It is impossible to pinpoint a date or a composition that marked the beginning of Bach’s (1685-1750) consummate creativity since his output is of such a whole piece. His life in music can only be divided geographically and the compositions organized as to the locales in which they were written. Bach never went outside the borders of Germany but within his homeland a list of the many cities in which he worked and composed reads like a tour itinerary. His penultimate position as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at Cöthen, however, looms particularly large in Bach’s biography, for in Cöthen, from 1717 to 1723, he wrote a large variety of secular music—solo, chamber, and orchestral—and many instructive pieces.
Cöthen too was important to Bach on a personal level, for it was there that he suffered the loss of his wife Barbara, whom he had married in 1707. He remarried in 1721, this wife, Anna Magdalena, bearing him 13 children, bringing his total progeny to 20, of which only nine survived him. Bach’s life was energized by the marriage to Anna Magdalena. She was an accomplished singer and a member of the church choir, a position she continued in, with her husband’s full support, until they left Cöthen. With a musician wife, as well as young children to be trained, Bach could now engage an activity that was vitally important to him, that of educator. Whether teaching harmony or composition, he was a tireless and inspired master. He was no less so as a teacher of the keyboard, and for his clavier (keyboard) students, which included Anna Magdalena and the most musical of his children, he created his own teaching material, designing it to take the student from basic techniques through to the most advanced technical situations. To develop his students’ ability to clearly project the intricate contrapuntal textures of the clavier music of the day, Bach began at the beginning, using relatively simple pieces in two and three voices (the 15 each Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions. Mustering the proficiency for these workouts, the students were then given two collections of 24 Preludes and Fugues entitled The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the French and English Suites and the Partitas.
Early in their marriage, Bach took seriously his role as teacher to Anna Magdalena. The dutiful and eager wife started an album, which she titled Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin, Anno 1722, in which Johann Sebastian entered instructive compositions intended to help improve her keyboard skills and her musicianship. The entries include scores of five harpsichord suites, the first versions of pieces that eventually became the six French Suites.
Inevitably, we must address the vexing question of whether Bach’s keyboard music should be performed on the piano. Pianists have a wealth of Bach from which to choose solo repertoire. Although knowing that only late in his life did the composer even see the instrument that was the forerunner of the modern piano and never wrote specifically for it, they freely acknowledge that the Bach they play was created for either the harpsichord or the clavichord. As Bach himself proved countless times, however, the medium was not the message - there are innumerable examples in his catalog of the composer recasting his own music and music of others from one medium to a completely different one, often adjusting rhythms, melodies, etc. to fit the new surroundings. Bach's music, it seems perfectly clear, requires no specific timbres for its realization. Johann Sebastian would probably look askance at some 20th-century purists who would outlaw any performances of his music except those on the authentic instruments of his day. The obvious conclusion in this matter is that modern concert halls are too large for the use of the small-toned harpsichord and clavichord, and that’s justification enough for pianists to play the wonderful keyboard music of Bach on the piano.
One wonders whether Anna Magdalena was up to playing the French Suites, so called, by the way, for no apparent reason and without the composer’s sanction. It’s true that these Suites are less demanding than either the English Suites (also mysteriously named) or the Partitas, yet the considerable requirements for technical dexterity, tonal definition, and stylistic understanding place them on a high performance level.
In both the lyrical, gently flowing Allemande and the more vigorous Courante a sense of unity between the first and second sections is achieved by having the second section begin with the opening figures appearing in contrary motion. The Sarabande exists on that simple but incomparable level of expressiveness that defines Bach’s communicative art. The two Menuets that follow, although in the Suite’s D minor key, are as light and airy as you please, whereas the rhythmically nervous Gigue that ends the Suite is a relatively complex and demanding fugue, with the second half an upside down version of the first half.
Practice, practice, Anna Magdalena.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic program book.