Johann Christian Bach (1735 -1782)
Sinfonia, Op. 9
Sinfonia concertante in A Major, To 284/4
Sinfonia concertante in E Flat Major, To 284/6
Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of the great ThomascantorJohann Sebastian, was born on 5th September 1735 in Leipzig. Known from themost important periods of his career either as the Milan Bach or the LondonBach, he owed his musical education either directly to his father, or at leastto his supervision. After the latter's death in 1750 ~e moved to Berlin, wherehis brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, 21 years his elder, undertook his furthertraining. In common with many other musicians he was attracted by Italy, wherehe moved in 1756, becoming a pupil in Bologna of the then most distinguished musictheorist Padre Martini, who later gave lessons to Mozart. After conversion toCatholicism he was appointed organist at Milan cathedral, soon after turning hisattention to opera and consequently to the Italian form of symphony. In 1762 Bachmove finally to London, where he won success as a composer of opera and asmusic-master to Her Majesty Queen Sophie Charlotte of England, enjoying highfavour at court. In 1764 with the composer and viola da gamba virtuoso CarlFriedrich Abel he founded the Bach-Abel Concerts, which from 1775 took place inthe famous Hanover Square Rooms. In the same year came the important meetingwith the eight-year-old Mozart, who visited London with his father and playedfor him. Johann Christian was an unrivalled exponent of the galant styleand exercised a strong influence on the musical development of the youngMozart, an example that it is possible to trace in the latter's later work. Ashis star had risen like a comet in the middle of the eighteenth century, so quicklydid his fame decline at the beginning of the 1780s. In May 1781, he gave hislast concert in London. Now financial and health problems compelled him moreand more to withdraw into private life. He died in straitened circumstances in Londonon lst January 1782. Mozart gave moving expression to his sorrow in a letter,writing of the great loss to the musical world.
Known respectively as Giovanni or John, Bach left somesixty symphonies as well as twenty concertante symphonies for one or more soloinstruments, not counting thirty solo fortepiano or harpsichord concertos.
Evidence of his fame is seen in the numerous publications of his instrumentalcompositions in his own life-time, in particular of his symphonies. These are,except for one and a doubtful example, in three movements, in the formdeveloped from the Italian opera-symphony (fast - slow - fast) and used by Bachin the overtures to his operas. The gift for thematic invention inherited fromhis father, under Italian influence transformed into singing, lyrical material,his understanding of form giving rise to a new school of composition, subtlefeeling for colour and for formal clarity, harmony and thematic contrast areall characteristics of his musical style. Opera-symphonies with Bach turnedmore and more into concert symphonies, culminating in the six late symphoniesof Opus 18, three of which are for double orchestra. It is true that he neverreached the blessed profundity of Mozart, nor did he seek to. There are,however, in his music many examples of directly affecting feeling, particularlyevident in the C minor middle movements. The so-called singing allegro,the cantabile style and full string sound makes its appearance also inthe fast movements, and, with the handling of the woodwind, had a stronginfluence on Mozart. In general the woodwind instruments that up to that timehad for the most part doubled the strings, two oboes or flutes, a pair ofFrench horns and the traditional instrument to reinforce the bass, the bassoon,increasingly took independent parts. If comparison is made between Mozart'searly symphonies and those of Bach, an astonishing correspondence can be seen.
Nowhere are there such seamless connections and such an interweaving ofelements. Brightness, freedom from sorrow, joy in living and above all acharming amiability inform Bach's symphonies, which are a clear expression ofhis time. If also fully conceding to the taste of the period - and Bach wellunderstood what pleased - his writing never slid into the banal or the purelysuperficial. The profound, the reflective or dry academic rhetoric will besought here in vain.
The three Sinfonias, Opus 9, are leading to thelast great symphonies of Opus 18, the summit of Bach's symphonic achievement,with woodwind solos alternating with string sonorities. They were firstpublished in 1773. The Sinfonias in E flat seems to have enjoyed specialfavour among the composer's contemporaries. Its broadly designed and splendidlyconstructed principal movement impresses through its incomparable mastery, witha Mannheim crescendo over a sustained pedal-point. Between that and anenchanting Minuet finale is a serenade movement for muted violins andpizzicato string accompaniment, into which horns and oboes are introduced inthe middle section, adding a magic colouring of their own. In the other twosymphonies the woodwind also plays an independent and soloistic part, with theviolas and oboes contributing a charming trio section. Mature compositionaltechnique appears again in the wonderful middle movements of these works.
The concertante symphonies of Bach are typical examplesof this form, so popular from the middle of the eighteenth century and derivedfrom the Baroque concerto grosso. These were doubtless written for theBach-Abel Concerts and were performed there for the first time, intended as asign of gratitude to the principal musicians of the orchestra. The SinfoniaConcertante in A major and the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major
were written for two string instruments, with the two solo violins in the middlemovement of the E flat Sinfonia Concertante recalling, at the opening ofthe theme, Che faro senza Euridice from Cluck's Orfeo,surprisingly leaving the field to a solo oboe. In the other movements, in whichthe solo violins have a prominent part to play, there is a marked parallel withthe Sinfonia concertante in E flat of Mozart for violin and viola. Aftera 54-bar introduction, in which the woodwind - here two flutes, a pair of hornsand a bassoon reinforcing the bass-line - take a solo role, the first violinannounces the principal theme, immediately taken up and developed by the secondviolin. Now together, in alternation, the two solo violins vie with each other.
A cheerful Menuett en Rondeau, with double-stopping giving a four-parttexture in the C minor middle section, completes the enchanting work.
Exceptionally the Sinfonia Concertante in A major
for solo violin and cello is in only two movements. The first of these is in arelatively gentle 6/8 metre, with extended elegiac sections. There are exchangesbetween the two solo instruments, with contrasts of colour, ending in anecstatic duet anticipating an element in Mozart's Mass in C minor. Themovement that brings together, as it were, andante and allegro iscapped by a dance-like Rondeau in the form of a Gavotte with a musette-likemiddle section.
(English translation by Keith Anderson)