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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Johann Sebastian Bach

BORN: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany)

DIED: July 28, 1750. Leipzig

COMPOSED: The chronology and early performance history of Bach’s orchestral works is open to speculation. Many scholars date this piece to the period 1725-30; at that time, Bach lived in Leipzig, where it would have been premiered.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1955. Enrique Jordá conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2014. Ton Koopman led

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 oboes, bassoon, 3 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, and strings

DURATION: About 18 mins

THE BACKSTORY Orchestral suites were immensely popular in Germany during the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Georg Philipp Telemann claimed to have composed more than two hundred, and he probably did since some 135 fully survive. These suites went under various names; Partie (or Parthie) was perhaps the most common, but Bach called all four of his Ouvertures, the very spelling testifying to the emulation of French style that pervades the genre, if at a remove. Like his German contemporaries, Bach departed from the French practice by using a four-voiced strings-and-continuo ensemble at the heart of orchestration; the French standard, in contrast, had included five string parts, with three viola lines yielding a dense mid-range.

There is nothing wrong with using the popular term “orchestral suite,” but modern listeners should bear in mind that these works were actually written for forces that, from a modern perspective, were just coalescing into what we would recognize as an actual orchestra. Bach used the term orchestre on exactly one documented occasion, but it is not entirely clear what he meant it to express. When he applied to be granted the title of Saxon Court composer by Frederick August II, Elector of Saxony, in 1733, he included in his submitted materials a letter in which he pledged “tireless zeal in the composition of musique for the church as well as for the orchestre.” It is possible that he was using the term to refer to a section within a theater, quite similar to what is still today designated “the orchestra.”

This high-Baroque repertory typically follows a plan that had been established in the late-seventeenth century by French composers who assembled instrumental movements from their stage works into standalone suites. These usually began with a “French overture,” a two-part structure in which a moderately paced, attention-grabbing opening breaks into a quick, contrapuntal main section—and sometimes repeats the opening music to conclude. The suite then proceeded through a variety of pieces inspired by French court dances, collectively referred to as galanteries—courantes, sarabandes, minuets, bourrées, gavottes, gigues, passepieds, and so on. Such suites were popular as entertainment music, particularly in German courts with Francophile leanings, of which there were quite a few. That a number of such collections are identified by their composers as Tafelmusik (“Table Music”) underscores the role they sometimes played at formal banquets.

Bach’s production of only four seems paltry. It is possible that Bach wrote others that have been lost, but it seems nonetheless unlikely that orchestral suites were ever a major thrust of his enterprise. The fact is that his professional obligations nearly always centered on genres other than orchestral music.

The Second, Third, and Fourth of Bach’s orchestral suites may well have been written for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, of which Bach was leader. Performing parts of the Second and Third are known to have been copied out around 1728/29 and 1730 respectively, which lines up logically with the period during which Bach was affiliated with the Collegium. A complicating factor is that the first movement of the Ouverture No. 4, played here, figures, in an essentially identical but re-orchestrated version, as the opening movement of Bach’s Cantata No. 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which was first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Day of 1725. It’s an unusual setting for a Bach cantata opener, and on musical grounds it would seem that he adapted the cantata version from a pre-existing instrumental original. That has led to speculation that not just the opening movement but the entire work may date from sometime earlier than Christmas 1725, which would mean during Bach’s first two years in Leipzig.

THE MUSIC In its eventual form, the Ouverture No. 4 is an opulent achievement, calling for three trumpets and timpani in addition to three oboes, strings, and continuo. Bach makes cunning use of his forces, employing the woodwinds, the trumpets and timpani (working together), and the strings as essentially disparate groups sometimes playing in tandem and sometimes in very distinct opposition. Following the standard layout of an orchestral suite, this one opens with a French-style Ouverture in which oboes and strings wind in about each other in sustained lines. The trumpets and timpani add pomp and circumstance by superimposing sharply articulated punctuation over this harmonically dense writing. The meter breaks into triple time for the quick ensuing section, a rollicking gigue. This sprightly fugal expanse develops at considerable length through several episodes and then breaks into music that picks up the train of thought from the grand opening. Bach had followed established form by repeating his stately opening when he first presented it, and now he does the same with the second portion of the piece, which (to most intepreters) means revisiting the entire gigue-fugue and the grand closing music.

The suite continues through a selective series of stylized courtly dances: two bourrées, a gavotte, a pair of minuets. The two Bourrées (in rapid duple meter) are played in alternation but in a single expanse. The first of the pair leaps cheerfully, while the second is more mysterious, with the oboes’ tune being underscored by short, swirling figures in the strings; after that, the first Bourrée gets another go-round. A Gavotte follows, formal and foursquare. We proceed to a pair of triple-time Minuets, also in alternation, mirroring the structure encountered in the Bourrées. (Perhaps you perceive a general symmetry emerging in the layout of this suite.) Trumpets and timpani sit out this section, which yields a lighter texture of just woodwinds, strings, and continuo for Minuet I; and the instrumentation is reduced further for Minuet II, to merely strings and continuo. The concluding Réjouissance (Rejoicing) is not explicitly presented as a courtly dance, although it is certainly dance-like. Let us view it as a freely imagined instrumental conclusion in which rhythmic complexity is wed to sonic brilliance. —James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Ton Koopman leading the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)