Johann Christian Bach
Of the four sons of Johann Sebastian Bach who became significant composers, Johann Christian Bach was surely the apple that fell furthest from the tree. He completely rejected the learned and complicated style of his father and played a large part in the establishment of the new galant style that led to the heights of Viennese Classicism. As the youngest of the four (he was born when the great man was fifty), he was able to largely avoid the psychological pressures of being taught by the most intimidating of all musical fathers, pressures that caused severe fractures in the life of the eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. J.C. led a relatively serene but brief life, following the pattern of early successes in foreign lands (Italy and England in his case), harsh rejection, and the rapid financial and physical decline that so often afflicted composers in the first era of a "free market" artistic economy.
The music of the 1760s was long considered merely a flippant forerunner of the Mozart-Haydn era, but it now seems the start of a longer evolution that reaches well into the 19th century. To indulge in some historical oversimplification, the line connecting J.C. Bach to Mozart and Boccherini to Schubert and beyond is characterized by an extreme stress on euphony and coloristic detail, while the one that leads from C.P.E. Bach to Haydn to Beethoven is more concerned with violent contrasts and an affective use of formal details. The first group of composers might be called more Romantic than the second, who usually retain a Classic balance amidst emotional turmoil. If one of the tenets of Romanticism is the perhaps naÔve belief that pure beauty can provide sufficient relief from the alienating upheavals of society, then J.C. Bach is a true Romantic.
Six Keyboard Sonatas with Flute Accompaniment
Note the title carefully. On this disc we have a prime example of one of the most misunderstood of all 18th-century genres, the "accompanied" sonata. Works like these were published in droves to meet the demands of a rapidly rising middle class containing many amateur musicians of varying abilities. Music in the home was now within the reach of a large buying public, and composers supported themselves by constantly providing them with new works. In retrospect this might seem like a paradise, with so many people playing music who were not content with playing the same works over and over, but the publishers soon gained the upper hand and payment was slim for most composers, who were forced to constantly churn out new material.
Since the number of musicians available in a single home fluctuated, pieces with optional parts of all kinds sold well. Classical keyboard sonatas were often sold with accompanying parts, usually for flute or violin, sometimes with cello parts as well. These parts either doubled the keyboard or filled in the texture. The keyboard parts were designed to be complete in themselves: when a rare melody appeared in the flute or violin part, it could easily be taken over by a pianist playing alone. In addition, the art of improvising accompaniments when none were provided was cultivated by many. Thomas Jefferson was said to be especially skilled at playing impromptu violin parts to the keyboard sonatas of J.C. Bach. (Without belaboring the obvious, presidential accomplishments in this area are now certainly at low tide.) On modern keyboard instruments, which certainly do not need a cello strengthening the bass line or a treble instrument adding volume, these accompanying parts can seem pointless and ungraceful, but with the softer fortepiano the extra instrument(s) add a great deal to the musicís charm and atmosphere.
Domestic chamber music from this era is usually in two moderately fast movements. Slow movements are generally reserved for more serious works. Our set of six sonatas follows this pattern resolutely: all are in two movements. The first movements make use of the form we now call sonata-allegro, while the finales are simple ternary structures or rondos with two episodes. In keeping with the affective restrictions considered appropriate, no movements are in minor keys. Within the general aura of serenity, however, distinctions can be made. The first movements alternate between quick, brilliant, quasi-orchestral settings (sonatas 1, 3, and 5) and gentler Allegrettos (sonatas 2, 4, and 6). These are all in duple meter, while the second movements, all marked Andante or Allegretto, show more metric and formal variety.
The first movements enable us to examine a version of sonata form often considered transitory, featuring incomplete recapitulations. Textbook sonatas, in terminology coined by 19th-century German theorists to explain the music of Beethoven, contain a first section, called the exposition, in which two groups of thematic material are separated by a change of key, from the opening tonality (the tonic) to one a fifth higher (the dominant). Next comes the development, a free treatment of the material already presented, which changes keys rapidly, and is followed by a recapitulation, in which the ideas of the exposition are restated, all in the tonic, necessitating some harmonic rewriting to avoid the move to the dominant. Early classical composers found this scheme tonally monotonous and instead only included the second group, in the tonic, to end the movement.
A quick look at the first movement of the fourth sonata in our set will make this variation on sonata-allegro form more clear. The first theme is eight bars long (count 2 to a bar), a hopping motive for piano alone. The next nine bars, overlapping with the flute entry, are the transition: they contain the modulation to the dominant. In bar 18 the second theme begins, a lyrical melody for both instruments that makes use of rhythmic motives from the nine-bar transition phrase. The long section of cadences and closing ideas that usually end classical expositions follows. The whole exposition is then repeated. The second section begins just like the first: with the first theme in the piano, but now in the dominant. A longer transition of 15 measures ensues and passes through some related minor keys, leading to the recapitulation of the second theme, now in the tonic. From this point on the rest of the movement "rhymes" with the final 37 bars of the exposition. This gives us a neat symmetry: first theme in the tonic, transition, second theme in the dominant; balanced by first theme in the dominant, transition, second theme in the tonic.
It is tempting to think that this version of the form is found only in earlier works of J.C. Bach and others, but in fact the symmetrical form is present right up to the 19th century, especially in French music (for example, in the pre-Romantic music of Hyacinthe Jadin and even Chopinís First Sonata), and J.C. Bach uses the "later" form, with full recapitulation, in our third sonata. In composers who dramatized the return to the tonic, such as Haydn and Beethoven, a full recapitulation was organically preferable, but the other version became a subtle variant useful in more lyrical music.
Piano Sonata in C Minor
Dating the works of J.C. Bach is quite difficult, and opus numbers are not much help. The Piano Sonata in C Minor comes from a set of six published as Opus 12 in Paris (1774), Opus 6 in Vienna (1777), and Opus 17 in London (1779). Since the composer often mixed in older works with freshly written ones, 1774 is not a safe guess either. The present C-minor sonata (without the middle movement) exists in an Italian manuscript that contains much of the piano music J.C. Bach wrote before 1762, so it probably is quite early. This is supported also by the minor tonality. J.C.ís flirtation with the Sturm und Drang style showed most strongly during the five years he lived with C.P.E. Bach in Berlin (1750-55). Once he left Berlin for Italy in 1755, where he seriously upset his elders by converting to Catholicism, works in minor keys almost disappeared from his output.
The C-minor sonata is a very intense piece, quite different from the flute sonatas. A useful analogy would be the well-known Haydn sonata in the same key, H.W.V. 20. The three movements are all in different versions of sonata form: the first having a full recapitulation, the second (almost certainly written later than the others) having only a second-theme recapitulation, and the finale an experimental scheme in which the altered "recapitulation" actually starts with the second theme in G minor and only the closing "rhymes."