Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes (Updated 08/05/2006)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

[Bullet6] Trio Sonata for Flute, Violin and Basso Continuo BWV 1079 (1747)

[Bullet6] Sinfonias (Three- Part Inventions) for violin, viola, and cello (1723)

[Bullet6] Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV. 1050 (1721)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Trio Sonata for Flute, Violin and Basso Continuo BWV 1079 (1747)

"Most Gracious King. In deepest humility I dedicate herewith to your Majesty a musical offering, the noblest part of which derives from Your Majestys own august hand." J.S. Bach

 "Its good ta be da King" Mel Brooks

In May of 1747, Johann Sebastian Bach visited the Court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam. Bachs second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel was in the service of the king; and Frederick, having heard much about the artistry of "Old Bach", requested that he come to court. Accompanied by his eldest son, William Friedemann, he made the journey. Upon his arrival, he was invited to try the kings fortepianos (he owned 15 of them). Bach then asked the king for a theme on which he would "extemporize" a fugue. Frederick sat down at the keyboard and obliged Bach with a theme, to the astonishment of all. As the story goes, the king, wishing to test Bachs limits, asked for a six part fugue on the theme. As not all subjects lend themselves to such treatment, Bach chose a theme himself and extemporized a six part fugue on it. Wishing then to hear Bach perform on the organ, the next day the king took Bach to play on all the organs in Potsdam!


When he returned to Leipzig, perhaps feeling that he had not done justice to the kings request for a six part fugue on the "Royal Theme" (as it has come to be known), Bach composed the Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer).This work consists of two fugues, one in three parts and one in six parts, ten canons and a trio sonata. All of the pieces in this collection are based on the "Royal Theme".


The fugues and canons all display Bachs mastery, or perhaps wizardry, in the contrapuntal art. The Trio Sonata forms the centerpiece of the work. In this work, "Old Bach" wrote in the style of the day, showing young Frederick and, indeed, his own sons that he could beat them at their own game; for during his lifetime, despite the high respect he was accorded, Johann Sebastians works were looked upon as old-fashioned and out-of-date.


The trio sonata was a popular and highly regarded form at the time, occupying a position later accorded the string quartet, yet there are only five listed in Bachs catalogs of works and his authorship of three of these is questionable. Given the circumstances of its composition, there is no dispute about the authenticity of the C Minor Sonata, which was his last work in this medium. The work is scored for flute, violin and basso continuo. The continuo part is actually comprised of two instruments; cello and harpsichord. Their function is as an accompaniment to the solo voices. The cello serves to reinforce the bass line. In Bachs time, the keyboard part was not written out, the performer had only the bass line with little numerical symbols that indicated chords and their positions. The performer was also expected to embellish the part with appropriate material from the soloists parts. In this respect, his job was similar to that of a jazz pianist in an accompanist role today. Present day practice has the continuo part written out. This is called a realization. As for the choice of the solo instruments - Frederick the Great was a noted flutist. Need I say more?


In the Trio Sonata, the two solo voices - flute and violin, are of equal importance, and there is musical dialogue between the two instruments. The work consists of four movements in which slow and fast movements alternate. This type of sonata was called "Sonata da Chiesa" or Church Sonata. Perhaps, Bach felt that given the nature and origin of the theme, this scheme was preferable to the "Sonata da Camera" Chamber or Court Sonata, which consisted of a set of dance movements.

 1994-95 Season, Program II, Sunday December 11, 1994

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Sinfonias (Three- Part Inventions) for violin, viola, and cello (1723)

Only an infinitely fertile mind could venture to write thirty little pieces in the same style and same compass and, without the slightest effort, make each of them absolutely different from the rest. In the face of this inconceivable fertility, it seems almost a superfluous question whether any other of the great composers has had an inventive facility so infinite as Bach.

Albert Schweitzer

Variously known as "Inventions", "Sinfonias", originally "Fantasias", and in the string trio arrangements "Terzetti", the these 15 short works in imitative counterpoint, along with the 15 Two-Part Inventions were composed for the instruction Bach’s eldest son (then 10 years old) and included in the Clavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (Little Clavier-Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach).

Though originally intended as student works, these little fugues have not lacked for champions, who value them as highly as some of Bach’s larger scale keyboard works. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska programmed them in her recitals as she felt they were "some of the purest music Bach created." Another advocate of these pieces was the eccentric pianist Glenn Gould, whose recordings and performances of Bach’s keyboard works made people sit up and listen anew. Likewise, the recordings by Andras Schiff illuminate that quality of the Inventions described by Landowska.

The composer of the next work on today’s program Ferruccio Busoni; a name often linked via hyphen to Bach’s through his piano transcriptions of Bach’s organ works, prepared an edition of the Inventions and Sinfonias. In the Preface to the First Edition (Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics Vol. 1574, 1891) he writes as follows.

"Close scrutiny of the average system of musical instruction now in vogue has convinced me that Bach’s Inventions are, in most cases, used only as dry, technical training material for beginners in piano playing, and that piano-teachers do little or nothing to awaken in their pupils an understanding for the profounder significance of these compositions.

The study of the Inventions is limited, in general, to a wholly unsystematic selection from among them; the frequent employment of faulty or poorly edited editions provided with unreliable expression-marks and the embellishment-signs, makes it only harder for the student to enter into the spirit of Bach; lastly, the important feature of structural analysis is in most cases entirely omitted from the instruction, although it is calculated, more than any other means, to develop the student’s musicianship and sharpen his critical insight.

When a mind of so broad a scope as Bach’s voices an intention to show, in these pieces, "a plain way" in order "to gain withal a keen foretaste of composition," we may assume that the Master followed a well-considered plan in his work, and that in each and every combination therein occurring there lies a secret and a significance.

In preparing this revision it has been my aim to make this significance clearer to the general comprehension."

He was true to his word. As for the spirit of Bach, perhaps no great composer is less dependant on particular instrumental color for his music to "sound". In his final unfinished masterwork The Art of the Fugue, he does not even specify what instrument or instruments he had in mind for performance. Bach’s music is played on period instruments, modern orchestra, pipe organs, synthesizers, grand pianos, guitar ensembles, saxophone quartets. (Swingle Singers, anyone?) And so, today you will hear some of the Three-Part Inventions played on three instruments, violin, viola and cello – each instrument playing one of the parts or voices. Musical featherbedding? In the service of the music, the string trio can blend the lines into a whole, while keeping the melodic strands distinctly tinted by the tonal color of each instrument. But try telling that to a pianist.

As for the term "Invention" it is said that Bach latched on to that title through familiarity with works for violin and keyboard (published in 1712) of that name by the Italian priest and composer F.A. Bonporti.

 1999 - 2000 Season, Program I, Sunday October 17, 1999

"My present post brings in about 700 thalers, and when there are a few more funerals than ordinairement, the perquisites (tips) increase proportionately; but when the air is wholesome, on the contrary, they diminish, this last year my ordinaire perquisites for burials declined by more than 100 thalers."

Johann Sebastian Bach1 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV. 1050 (1721)

For flute, violin, keyboard, viola, cello and bass

Indulge me. A bit of background, again from Hans Gal’s The Musician’s World.

"It is not easy to imagine the drabness and narrowness of a German provincial city in Bach’s time. In the thirty Years War one third of the population of Germany and nine tenths of her wealth had been destroyed, leaving a heritage of misery for generations. The patronage of numerous small Courts – Bach served at the Courts of the Duke of Weimar and of the Prince of Anhalt at Cöthen – was limited by lack of funds; and the Protestant Church, to which Bach’s work was devoted from 1723 to his death, did not offer more than a modest living. Discipline was equally stern under the princes and their ministers and under the City Corporation of Leipzig, where Bach was Cantor, in charge of the Thomas-Schule and of music at the two main churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholai.

When he left service in Weimar to accept a better and more rewarding position in Cöthen, the price he had to pay was a prison sentence of some weeks, as we learn from a Weimar Court Secretary’s report: ‘On 6 November 1717 the quondam Concertmeister and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal, and finally on 2 December was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavorable discharge.’

The musician was a craftsman to his superiors and nothing more…"

And so it goes.

The Brandenburg Concertos are a set of six instrumental compositions for various combinations of instruments. This was somewhat of a new concept in Germany, though Bach did have models from Italian composers, especially Antonio Vivaldi, a developer of the Concerto Grosso, and whose violin concertos Bach transcribed for keyboard. In the Concerto Grosso, of which the Concerto in D is a species, the instrumental forces are divided into two groups, a small group of soloists called concertino or principale and a larger group, often a small string orchestra called concerto, tutto or ripieni.

Before proceeding any further, it should be stated that in Baroque ensemble music the keyboard instrument- the harpsichord, was used primarily to play harmony in the form of chords and arpeggiated figures on those chords, as well as provide a bass line. In order to "beef up’ the sound, a cello, or viola de gamba would play the same bass line. Together these two instruments provided what was called a continuo 2 – an accompaniment to the melodic line or lines.

(In early jazz ensembles the keyboard, now a piano, had a very similar function. Along with a bass and drums, and sometimes guitar or banjo, it formed the "rhythm section" which accompanied and supported the horns, which were most often the solo instruments.)

Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto is viewed as a milestone in the use of a keyboard instrument in ensemble playing. In the first movement to the Concerto in D, the keyboard instrument breaks out of its usual accompanying role with a dizzying virtuosic display of runs and passages of an almost improvisatory character, which make for the high point of the movement. The bonds have been broken forever. Well, not quite…

The Brandenburg Concertos were commissioned either formally or informally; it’s not clear which, by Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. Bach worked on the set from 1718 to 1721. Upon completion he sent them off with the usual obsequious letter of dedication expected of composers to their patrons praising them for their " gracious and condescending interest in the insignificant musical talents" of the composer. There is no record of Bach having ever been paid for the concertos. The condition they were found in suggest that they were dropped off in the Margrave’s music library and never even played. The music library was auctioned off after Christian Ludwig’s death. Bach’s name did not even appear in the catalog of his collection. Lumped in with the works of some 70 other composers and sold as a lot; the 6 Brandenburgs sold for about 10 cents a piece.

And now to clear up a possible misunderstanding. Our ads for this concert read "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (arr. Foss)" Well, this is no "arrangement" by Foss or anyone else. The Foss mentioned is the American composer, performer, conductor and educator Lucas Foss. Foss has recorded a CD with the Elysium String Quartet of this concerto and two other of Bach’s keyboard concerti in the form you will hear today. It was this recording that inspired us to program the Concerto in D. In the notes to the CD, Foss cites the Historian John Barker, who maintains that using harpsichord or piano is less of an issue in performing Bach than the size of the accompanying "orchestra", which he maintains would be a chamber orchestra, with one player per part. This would have been the size of the "orchestra" in the Collegium Musicum where Bach’s keyboard concerti would have been performed - makes sense given what we read about the times. However, in my outdated edition of Groves, the writer of that article claims that this concerto would have been performed with an additional "continuo", in other words another keyboard and cello. Who knows? Whatever the case, I think you will agree that the clarity gained through the one player per part concept is marvelous. Any excuse to hear Johann Sebastian!

 1 Gal, Hans. The Musician’s World Great Composers in their Letters. Arco Publishing Co. Inc., N.Y. 1966 from a letter written by J.S. Bach to George Erdmann, Russian Plenipotentiary at Danzig.

 2 This continuo function endured throughout the Classical Period. Even in Haydn’s late Symphonies, which he liked to conduct from the keyboard, the harpsichord plays virtually unheard beneath the then relatively large orchestra. Haydn uses this to comic effect in the finale to the Symphony No. 98 by having the most of the orchestra cut out to reveal the harpsichord tinkling away furiously for a few bars. This Symphony is one of the London Symphonies, and it would have been Haydn himself in the role of the furious tinkler.

2000-2001 Season, Program III, Sunday April 1, 2001

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All text copyright 1997 by Joseph Way