Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 5: Remarks and performance by Rebecca Cypess (Rutgers University)
Hello, my name is Rebecca Cypess. Thank you very much for joining me for this discussion and performance of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's Concerto in G major for solo keyboard, Falck number 40. The piece dates to about 1740 but was revised around 1775, and it is this later version that I'll be playing. I'd like to discuss a few interesting features of the piece and also to give you a quick introduction to this lovely instrument, which I'll be using to record the piece, and which has been generously loaned to me by Leslie Martin. The instrument is an original 18th-century square piano made in 1780 by the London-based builder Johannes Zumpe, or "Zum-pee," a German immigrant who perfected and popularized the so-called square piano. In the early 1800s, the music historian Charles Burney wrote that Zumpe "constructed small pianofortes of the size of the virginal, of which the tone was very sweet, and the touch, with a little use, equal to any degree of rapidity"--that is, the rapid repetition of notes. Burney continued: "These, from their low price and the convenience of their form, as well as the power of expression, suddenly grew into such favor that there was scarcely a house in the kingdom but was supplied with one of his pianofortes."
This instrument has a beautifully resonant sound; the strings reverberate and echo even after the dampers have supposedly muted them. And that's a feature that English builders and players tended to favor. In addition, this instrument has damper-raising pedals that allow the sound to reverberate even more richly. This creates a dreamy, almost ethereal sound that I enjoy very much, and I'll use these pedals extensively in the second movement of the concerto, as you'll hear in a few moments. While this is an English instrument, and not a German one, there were square pianos made in Germany as well by the mid-18th century. We can imagine, perhaps, that Wilhelm Friedemann's brother, Johann Christian Bach, who lived and worked in London from 1762 on and who was involved in the distribution of square pianos, might have played his brother's music on an instrument such as this one.
A few words about the concerto itself. It might seem unusual for a piece called "concerto" to be played by solo keyboard; we normally think of concertos as pieces for orchestra with one or more soloists. But for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the term did not denote instrumentation; rather, it referred to the form of the piece, especially the form of its outer movements. You'll hear in the first movement of this work, for example, that there's an opening statement of a thematic material, a ritornello, that ends with a cadence after about 15 or 20 seconds. Then the first episode begins. The episode is a section that involves thematic development and modulation to a new key. This kind of exchange between ritornellos and episodes is characteristic of concertos from the Bach family. If this were a concerto with orchestra, then the orchestra would play the ritornellos and the soloist would play the episodes, but this form can be found in pieces in a variety of instrumentations, and Friedemann scored this work for keyboard instrument alone.
Overall, the piece partakes of the so-called "empfindsamer Stil," or the "sentimental style," of which both Friedemann and his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel were chief proponents. This style is characterized by quick changes of character and melodies that sound abrupt, fragmented, or quixotic. The purpose of this style was the seemingly natural expression of emotions. In the slow movement, you'll hear the empfindsamer Stil manifested in a beautiful, expressive melody played by the right hand, while the left hand accompanies it with a pulsating heartbeat figure.
The image of the heartbeat may explain one other fascinating aspect of this concerto. The composer adapted the second movement by making it into a song set to an anonymous text whose first line is "Herz, mein Herz, sei ruhig," or "heart, my heart, be at rest." Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's autograph bears the subtitle "Cantilena Nuptiarum," or "wedding song." Dr. Peter Wollny, director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig, has posited that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach made this adaptation as a wedding gift for his only student in Berlin in the last decade of his life, the Jewish keyboardist and salon hostess Sara Levy, whose family was deeply invested in the Bach tradition. While this suggestion cannot be definitively proven, the fact that Friedemann adapted this movement as a song demonstrates his understanding of it as a vehicle for sentimentality, and a rhetorical form of expression. I'm delighted to be able to share this beautiful piece and this remarkable instrument with you. Thank you for listening.