Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
SONATA NO. 2 IN A MINOR, BWV 1003
As with many influential figures throughout history, during the latter stages of JS Bach’s life opinions of his character and work had become polarised. In 1737, composer and theoretician Johann Adolf Scheibe openly criticised Bach in his weekly journal in the name of simplicity and melodiousness, accusing him of abusing overcomplicated counterpoint and harmonic structures in his music.
This great man would be the admiration of entire nations if he had more pleasantness, and if he did not allow a bombastic and confused style to suffocate naturalness in his pieces, or obscure their beauty through excessive artifice.
JOHANN ADOLF SCHEIBE
The criticisms levelled by Scheibe did not go without reply, and in the following year the virtue of JS Bach’s music would receive a thorough and academic defence from Johann Abraham Birnbaum, a professor of rhetoric at Leipzig University situated some 500m from St Thomas Church where Bach was employed at the time. The resulting dispute would become known as the Scheibe-Birnbaum affair and to this day is recognised as one of the most important documents regarding the reception of Bach’s music before his death.
Throughout his own research, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Matthew Greco has also formulated ideas regarding JS Bach’s music that are in stark opposition to those forwarded by Scheibe nearly 300 years ago:
As historical performers, it is our job to continually ask questions about the function of music in which we have chosen to specialise. In the case of JS Bach’s collection of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, we are dealing with works whose function is to portray all the richness of harmony and multi-voiced texture that is characteristic of Bach’s music, on an instrument that is primarily melodic. This approach makes it clear that Bach is pushing the violin to the limits of its technical and expressive capabilities. Once again when looking at function, Bach adds to this already considerable technical feat, the task of presenting these works in the model of the French and Italian dance forms.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
Although brief, the Allegro from Sonata No. 2 in A minor is sublime proof to the contrary of Johann Adolf Scheibe’s accusations. As the final movement of this sonata, Bach provides elegant relief for both listener and performer, leaving elaborate polyphonic writing behind and adopting a simple echo technique as indicated by his alternating dynamic markings – forte and piano.
Program Notes: Joanna Butler & Hugh Ronzani, 2020
Image Credit: Katelyn-Jane Dunn, 2020
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