EXPLORING MUSIC: ''The Turning Point'' /BACH-Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord
The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988
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David M. Greene
Brandenburg became, in effect, the Kingdom of Prussia, which became the nucleus of the German Empire, which became the Federal Republic of Germany and Democratic Republic of Germany. In the southwest central part of the latter is situated Kothen or Cothen, a town of fewer than 40 thousand people, once the capital of the princedom of Anhalt-Cothen.
With the Reformation, Anhalt-Cothen had gone Protestant, and more specifically Calvinist--of which more in a moment. Meanwhile, in 1716 at the Weimar court, where Bach had been serving in the subsidiary role of concertmaster for eight years, the old Kapellmeister died and the duke took unto himself a bride, the sister of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. Bach, to his chagrin, was passed over in the appointment, and Prince Leopold, a music lover, took a great fancy to him. When Bach accepted a job at Cothen, his employer not only refused to release him; he threw him in the poky for nigh onto a month. When Bach remained obdurate, he was dismissed with a dishonorable discharge.
In the town where I live, the site of the nation's oldest Bach Festival, Bach's piety is regarded with awe, and some place him on a plane a little lower than the Trinity's. But the fact is he went to Cothen not because it had better facilities for worship, but for more money and more prestige. In fact he was a Lutheran, and under Calvinism, which frowned on his kind of fancy-schmancy music, he did not have to write even a chorale, much less a cantata, nor was he required to play the organ. (Was there one?)
He found a kindred spirit in Prince Leopold, and apparently spent his compositional time experimenting, concocting musical exercises for his growing brood, and amusing the prince with chamber pieces and orchestral works. These probably included the Brandenburgs and the original versions of most of the other concerti. the orchestral suites. those for unaccompanied cello, and most of the violin and flute sonatas.
This halcyon period came to an abrupt end. First Bach's life was shattered by the death of his first wife, while he was taking the waters at Carlsbad with Leopold--though 18 months later he took a bride of 20 years, the daughter of an orchestral colleague. Then the prince followed suit. But, as Bach told a friend, the lady was an amusa. This did not mean that she was a comedian, but that she was opposed to the muses; i.e. she did not take kindly to the Finer Things. In other words, she was a flibbertigibbet, a party girl, the kind of person who infests my classes. The prince (out of love, to keep peace in the family, because he was unstable, who knows?) gave up his musical interests, and Bach, apparently unlamented, moved on to Leipzig in 1723.
The six sonatas recorded here almost certainly date from this period, though they went unpublished during the composer's lifetime and no original manuscript survives. William S. Newman (The Sonata in the Baroque Era) indicates there is some doubt about the sixth sonata with regard to its original form. There are two alternative versions, and the record includes the two differing slow movements--apparently for the first time. What is particularly interesting about all six is that Bach has written the keyboard part out in full, suggesting that we are at the turning point between the continuo-accompanied violin sonata and the violin-accompanied keyboard sonata.
The other selling point here is that the performers are much-admired apostles of current thinking about early music and original instruments. Again I quote the Penguin Guide: "Monica Huggett, one of the outstanding exponents of authentic performance and first violin of Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Soloists, plays with refined expressiveness in a beautifully unified conception of these six endlessly inventive works .... With excellent recording, detailed and well balanced, period instruments are presented most persuasively."