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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.C.: Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 17 (Heard)
Johann Christian Bach was a pivotal figure in the transition between the Baroque and the Classical eras, and a major influence on Mozart. As an avid proponent of the newly emerging fortepiano, he wrote works that took full advantage of the instrument’s expressive powers. In the first Naxos recording of these works on fortepiano, Rachel Heard brings to life the simple, elegant beauty of his Six Sonatas, Op. 17.
Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782)
Six Sonatas for the Fortepiano, Op. 17
Born in Leipzig, but commonly referred to as “The London Bach” because he lived the last twenty years of his life there, Johann Christian Bach composed in virtually every genre of his day, including chamber music, opera, oratorio, sacred music, concerto, symphony, and solo keyboard music. Bach was a master of the galant, the light-textured and charming style that became fashionable in reaction to the weightier, highly ornamented music of the Baroque. He enjoyed more international fame during his lifetime than did his father or his older brothers.
Johann Christian was the tenth of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twelve children by Anna Magdelena, his second wife. Like his older brothers, he was trained in music from a young age. When his father died in 1750, Johann Christian was only fifteen, so he went to live in Berlin with his famous half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, with whom he continued his music studies. For ten years his brother had been chamber musician and harpsichordist to King Frederick II (Frederick The Great). The two brothers, far apart in age, could hardly have been more different in personality, and this was reflected in their music. Carl Philipp Emanuel was already famous for his rhetorical flourishes, sudden dynamic changes, and unexpected events—all hallmarks of the Empfindsamkeit style, but Johann Christian explored a different aesthetic, toward the natural simplicity of the galant style. His beautiful slow movements were widely regarded as music for connoisseurs. His fascination with the newly emerging fortepiano led him to begin composing for that instrument, in which he saw expressive capabilities far beyond those of the harpsichord. In Berlin the younger Bach gained quite a reputation as a keyboard performer, surely benefiting from lessons with his brother, author of the most important manual on keyboard playing in the eighteenth century, the 1753 Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments).
Another defining influence on his compositional style came from his eight years in Italy, where he studied with Padre Martini and absorbed Italian opera. His cantabile melodies set over simple accompaniments, usually in the form of an Alberti bass, show the influence of opera, as well as the Italianate keyboard styles of Alberti, Marcello, Platti, and others.
While employed as organist at the Milan Cathedral, Johann Christian began receiving commissions to write operas. Soon after operatic successes in Milan and Naples, he began receiving offers from Venice and London. In 1762 he petitioned his employers at the cathedral for a year’s leave of absence, and moved to London to fulfill two opera commissions from the King’s Theatre. By 1763 he had resigned his position in Milan and became official private teacher and music-master to the very popular Queen Charlotte, the German-born former Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. In the same year Bach became friends with another compatriot, Johann Zumpe, the first important piano-maker in England, and began enthusiastically promoting Zumpe’s new square grand piano. In 1768 at a concert on St James Street, advertising “a solo in the Piano Forte by Mr. Bach”, he introduced the British public to the novel concept of the piano as a solo instrument. Zumpe’s square grands soon became fashionable, and it was to socially ambitious amateurs that Bach marketed his solo piano sonatas Opp. 5 and 17. Notably, each set begins with a sonata within the technical abilities of most amateurs, to entice prospective buyers to purchase the entire set. Bach soon became the most sought after piano teacher in London. He had gained enough renown as a composer that he had to deal with unauthorized editions of his music. He approached the king for help, and George III issued a Royal Licence and Privilege, protecting him from copyright violations. In spite of this in 1773 he sued the publishers Longman and Lukey for unauthorized editions of a lesson and a sonata, asserting that both works had been “very Ignorantly & much to the Discredit of the plaintiff as a Composer adapted to Instruments not intended by the plaintiff.” Although the aforementioned pieces have not survived, one may have been a published two-movement work that was only discovered in 1984: a considerably altered first movement of Op. 17 No. 4 coupled with the last movement of Op. 17 No. 1—but with an additional variation. One can understand Bach’s frustration.
This set of six sonatas was published in Paris in 1773 or 1774, as Opus 12. In 1777 they were reissued in Vienna, this time with the opus number 6. They were not given the present Op. 17 designation until they were published in 1779 in London, and again in Amsterdam in 1779. All feature a first movement in the new “sonata form”, which was being explored extensively by composers for the first time. In keeping with galant practice, many of these sonatas have only two movements. Before he moved to England Bach’s multi-movement keyboard works (solo sonatas, concertos, accompanied sonatas) had followed the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) German format, but in London he marketed some of his Op. 5 and 17 sonatas as works in the Italian style, with either two movements in the tradition of Alberti, or in the fast-slow-minuet format of the Italian sinfonia. Like the earlier Op. 5 set, the Op. 17 sonatas bear the heading “pour le Claveçin ou le Piano” (“for the harpsichord or the fortepiano”). Most of the sonatas feature dynamic indications, evidence of Johann Christian Bach’s keen interest in the new instrument’s expressive possibilities.
Op. 17 No. 1, a modest work in two movements, perhaps written expressly for an amateur player, ends with a Minuet cast in theme and variation form. The three-movement Op. 17 No. 2, in C minor, is in three movements. Its Prestissimo finale is a virtuosic romp that carries echoes of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement in literature and music that was popular at the time. In the E flat Sonata Op. 17 No. 3 expressive right-hand trills over an Alberti bass seem to magically extend the sustaining power of the light fortepiano, in perhaps the most effective opening of the entire set. The 3/8 metre of the closing Allegro gives it a lilting, dance-like character. The opening notes of both the G major Op. 17 No. 4 and the B flat Op. 17 No. 6 bear a strong resemblance to each other, and a case could easily be made that these gestures served as inspiration for the opening theme of Mozart’s famous Sonata in B flat, K. 333. Further proof of Christian Bach’s gifts for opera-like lyricism can be found in the Op. 17 No. 5 sonata, which carries the forthcoming spirit of Mozart.
In 1764 the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged seven, came to play at the court of Queen Charlotte, as part of the famous Grand Journey organized by his father to showcase his talent to the world. Wolfgang took immediately to the warm and kindly Bach, on one occasion reportedly sitting on his lap while the two improvised on the same keyboard for two hours in front of the King and Queen, but it was JC Bach’s music that had the most lasting impression on Mozart, whose music builds upon his stylistic inheritance. The two met again in Paris in 1778, when Mozart was 22, and going through a difficult time immediately after the death of his mother. Wolfgang wrote to his father, “As you well know, I love him with all my heart, and I have the highest regard of him”.
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BACH, J.C.: Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 17 (Heard)