Bach’s Kothen period (1717-1723) was a unique secular tenure marked by expansive production of chamber music. During these years, his sole responsibility was to conduct the court orchestra and provide other court music upon demand. This afforded him opportunity to expand his compositional output for orchestra, as well as other chamber ensembles, including repertoire for solo instruments.
Our March virtual concert will include the Fugue, Siciliana and Presto from Bach’s Solo Sonata no. 1 in g minor performed by Brittni Brown violin; the Courante and Sarabande from Cello Suite no. 4 in E flat major performed by Sarah Graf; an Allemande and selected Sarabandes from Bach’s French Suites for Keyboard performed by Susan Nicholson. In this blog, let us examine the various musical forms Bach used in these monumental solo compositions that will be heard on our March 18th concert. The discussion will be limited to sonata forms and dance forms to be performed on this program. Website for dance performances and complete suites are included for your enjoyment.
It is curious as to Bach’s choice of sonata forms for three of the six solo compositions in the set of six, while the remaining three are partitas. The Fugue in Sonata no. 1 is in strict form and stretches the polyphonic capacities of the violin. It is followed by a gentle swaying Siciliana in a major key. The Presto is a movement in sharp, spirited, perpetual motion. George Enescu described it as ‘the Himalayas for violinists’. The entire sonata reflects Bach’s obsession with order and symmetry.
Bach is among the first composers to place the cello as a solo lead actor. For the cello suites, he chose stylized popular Baroque dance forms. He frequently used the French suite order - allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue - periodically interjecting other dances. These dances were intended as concert music, not dance music. The idiomatic writing only suggests gestures of the dance forms.
The courante forms of Bach were derived from the early 17th century dance and music of Louis XIII’s court. It was a very noble, solemn dance usually performed in court balls and only by His Majesty, who had rehearsed the formal dance for many hours. Bach’s transformed courantes have been described by Jules Ecorcheville as the “frolicking of a fish who plunges, disappears and returns again to the surface of the water”. Performers find the courantes full of elusive surprises and musical changes.
The sarabande has a long illustrious, somewhat tawdry, history. Its probable origins are Spanish folk art. It was a dance accompanied by singing and an instrumentalist. The Italian 17th century dance was colorful, exotic dance, accompanied by castanets and guitars. The French tamed the dance making it into a more ordered dance with sustained hints of passion. Bach’s sarabandes are a synthesis of both the Italian and French styles; they are majestic pieces employing dotted rhythmic patterns.
Keyboard compositions of the Kothen period were composed for the composer’s family circles or his activities as a teacher. The first five French Suites were dedicated to his new wife, Anna Magdalena. These are modest proportions with emphasis on tunefulness.
The Allemande began life as a dance in the Renaissance and later was cultivated as an instrumental piece. Its 16th century German form, later to be adopted by the French, was a processional couple dance with stately flowing steps. By the 17th century, the cultivated instrumental form became a standard in the French suite. The highly stylized dance incorporated imitative, ornamented texture over profiled dance rhythms. Its processional heritage dictates a slow walking tempo in a ceremonious manner.
The keyboard sarabandes vary in character but always present elegant melodies with written out ornaments and underlying sarabande harmonic patterns. Frequently, the sarabande constitute the emotional core of the dance suite. Its gentle, calm character suggests a slow tempo.
Bach devoted a significant portion of his life to the composition of dance music. As performers of his titled dances, it is important for us to have some knowledge of the court dancing of the period. We must try to understand the performance styles and the essential rhythmic characteristics of these various dances in order to choose the appropriate tempos, establish rhythmic patterns and accents, and determine phrasing.
The last video is for pure enjoyment of other titled dance forms that Bach used in his compositions.