and exactly on the viola da gamba and violin. The music demonstrates Bach's complete fluency in all forms of two-part counterpoint, including regular and double fugue, strict and free inversion and canon. This, together with the remarkable harmonic pungency of his later compositions, points the way directly to the two-part canons in the Musical Offering and Art of Fugue.
We finish our recital with a set of fourteen canons discovered in 1975 at the back of Bach's personal copy of the Goldberg Variations. The page of manuscript, written entirely in Bach's hand, is entitled ‘Verscheidene Canones über die ersteren acht fundamental-Noten vorheriger Aria' (Various canons on the first eight bass notes of the preceding aria) which is of course the theme of the Goldberg Variations. It seems that with the task of creating this monumental work completed, Bach was indulging his sense of play by discovering the melodic and contrapuntal possibilities inherent in just a scrap of a theme. One is reminded that Homer, upon completion of the Iliad and Odyssey, is said to have sung of the war between Frogs and Mice.
The canons begin in simple note against note style, and then flower into increasingly complex and free creations. The first thirteen are very clear in their notation, but the fourteenth (fitting narrowly into the bottom margin of the sheet) is a single line of music from which the inner voices (at different speeds, directions and octaves) must be derived. We have used the solution provided by Dr Christoph Wolff in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe.
Although the canons are circular (able to be repeated infinitely) we have fashioned them into a connected sequence which progresses from the fewest to the most parts. This meant reordering them slightly and ending with the six-part thirteenth canon rather than the four-part fourteenth. Interestingly the thirteenth canon has been known for a long time, you can see it on the sheet of paper Bach holds in his hand in Haussmann's famous portrait.
Bach's manuscript doesn't indicate any scoring, and as the works are impossible to plat on the large double manual harpsichord for which he composed the Goldberg Variations, musicians have to make their own arrangements. In our version, we've tried to capture the fun as well as the counterpoint implied on the page.
One thought provoking detail to finish: it was Bach's practice to conclude works with the traditional ‘Fine' or JJ for Jesu Juve (with Jesus' help). Not so in the Verscheidene Canones, instead, after that most puzzling and intricate canon fourteen, we find simply a casually scrawled ‘etc'...
WILLIAM CARTER, London 1995