Friday, March 12, 2010

JC Bach's Quartet for Oboe and Strings

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most prevalent composers in pop culture today, along with Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.  What many folks don't know about JS Bach is that he had over 30 children and married twice.  Three of his sons eventually went on to careers in composition: Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Wilhelm Friedman, and Johann Christian.  Living in the shadow of the great German master no doubt was a difficult challenge for all three of his sons, but perhaps none more so than the youngest of the three, Johann Christian Bach.

In broadly sweeping generalizations, JS Bach's works are marked by terse counterpoint and rapid harmonic rhythm.  JC Bach's music, on the other hand, favors melody and accompaniment and a much slower harmonic rhythm.  No doubt, JS insisted the his children learn counterpoint, but little of it is utilized in JC's works.  I feel that he must have been trying hard to get out of his father's shadow and create something that was all his own.  He went so far as to move to London to start a new life away from his family.  Furthermore, JC wrote in a style that squarely pointed toward the Classical style, but here and there one finds subtle references to his father's work when listening carefully.

The Oboe Quartet by JC Bach is one of the earliest in what would become a common instrumentation in Western Art Music, and is also one of JC Bach's more well-known works.  Composers like Mozart and Britten would later write works for this combination, and those have since become standards in the repertoire.  It represents some of JC Bach's most clever and graceful composition in my opinion.  Oboists like playing it because it is written in a beautiful warm key on the instrument, Bb Major.

The first movement is in a rough Sonata Allegro form with a brief development ending with an opportunity for a cadenza before the recapitulation, what I feel was a nod to the classical concerto form that was developing at the time.  The use of Sonata Allegro form of the first movement also puts it soundly in the classical period rather than the Baroque.  In terms of tonality, the first movement remains mostly in sunny Bb and F major, with a short turn towards the minor in the development.  It is in the development that one hears the influence of JS Bach with a series of suspensions and use of imitative counterpoint, but these references are brief and fleeting.  On the whole, the oboe takes the lead with the violin commenting and answering occasionally.  The viola and cello take an supporting role throughout.

The piece lacks a slow movement in the middle.  At the time of composition the concept of the Sonata da Camera and Sonata di Chiesa, which always included slow movements, were being abandoned in favor of forms that used only lively tempos.  JC Bach's lack of the inclusion of a slow movement was likely because of the piece's utilitarian purpose, ie courtly music intended to amuse royal ears.  I can only imagine the lively parties or lavish lunches that must have taken place while this piece was being played for society's higher-ups in 18th century London.

The second and final movement is a Rondo consisting of a Menuet with two trios - ABACA.  This dance form was popular in the Baroque and it prevailed in instrumental music through to the late classical period when the Scherzo took over.  The fact that it is dance music points again to the likelihood that the piece was intended for courtly performance, in which the musicians often served as a dance band.  What's interesting is that JC Bach titles the movement Rondo instead of Menuet.  Rondo is a distinctly Classical form, and I feel this movement really fuses old and new concepts more than the first movement.

JC Bach inserts some juicy passages for the viola in this movement in the second trio in g minor giving the oboist a break.  This is a clear example of thought about orchestration since the viola has a darker and more mysterious sound than the oboe.  Though this practice was employed masterfully by JS Bach, many baroque composers transcribed their works for other instruments freely without consideration for individual instrumental timbres.  It was not until later that composers started to think about the personalities of each instrument, and Berlioz was one of the first to codify this concept in the late 19th century.  JS Bach no doubt passed this concept on to his sons and in a sense JC Bach was a pioneer in this respect continuing the traditions of his father, a concept that would become very important later in history.

The overall feel of the Quartet in Bb by JC Bach is elegant and courtly.  The phrases demonstrate a graceful arch and follow regular intervals, a mark of the Classical style.  It's lack of a slow movement shows that the standard fast - slow - fast structure was still a developing concept.  There are however some subtle references to JS Bach's ideas such as orchestration and some use of imitation and dissonance.  As one of the first works in the genre of the oboe quartet, it is a formidable and beautiful piece that is a joy to perform.

No comments:

Post a Comment