November 18, 2014

J.S. BACH Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009


FRANZ SCHUBERT Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D.821

LUCAS FOSS Capriccio

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NOTES by Sasha Margolis

J.S. Bach, Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009

Before J.S. Bach wrote his six cello suites, cellists who wished to play solo had very little written music at their disposal; in the early eighteenth century, the cello was still considered most suitable for the playing of bass lines, rather than melodies. And after Bach wrote his suites? Nothing much changed for quite a while. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the likes of Kodaly and Britten made substantial additions to the solo cello repertoire; and it took just as long for Bach’s Suites to become popular, thanks to the efforts of Pablo Casals. Before that, they languished in relative obscurity.

The same obscurity attends the Suites’ origins and history, which are full of question marks. To begin with, it is not known for certain whether the cello was, in fact, the instrument Bach had in mind when he was writing, or whether instead it was the cello da spalla, a smaller instrument, available in four-string and five-string varieties, and held on the shoulder and against the chest.

The suites were probably written prior to 1720. But this, too, is a matter of uncertainty, in part because no manuscript exists in Bach’s hand. The oldest manuscript dates from 1726, and was made by a certain Kellner, who did not play the cello; the second was made shortly after by Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena, who didn’t play either. Important musical points such as slurring cannot be definitively understood from these manuscripts, leaving much room for interpretation. In addition, a theory has arisen in the last few years that Anna Magdalena was not just a copyist but the actual author of the Suites: a documentary titled “Written By Mrs. Bach” was shown for the first time earlier this month in London. Against this theory, several prominent cellists have marshaled powerful musical and historical counter-arguments.

It is a truism of music history that the works of J.S. Bach represent a culmination of the entire development of Baroque-period music; and that his individual pieces represent individual culminations of individual Baroque musical forms. This is the case with the dance forms found in the cello suites. The suites, which follow nearly identical patterns, are as standard as can be; and we can learn from a German contemporary of Bach’s named Mattheson what was to be expected from each form. The Allemande was “serious, well-elaborated, and delighting in good order and repose”; the Courante “charming, tender, something courageous, something desirous, and expressing sweet hope.” Of the Sarabande Mattheson wrote, “The same has no other passion to express than ambition; yet therein are higher sorts to be discerned, so that the dance finds itself in a more select, therefore more pompous, state than the others. Because it permits of no running notes, since the grandezza abhors such, its severity is maintained.” The Menuet was characterized by “moderate gaiety,” while the Bouree was “content, pleasant, untroubled, tranquil, listless, gentle, and yet agreeable.” Finally, “to the ordinary gigue-tunes I can now apply four chief emotions: fury, or passion; pride; simple eagerness; and a careless temperament.”

It goes without saying that, at the same time that he summed up the ethos of an entire era, Bach transcended the conventions of that era, by means of the inventiveness and perfection of his writing.

Stravinsky, Suite Italienne

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, in contrast with Bach’s Suites, is more beginning than culmination. But it does have a fascinating relationship with the past: the piece is full of traces of other musical works, and bears the marks of many artistic hands. The product of a 1932-33 collaboration between Stravinsky and the great Russian cellist Piatigorsky, the Suite reduces and also transforms music from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, a twenty-number work scored for chamber orchestra and three singers, into five movements for cello and piano.

To appreciate the Suite, it is helpful to learn about the ballet, which is itself also an arrangement of sorts, and which likewise came to life as the result of an extraordinary collaboration. Pulcinella, when first produced in 1920, boasted sets and costumes by Picasso, libretto and choreography by Léonide Massine (who had previously choreographed Satie’s Parade and de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat), and it was commissioned by Diaghilev (who was also behind Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring.)

As the title suggests, the ballet revolves around the persona of Pulcinella. In the improvised Italian comedy known as Commedia dell’Arte, Pulcinella was one of the stock characters, noted for his beak-like mask, his viciousness and craftiness, and his frequent feigned stupidity. This nasty character was by no means suited to romantic roles. But in the particular Commedia scenario employed by Massine for his ballet libretto, Pulcinella is at the center of a romantic plot. The story in question is called “Four Identical Pulcinellas,” and is concerned with jealousy among various sets of lovers, a pretended death and resurrection designed to engineer a reconciliation, and other such typical and silly eighteenth-century plot devices.

Pulcinella’s character and this scenario should give some idea of what Stravinsky’s music is about. But there is another crucial element, strictly musical, which sheds light not only on the Suite Italienne, but on Stravinsky’s whole career. This is the use in Pulcinella of pre-existing eighteenth-century musical materials, constituting the entire musical substance of the ballet. As Stravinsky wrote: “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course–the first of many love affairs in that direction–but it was a look in the mirror, too.”

What Stravinsky believed he was looking backward at was, in this case, the music of Pergolesi, a short-lived (1710-36) Neapolitan opera composer. In fact, Stravinsky was somewhat misinformed. He was working from a collection made by a certain British publisher of the late eighteenth century who, moved equally by Pergolesi’s fame and his own greed, included under Pergolesi’s name not only pieces by the man himself but also works of several other composers.

Stravinsky’s ballet music is thus based on the music of some four composers. But the music extracted for the Suite Italienne is attributable to only two. The music of the Introduction, Tarantella, and Finale is derived from two Trio Sonatas by Domenico Gallo, another short-lived composer (1730-68.) The music of the Serenata and Aria comes mostly from sung portions of Pulcinella, which are derived from two Pergolesi operas. These opera-derived portions naturally come with texts attached. The pastoral Serenata illustrates the following scene: “While on the grass the lamb grazes, alone, alone, the shepherdess amid the green leaves through the forest goes singing.” The Aria begins: “With these tasty little words you rend my heart to the depths. Fair one, stay here, since if you say more I must die. With such tasty little words you rend my heart, I shall die, I shall die.” This is followed by a particularly gorgeous melody illustrating the sentiment, “I hear say there is no peace. I hear say there is no heart, for you, ah, no never, there is no peace for you.” Finally, the music of the Serenata returns, this time underlining the thought, “Whoever says that a woman is more cunning than a little Devil tells the truth.”

A final feature of the Suite Italienne is the liberal use of modern cello techniques which, in adding a dash of irony and particularly Stravinskyan humor, help to bring Gallo, Pergolesi, and Pulcinella into the twentieth century.

Schubert, Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Cello, D.821

The world of stringed instruments once included, along with the fretted and plucked members of the guitar family, and the unfretted and bowed members of the violin family, a whole class of fretted and bowed instruments, members of the viola da gamba family. By the late eighteenth century, the viola da gamba had gone out of fashion, and most serious composers writing string music thenceforward confined themselves to those instruments which may be found in a string quartet, with the occasional odd appearance of a double-bass. However, in the 1820s, in Austria, a new fretted and bowed instrument enjoyed a decade of popularity. It was called the arpeggione, had six strings, was invented by a guitar-maker named Staufer, was to be played held between the knees, and was said to have a sound “of magical beauty resembling in the high register the sound of an oboe, in the lower one that of a basset horn.”

The arpeggione was invented in 1823. Only a year passed before Franz Schubert decided to write a piece for it, possibly on commission from his friend Vincenz Schuster, who had quickly become an arpeggione virtuoso. In the opinion of musicologist Stephen Hefling, “the A Minor Sonata Schubert created for this instrument … is a mixture of naïveté and sophistication, of virtuoso flutter and poignancy, that differs from any other of his chamber works.”

1824 was an important chamber music year for Schubert. For three years previously, he had written no chamber music at all. But in 1824, he produced the extraordinary “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, the scarcely less dark “Rosamunde” Quartet in A Minor, and the Octet. He was suffering badly from syphilis at the time, and writing things like “What I produce is due to my understanding of music and my sorrows,” and “I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world.”

Compared to the heaviness of his works from earlier in the year, the “Arpeggione,” composed in November, is lightness itself. Perhaps it was the nature of the instrument and its novelty, the woodwind timbre and extraordinary six-string range, or a desire for virtuosic display expressed by its commissioner. On the other hand, according to Hefling, “Obviously he seeks a lighter vein than that of the year’s two quartets, yet cannot altogether shake their seriousness … all three movements seem wistfully ambivalent, and as in later works by Schumann and Brahms, it is as if their ambivalence is to be lived rather than overcome.”

The “Arpeggione” Sonata has today been adopted by practitioners of many more standard instruments, especially the cello, an instrument which, lacking frets and having only four strings, makes technical demands upon its player far beyond any that Schubert intended.

Foss, Capriccio

Lukas Foss wrote his Capriccio for Gregor Piatigorsky, the same great cellist who had a hand in the creation the Suite Italienne. Concerning this piece, the composer observed: “I like its combination of Bach, humor, and American characteristics.” Various listeners describe these American characteristics in diverse ways: according to some, there is an obvious Copland influence, and the first theme sounds like Copland’s Billy the Kid. To others, the piece is an ode to “the cowboy and the Golden Age of Hollywood.” And to still others, this is “Foss’ attempt to endow a cello with the vigor and spontaneity of a square dance fiddler.”

When he wrote the piece in 1946, Foss was still a fairly recent immigrant to America, having arrived from Germany in 1937, at the age of fifteen. Foss himself took part in the work’s premiere. At the time, he was pianist for the Boston Symphony, and it was at Tanglewood that he played the Capriccio with Piatigorsky. The piece was dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitsky, deceased wife of Serge Koussevitsky, the BSO’s music director.