Program Notes: Nic McGegan's Bach (December 3-5, 2021)

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Program


Nicholas McGegan, conductor Yin Xiong, cello Beth Guterman Chu, viola Andrew François, viola


Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach


Sinfonia in C major, H. 659, Wq. 182/3 (1773)

Allegro assai

Adagio

Allegretto


Cello Concert in A major, H. 439, Wq. 172 (1753)

Allegro

Largo con sordini, mesto Allegro assai


Yin Xiong, cello


Sinfonia in E minor, H. 653, Wq. 178 (1756)


Johann Sebastian Bach


Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051 (1708)

Allegro

Adagio ma non tanto

Allegro


Beth Guterman Chu, viola

Andrew François, viola


Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046 (1717)

Allegro

Adagio

Allegro

Menuet; Trio I; Menuet da capo; Polacca; Menuet da capo; Trio II; Menuet da capo

 

Program Notes

By Tim Munro


Music was the Bach’s family business. For seven generations, a steady Bach (“stream”) flowed with professional musicians. Members took pride in the family business, celebrated at boisterous annual reunions.


Johann Sebastian Bach certainly felt a responsibility to pass on his tools of the trade. “[My children] are all born musicians,” he wrote. “I can form both a vocal and an instrumental ensemble within my family.”


J.S. Bach’s second surviving son was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who learned at the feet of his father. Pressure to join the family business must have been strong, but C.P.E. built an independent career and developed his own musical voice.


C.P.E. Bach lived long enough to see his father’s music fade into obscurity. When people talked about “Bach,” they meant “C.P.E. Bach.” In fact, Mozart is reported to have said that “[C.P.E.] is the father, and we are the children. Those of us who do anything right learned it from him.”

 

C.P.E. Bach

C.P.E. Bach

Born March 8, 1714, Weimar, Germany

Died December 14, 1788, Hamburg, Germany


Sinfonia in C major

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach came of age during the Enlightenment. During the 18th century, this movement—focused on reason and individual autonomy—took hold across Europe. Bach opened his home to conversations among scientists, philosophers, and poets.


One important Enlightenment ideal took hold in Bach’s music: the desire to express emotions through art. “A musician cannot move others if he is not moved himself,” Bach wrote. “He must feel all the emotions he wishes to arouse in his audience. He reveals his feelings and in that way arouses theirs.”


The Sinfonia in C major was one of six works commissioned by Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy arts patron. Van Swieten encouraged Bach to trust his strongest impulses, “without heed to practical performance concerns.”


Three movements run without a break. In the first, a blizzard of strings knocks us off-kilter: melodies end abruptly, loud outbursts shock. The second pierces us with musical knives and tugs our hearts. The third is pulled between grace and darkness.


First SLSO performance: November 6, 1980, Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting Most recent SLSO performance: May 24, 1986, Christopher Hogwood conducting

Instrumentation: strings and continuo

Approximate duration: 22 minutes

 

Cello Concerto in A major

For three decades, C.P.E. Bach worked for the King of Prussia, Frederick “The Great.” It was a steady job, and Frederick gave generously to the arts. But Bach’s bold music wasn’t to the king’s taste, and he was passed over for promotions.


Rebuffed, Bach looked further afield. Berlin’s middle class was expanding, and demand for new music was strong. Instrumental works took a backseat to opera, but things were beginning to change.


The Cello Concerto was likely written to appeal to this broad audience. Its outer movements kick up their heels with joy. The middle movement provides a soulful shift, an atmosphere of muted sorrow occasionally jolted by grieving outbursts.


The virtuosity of the solo cello part is untamed. Berlin’s musicians were among the finest in Europe. “It was a time when music—particularly the standard of performance—reached a peak,” Bach later wrote.


First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: solo cello, strings, harpsichord

Approximate duration: 22 minutes

 

Sinfonia in E minor

As a person, C.P.E. Bach is opaque. He poured his emotions into music, yet we know almost nothing of him. This stocky man may have been ambitious, or not. He may have been stubborn, or not.


Bach’s Sinfonia in E minor may allow us a glimpse. Here, we hear tempests aplenty. We hear a love for old sounds and gestures, and a drive to renew them. We hear mood swings: “Hardly has [my music] inflamed one emotion,” he wrote, “then it arouses another.”


First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings

Approximate duration: 12 minutes

 

Introduction to the Brandenburgs

It is a remarkable collection. Six concertos, each written for a different collection of instruments. Each developing a unique musical voice. Each balancing head and heart, joy and sorrow, rigor and revelry.


In 1720, J.S. Bach’s wife died suddenly. Soon afterwards, Bach was looking for a new job. He may have seen the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt—with a fine orchestra at his disposal—as a potential employer. The gift of six “Brandenburg” concertos may have been Bach’s job application.


Bach never received a response, and the Brandenburgs remained in the Margrave’s archives, forgotten. They were unearthed 100 years later by a Berlin librarian. It is startling to realize how close these now-popular concertos came to being lost forever.

 
J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach


Born March 31, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

In each Brandenburg concerto, Bach seems to pose himself a challenge. In the Second: how to balance a recorder with a trumpet? In the Third: how to knit a garment from solo strings?


The Sixth Brandenburg concerto seems to ask, “What would it sound like if violas were treated as virtuoso solo instruments?” In Bach’s time, the viola was simply a cog in the machine, barely noticed. Bach raises it to unheard levels of virtuosity.


Two violas weave among cellos like birds in flight: imitating, congregating, shadowing, huddling. There is an intimacy to this music, like we are hidden observers to a hushed conversation.

In Bach’s original version, the two cello parts were played on violas da gamba. The gamba was old-fashioned in Bach’s time, and its presence would have given the music the breathy, rough sound of the past.


First SLSO performance: January 9, 1971, Alexander Schneider conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: January 19, 2008, Nicholas McGegan conducting, with Jonathan Vinocour and Katy Mattis as soloists

Instrumentation: 2 viola soloists, strings, harpsichord

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

 

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

In his twenties, Bach fell under the spell of the music of Italy. Although he never visited the country, Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos lent Bach’s music energy and vitality, a sunniness that was rarely present in candlelit German churches.


The First Brandenburg concerto opens in the bright light of the morning. Beginning his set of concertos with such exuberance makes quite a statement. The thirty-something composer seems to say, “look at all I can do!”


Bach sets himself quite a challenge in this concerto. He seems to ask, “How would you write a concerto for three entirely independent groups: horns, oboes, strings?” Bach’s answer takes us on an eventful journey through varied musical terrain.


In the first movement, the braying of French horns brings us to the hunt, hooves stomping and dogs barking. The second transports us to the dimly lit sanctuary of a church. The third and fourth take us into the ballroom, with dances fleet-footed, graceful, soulful, and rambunctious.


First SLSO performance: November 18, 1927, Emil Oberhoffer conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 26, 2011, Nicholas McGegan conducting

Instrumentation: 3 oboes, bassoons, 2 horns, strings, harpsichord

Approximate duration: 20 minutes

 

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.