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On the right, we have a famous painting of composer Johann Sebastian Bach.  My first thought when seeing that painting is, what a very big man to write such tiny, tiny music!  What is that, a napkin he composed on? I hope, for the sake of his eyes, that this painting is out of proportion.

This diary is about Bach but also, to a certain extent, about Pablo Casals. Casals was a world-famous cellist in the 1920s and 1930s.  Later in his career, he switched to conducting.  His recordings we have of him tend to be brilliant and often eccentric recordings.  Like this 1964 recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto #2, movement 1.

JS Bach Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major BWV 1047, Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals.

Intro

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This is the only recording of the Bach Brandenburg #2 that I would ever have considered using for a diary like this.  There are going to be huge differences in taste on matters like these, but I, personally, have never found a recording that stirred me as much.  I have this recording on beat-up LPs somewhere in my garage, but rather than be bitten by vermin looking for it, I ordered a new copy and uploaded it to Youtube.  

Casals brought an enormous energy to Bach, most obviously in the Brandenburg #2.

It's a strange thing that Bach's music can be as open to different interpretations as it is.  Romantic works of the nineteenth were expected to be open to wide personal interpretations, but even when they are, you often can't really NOTICE it as much as you can in the more abstract and formal works of Bach.   Last week I posted examples of Bach performed by Glenn Gould, one of the most famous personal interpreters of Bach; compare his version of Bach's Goldberg Variations to anyone else and you'll see how different they can be.

And a lot of people had their first exposure to Bach probably through an old and outdated album from around 1970 called Switched-On Bach, a synthesizer version of Bach created on the Moog Synthesizer (that was top of the line electronic gear back then, dudes) by Walter Carlos, later Wendy Carlos.  Walter/Wendy was transgender and came out sometime in the 70s. The synthesizer stuff of those days sounds boring to us now, but back then electronic was new and fresh.   I suppose everybody over a certain age still remembers Wendy Carlos's version of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3.  The final movement of BC#3 is most familiar to us from Clockwork Orange, but I can't find it to post.  I have a big gold star here for whomever can find it and post it in comments.

The other two movements of the Brandenburg Concerto #2:

JS Bach Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major BWV 1047, second movement, Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals.

JS Bach Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major BWV 1047, third movement, Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals.

But let's talk about Bach, for the moment.  

Just how well-tempered IS your clavier, Mr. Bach?

Bach's an interesting guy.  Even if you don't like his music, you have to recognize that this was a brilliant, brilliant man, one who received recognition during his time, but not all that he deserved.  Coming at the end of the Baroque period as he did, and coming as the Classical Period was beginning, his contrapuntal music was falling out of style.  By the end of the century, he was almost forgotten except amongst the musical intelligentsia.  It wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that Felix Mendelssohn began the Bach Revival with a series of concerts that reintroduced Europe to music that had gone unplayed.  To this day, there are still many works of Bach that we know existed from correspondence of the time but are lost forever, tossed out with the trash to make room for more Hummel figurines.  And we still occasionally hear of the discovery of unknown (and new to us) Bach fugues in attic chests destined for the Antique Roadshow.  Bach was just too cool for his time.


Bach's underground kind of cool expressed itself in a number of cryptic ways.  Literally cryptic.  For instance, there's the famous B-A-C-H motif that recurs in his music.  At a time when the B note was often called the H note, and B flat was called B, making a musical cryptogram out of his name was a kind of clever inside joke.  The Wikipedia entry on the Bach motif, where I snagged the above image, tells of the many works by Bach and by other composers since him who borrowed the BACH motif.  And other composers have borrowed the idea, using their own names for anagrams in their works.  Shostakovich and Schumann are two names who stand out for doing this.  The Schumann Piano Concerto, which we covered last year, was based on the musical cryptogram of his wife's name.

A little more clever is the inside joke of the Crab Canon, the source of at least one chapter in Hofstadter's book, Godel Escher Bach, the Eternal Golden Braid.  Plf515 wrote a series of diaries two years ago specifically about Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Bach's Crab Canon, with musical score

What's interesting about the Crab Canon, and you wouldn't know this unless you had the score and somebody TOLD you this, is that it's the same backwards as it is forwards.  The top musical line is the same as the bottom musical line, except it has been reversed.  Clever guy.  It doesn't make it SOUND better, really, but it's interesting to know how somebody like Bach entertained himself.

One of Bach's most famous works is the book called The Well-Tempered Clavier.  A clavier is a type of keyboard instrument, so we can translate that to piano.  And well-tempered refers to how well tuned it is.  Here's the first page of his book:

Notice all the cute little doodles at the top of the page?  How decorative, you say!  

So what does well-tempered mean, anyway?  Tempering refers to the tuning of an instrument.  Last year we did some diaries on the math relationships of the different notes of the scale.  One of the things we only briefly noted was that even though the musical ratio of sound frequencies from C to E, for instance, is 3 to 4, or that the ratio of C to G is 2 to 3, that in actual practice they can't be tuned that way.  If you did, you wouldn't be able to change key.

The easiest solution to this problem is to use what's called equal-tempering, where the ratio between notes is based on some factor of the 12th root of 2.  In equal-tempering, the ratio of C to E is not 3 to 4, but 1 to the 12th root of 2 to the fourth power.  If you remember grade school math, you know that square roots (and 12th roots) are called irrational numbers, not because they're crazy, but because they can't be expressed as a clean ratio of one whole number divided by another whole number.  Without a clean ratio between musical note frequencies, you don't get that perfect harmony.  

So equal-tempering is just one kind of compromise solution.  It turns out that there are other compromise temperings that work out well in practice but sound sweeter.  When Bach talks about a Well-Tempered Clavier, he is talking about one that is tempered with his own technique.  Just HOW he tempered his clavier is a very old matter of academic and scholarly dispute.

But back to those doodles at the top of the cover page...  How interesting they are.  Do you think...  Do you think...  COULD THEY BE A CLUE?

Indeed, there is a theory that the doodle at the top of the cover page of the Well-Tempered Clavier Mis a tuning guide, one that Bach's students would have understood.  A normal person would have probably added an appendix or forward explaining this shit in normal German, but not Bach.  A fuller explanation of Bach's doodly tuning system can be read here.

All of the above tells us that Bach had a "rich inner life."  It's not clear that any of this helps us enjoy his music more or makes it better.  It's interesting, though, to surf the highlights of his geeky weirdness as character profile material.  Read Hofstadter's book for even more examples.

The Concerto Grosso and the Ritornello

Before we get into the Bach Brandenburg Concerto#5, we should learn just what a Concerto Grosso is, the six Brandenburg Concertos being examples of this.  We know, of course, that a concerto has a soloist, like a violinist or pianist, playing in turn with or without the orchestra with distinct roles.  A Concerto Grosso is basically the same kind of animal, but instead of having a single soloist, there is a small group of soloists (called the concertino), and the two groups play off against each other in the same way a violinist plays off against the orchestra.  Each of the six Brandenburg Concertos was composed for a different set of concertino players.  For instance, in Brandenburg #5, which we will hear soon, the concertino consists of flute, violin, and harpsichord (piano in our recording).

I've been able to fake my way through most of this diary series by explaining classical music through the template of Sonata-allegro form.  In fact, that was my very first diary, our diary on Mozart's Magic Flute Overture.  The evolutionary tree of Sonata-allegro form is a big ol' hairy can of worms, not worth opening here, but we can trace it back in time to the earlier baroque form of the Ritornello.  Since Bach was a Baroque composer, I won't be able [sigh] to use my handy-dandy Sonata-allegro graphic.

How Ritornello form works

If you're up to an in-depth discussion of it, you can go here.  In some ways the Ritornello is similar to the Rondo form which Beethoven and Mozart and later composers were fond of.

Rondo form looks like this:  ABACADA  Where each letter represents a part of the music.  The A part is repeated in between the other B, C, and D sections.

Ritornello is kind of like that but a little more complicated.  The McMasters site uses this as an example:

A typical da-capo aria form with ritornelli would look like this:

--- r(I) A(I-V) r(V) A'(V-I) r(I)
--- B(vi)
--- r(I) A(I-V) r(V) A'(V-I) r(I)

Dumbo?  What the fuck is that mess?

Okay, I hear you, I hear you, I even anticipated this.  I'll walk you through it.  Remember, this is tagged as an educational diary!  In the above, the lower-case r is the ritornello section, the catchy "chorus" that repeats.  It's like the A section in a Rondo.  It's generally simple and catchy.  The complications ensue in the inner sections.   The roman numerals in parentheses is the key of the music at that point, where I is the home key.  So we begin with the ritornello section played in the home key, and we end that way too, if you look at the end.  After the first ritornello section, we have a contrasting A section that changes key.  (And in Bach's music, may change keys A LOT).  Then we get the ritornello section again, this time in the new key, then a variation (that's the ' thingie) on A, going back to the home key, then the ritornello again in the home key again.  Then comes a B section, which is totally different.  Then comes a repeat of the previous part.  It all ends with the ritornello again in the home key.  

If you had to memorize and regurgitate that, it might actually be as daunting as it looks.  But it's not, not when you listen to the music.  You can clearly hear in the music that it alternates between the catchy first part and a number of variations that get more complicated as they go.

Be prepared: It's in the complications that Bach excels.

Now let's break down the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto #5, just for fun!  This is the longest movement out of all six of the Brandenburg Concertos, and it's my favorite, mostly for the two very long solo moments.

JS Bach Brandenburg Concerto #5 in D Major BWV 1050, Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals. Recorded 1964

(0:0 to 0:22) The Ritornello section.  Get used to it.  It's pretty simple.  This is orchestra only.

(0:22 to 0:52) The first alternating section with the concertino playing.  It changes from the home key of D to A major.

(0:52 to 0:58) A shortened version of the ritornello section, now in A major.

(0:58 1:21) Second alternating section, very similar to the first.  It takes us from A to E major.

(1:21 to 1:28) The shortened ritornello.

(1:28 to 1:51) Third alternating section, getting more complicated.  It travels very quickly through many keys, so I'm not going try to keep track of them from here on.

(1:51 to 1:59) Shortened ritornello.  It has changed from a major key to a minor key.

(1:59 to 2:44) Fourth alternating section.

(2:44 to 2:53) Shortened ritornello.  Back to a major key again.

(2:53 to 4:48) Fifth alternating section.  And here it starts to starts to become more complicated.  Everything up until now has been, uh, interesting, but not mystical experience territory.  At 3:13, the rhythm changes, introducing new material.  At 3:21, it descends to a minor key and we enter a very tense section.  With the orchestra out of the picture, the piano holds a steady and tense rhythm while the violin and flute take turns.  The feeling here is one of motion, propulsion.  Like we're going somewhere.

At 3:51, the violin and flute change to a more punctuated motif, one that repeats as it moves downwards, downwards, downwards.  (I used this very section in my diary on the Circle of Fifths.)  It's actually interesting to see how far he can take this.  The long extension of this section and the absence of the orchestra combines to create a strong sense of tension and expectation.

At 4:26, it begins to rise again, the flute and violin playing long trills, as the piano moves into diminished chords, creating dissonance and a need for resolution...  Oh where is that resolution?  Where is it????  I need my resolution!!

(4:48 to 4:54) At last!  Resolution!!  Here we get an even shorter version of the ritornello.  You would be excused if you had the feeling that the movement was almost over, the climax having passed.  But it's not.

(4:54 to 5:17) The shorter short version of the ritornello is interrupted and coopted by the violin, with its own ornamented variation on the ritornello melody.

(5:15 to 5:16) An even shorter short-short ritornello, about one and a half seconds of it.  The orchestra barely gets to pipe up before the concertino interrupts with another alternating section.  What Bach has done here is whittle the ritornello down to a nub with each pass.

(5:16 to 5:45)  Ah!  This sounds familiar for a reason.  It's the same as the first alternating section.  This whole movement is in Ritornello form, but it feels like we are in a Sonata-allegro form recapitulation now.

(5:45 to 5:58) The longer form of the ritornello, played by the orchestra -- not as long as the first one, but almost.  

(5:58 to 6:31) Another alternating section, a repeat of the second one from earlier.

(6:31 to 6:38) Another ritornello, shortened.

(6:38 to 6:59) Another alternating section with new material.  We hear long runs up and down on the piano.  At the end, the orchestra enters for a brief second as if it wants to make a ritornello, but it doesn't get the chance.

(6:59 to 10:20) This is a long, section, the best part.  The violin and flute drop out completely, leaving the piano with a very long and very, very beautiful solo.  There is nothing quite like this in the other Bach Brandenburg Concertos, nor in any of Bach's other concertos, that I know of.  At 9:16 it really starts to go nuts.  The tension builds... builds... This is very like the cadenza moment in a Romantic period concerto.

(10:20) Ritornello!  The final one, and as complete as the very first time it was played.  The end.

Here is the second movement:

And the third/final movement.

That's all.  Sorry I'm so late publishing.  This is the latest I've been, but once I decided I was going to hell, I thought I might as well go in style.

UPDATE: Here is Pablo Casals in rehearsal for the recording that we heard above, telling the orchestra how the Brandenburg #5 should be played.  

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Jun 30, 2011 at 08:14 PM PDT.

Also republished by An Ear for Music, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.

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