The Galaxy – Celebrating Bach, Part 2

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), Polish harpsich...

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), Polish harpsichordist and pianist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, we continue our celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach by starting with another landmark recording.  Wanda Landowska was a true musical pioneer, a musicologist whose work helped revolutionize what we now might call the “period instruments trend”. Like many of the great musicologists, she was a critical writer whose opinions went in direct contrast with popular opinion of the day.  She had some rather interesting things to say:

We very rarely hear the genuine music of the Leipzig Cantor. We are compelled to listen to modernized Bach, arranged according to the musical fashions of today, approximated to the conditions of our time. We are within two centuries of Bach, nevertheless his epoch is ancient history vague and totally distinct from that in which we live, different in life, art, impressions and ideas. What we seek eagerly, what we like and what we admire, often did not find favor in those days.

Intensity of expression and breadth of sonority are the qualities now most sought after, most admired in every musical performance. Nevertheless these ideals of contemporary art were not in high favor two centuries ago. In prefaces to their works or in treatises on playing the harpsichord, the authors recommend above all, grace, finesse and precision. “Experience has taught me,” says Francois Couperin, “that the hands which are the strongest and capable of playing the most rapid passages are not those which succeed best in expressing tender sentiment.”  (This study was originally published in The Etude Music Magazine (September 1906): 562-3.  The quote was found at Polish Music Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 2003)

Wanda Landowska.

Wanda Landowska. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her life was just about as interesting as her work.  She was an innovator in the construction of new harpsichords, and she had works written especially for her by Francois Poulenc and Manuel de Falla.  She established the École de Musique Ancienne in Paris in 1925, and her home in St. Leu became a center for the study and performance of old music.  However, when the Nazis invaded France, Landowska (who was Jewish) had to flee France with her assistant and companion Denise Restout, leaving behind all her harpsichords and manuscripts (which were subsequently stolen).  She resettled in Connecticut, and was able to continue her work until her death in 1959.  It is largely thanks to Ms. Restout that her many writings have been translated and archived, and thus preserved for future generations.

As is natural when considering her interest in harpsichords, she had a special interest in the work of the great Baroque masters like Bach.  Her 1931 recording of the Goldberg Variations was the first ever attempt at recording that important keyboard masterpiece.  It is that recording that we hear tonight, as archived from the original 78 rpm recordings.  I find the sound quality to be quite spectacular, given that it was made in 1931.  All in all, a worthy musical experience.

Bass patterns from BWV 582/1, Passacaglia in C...

Bass patterns from BWV 582/1, Passacaglia in C minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Christe – Trio en passacaille from Messe du Deuziesme ton, by André Raison (c.1650-1719). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Goldberg Variations, we then heard the sole Passacaglia that Bach wrote. It is not known exactly when Bach wrote his Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, a situation that we have with many of Bach’s early works where the original manuscript is lost, a group which includes many of his organ works.  It is believed that the piece was written between 1706 and 1713.  As with all passacaglias, the work centers around a theme (possibly borrowed from André Raison  – the similarities are explored in the figure at right), which is stated with the bass pedals at the opening, at a length of 8 bars.  After the statement of the initial theme, the work explores a number of variations on the initial theme, 20 variations in all.  After the conclusion of the variations, the work immediately, without the usual pause, steps into a double fugue (a fugue with two subjects), again with the same initial melody serving as the starting point, but one can immediately tell where Bach swerves away from the original melody into new heights of organic bliss.  At one point the work becomes a permutation fugue.  The work was quite influential, with Robert Schumann describing it as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.”  Tonight’s recording is a 1979 recording by Peter Hurford.

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the passacaglia, we then heard the Musical Offering, BWV 1079.  The work was the result of a visit Bach paid to Frederick II, then King of Prussia.  During the visit, the king gave Bach a short theme, which Bach improvised into a three-voice fugue on the spot.  He also attempted to improvise a six voice fugue.  After this, Bach promised to set the fugue to paper and have it engraved in copper.  When Bach did this, he added to the royal theme (the “thema regium”) two ricercaris, ten canons, and a trio sonata in four movements.  One of the interesting points to the piece is that this is perhaps the only piece written by Bach for a new invention that the king was showing off, the piano (in its early form, the piano-forte).  The piece is also interesting in that it is written for a quartet combo of violin (changing over to viola from time to time), flute, viola da gamba, and keyboard, with the keyboardist from time to time switching from harpsichord to the new piano-forte.  Tonight’s recording is a 1999 edition by the combo of Gottfried von der Goltz (violin and viola), Karl Kaiser (flute), Ekkehard Weber (viola da gamba) and Michael Behringer (harpsichord and fortepiano).

We concluded the evening with a fragmentary cantata, Bach’s Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV50.  It is believed to be part of a larger cantata that was written for a special occasion, possibly Michaelmas.  The composition is unusual for Bach in that the instrumentation calls for two choirs and a large orchestra, and some scholars have suggested that Bach may in fact no have been the author (the suggestion has been quite controversial).  Tonight’s recording is a 1993 recording by Andrew Parrott, leading the Taverner Consort and Players.

Further reading:

  • Wanda Landowska – A 1996 article that focuses on the reminiscences of Denise Restout,  who was still living and teaching in Connecticut at the time (she passed away in 2004)
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