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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.C.: Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 5 (Alexander-Max)
Johann Christian Bach’s galant Sonatas Op. 5 of 1766 were composed for the newly-developed fortepiano but are equally suited to the more intimate yet equally expressive clavichord, on which The Juilliard School graduate and internationally-renowned keyboardist Susan Alexander-Max performs them here. The young Mozart so admired ‘the London Bach’ that he adapted Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 and 4 as keyboard concertos. Yet the other three sonatas contain wonderful music in which reminiscences of past musical styles co-exist with pointers to future developments.
Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782)
Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or the Fortepiano, Op. 5
Born in Leipzig in 1735, Johann Christian was the tenth child of J.S. Bach’s second marriage. On his father’s death in 1750 Christian moved to Berlin, where he studied composition and harpsichord with his half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel. Around 1754, he moved to Italy, immersed himself in and absorbed Italianate style, adopted the Catholic faith and eventually travelled to England in 1762. Indeed, Christian was the only member of his immediate family to break away from the German Lutheran tradition, and his frequent European travels produced a blend of Italian, German, French and British elements in his music which would in turn mould the foundations of musical style of the future. Christian’s popularity grew rapidly in England; the attraction of his symphonic music and his operas, not only in London, but in places as widespread as Dublin, Stockholm and Naples, made him an international figure. No other member of the Bach family (neither the father nor any of the brothers) could claim such renown in his own lifetime.
It was as a keyboard-player that Johann Christian made his mark in Berlin; his technique benefiting from the instruction of his brother, Carl Philipp, who, during this period, published his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, Berlin, 1753). Carl Philipp’s keyboard music formed the basis of Johann Christian’s repertoire; the influence is apparent in the younger brother’s compositions of this time. When travelling in Italy, however, he began to shed himself of his brother’s style and replace it with a more sensuous manner, the influence now being Italian operatic composers. During his stay in Italy Christian developed from a novice to a composer of international prominence. By 1761 he was providing works for publishers in France and Germany, as well as fulfilling his obligations in Italy, and in 1763 he was granted the Privilège général entitling him to publish in Paris without fear of piracy. Two months later he was granted the equivalent in England, the Royal Privilege. His long association with London was not exactly what Bach intended when first coming to England. He had planned to stay for only one year. Between favour at court, being appointed music-master to Queen Charlotte as early as 1763, and his quickly established popularity with the London public through his orchestral works, concertos and chamber music at the concerts organized with his German compatriot, Carl Friedrich Abel, he decided to settle in London. It was also during this time that he befriended the Mozart family on their visit to England (1764–5), meeting Wolfgang again in Paris in 1778.
There was yet another reason to remain in England. During the Seven Years War German craftsmen flocked to London, and with them came the new instrument, the pianoforte, which they were developing. Its ability for expressive range appealed to the young Bach and the sensibility previously only able to be expressed by an orchestra could now be transposed to the keyboard. In the late 1760s and 1770s, concert advertisements reveal Bach performing on the piano rather than on the harpsichord; this seemed to be where his preferences lay. Throughout his London years, Johann Christian Bach strengthened his reputation with performances on the pianos of leading makers such as Zumpe, Backers and Broadwood, and in 1766 he published Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or the Fortepiano, Op. 5.
There is some evidence to suggest that the sonatas in Op. 5 were composed for the Zumpe square piano. In the written score, there are dynamics that could only be performed on a keyboard instrument with a hammer action. That in itself is only an indication that the fortepiano rather than the harpsichord was required. But if you look at the date of the manufacture of the Zumpe square in relation to that of the Op. 5 Sonatas, it seems likely that this was the instrument for which Johann Christian conceived them. According to Richard Maunder (in J.C. Bach and the Early Piano in London, 1991), “Perhaps there was an element of collaboration between Zumpe and Bach, to bring out the first instruments and music for them at the same time.”
Why record the Op. 5 on the clavichord? The Zumpe square piano of 1766 bears a strong resemblance to the mid-eighteenth-century German clavichord, which is the instrument I have chosen to use for this recording. As Maunder suggests, when Zumpe started making the early square pianos, he was still thinking in terms of the ‘modified clavichord’. Whilst the resemblance born is both visual and structural, the timbre of these two keyboard instruments also bears a similarity. At this time the fortepiano was being developed as a performing instrument, whilst the clavichord remained its practice alternative in the home, yet able to create the same dynamic range and colour required for the performer to project the galant style of Johann Christian’s music.
Op. 5 No. 1 is in two movements; the second movement, Tempo di minuetto, has a crescendo marking that would have been impossible to play precisely on the harpsichord. The other sonatas of Op. 5, Nos. 2, 3 and 4 all have forte and piano markings that would have been awkward if not impossible on a two-manual harpsichord, but are very natural to the piano or the clavichord. Sonata No. 3 is particularly lyrical as is the Rondo in Sonata No. 4, a style now coupled with piano (or clavichord) repertoire. When, as a child, Mozart was on tour in London, he became acquainted with Op. 5; being truly impressed, he adapted Nos. 2, 3 and 4 as piano concertos (K.107). Sonata No. 5 has no dynamic markings at all. In three movements, it can be played quite easily on harpsichord or fortepiano, as the title-page indicates, although the element of lyricism is very present in the Adagio. No. 6 is perhaps the most curious of the opus, since Johann Christian seems to have reverted to the earlier tradition of Prelude and Fugue, perhaps remembrances of his Berlin days. But Bach was certainly not the only Classical composer to continue to compose fugues, (for example, they are impressively featured in late Beethoven Sonatas). In addition, Bach does not end the Sonata with a fugue, but adds the gentle Allegretto as his finale. Whilst the fugal form itself may, by this time, be considered old-fashioned, the drama that Bach creates by the tension of the Grave opening and the transition to the lively fugue followed by the more classical spirit of the Allegretto is perhaps his own personal mélange of old and new, reminiscences of the past combined with pointers to the future.
© 2010 Susan Alexander-Max
Clavichord (No. 30) by Peter Bavington, London 2006, based on an instrument made by Johann Jacob Bodechtel, Nuremberg, c.1785. Tuning for recording by Peter Bavington.
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