Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 10: Remarks by Reginald Sanders, performance by Infusion Baroque
Hello, my name is Reginald Sanders and I’m professor of music at Kenyon College. Today, I have the distinct pleasure of introducing an historically informed performance of Carl Philipp Emanual Bach’s Trio Sonata in A major for Flute, Violin, and Basso Continuo, Wq 146. This work will be performed by the four talented women of the ensemble Infusion Baroque.
Born in Weimar, Germany, in 1714, C. P. E. Bach, as he is often known, is the second oldest surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He was four years younger than his brother Wilhelm Friedemann, who was also an accomplished musician.
The Trio Sonata in A major was originally composed in 1731, when Bach was a student at the university in Leipzig. The work survives, however, only in a revised version from 1747, during the period in which Bach was in the service of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who was a great lover of music and accomplished flutist. Frederick maintained a residence at Park Sanssouci in Potsdam near Berlin, and in the smaller of the Park’s two castles, Schloss Sanssouci, there is a music room in which Frederick performed on flute with Bach at the keyboard, as depicted in this 1852 painting by Adolf Menzel. It’s possible that Frederick and Bach performed the work you’re about to hear in this very room.
As a composer, C. P. E. Bach was imaginative, inventive, and experimental. These qualities are seen most especially in his keyboard music, but also in his chamber works, and among his most important chamber works are the trios. The term “trio” refers not to the number of performers but to the number of obbligato parts—the number of parts essential to the texture. Bach composed trios of two types in roughly equal numbers. The first type involves one treble instrument and keyboard (where the keyboard contains two parts) and the second type involves two treble instruments and basso continuo, like the work you’re about to hear. A trio sonata with basso continuo actually requires four performers, not three, because two musicians are needed on the basso continuo.
I’ll explain further using this image of the first page of the score to the Trio Sonata in A Major, which is in Bach’s own hand. You’ll notice the top line for flute, the middle line for violin, and the bottom line for the basso continuo. The basso continuo is notated using figured bass, which consists of bass notes and figures, such as those near the asterisk in the image. The figures indicate the notes to be played at the designated intervals above the bass notes. Two performers are required to realize the figured bass because one musician plays the bass notes on a bass instrument, such as a cello, and the other musician plays the bass notes and improvises the notes indicated by the figures on an instrument capable of playing chords, such as a harpsichord. If you’re thinking this sounds a little like the rhythm section of a jazz ensemble, there are some similarities.
Bach also created a version of the Trio in A Major as the other type of trio—that is, for violin and keyboard. In this version, the keyboard part, which survives in a copy in Bach’s hand, consists of the bass part in the left hand and the flute part in the right hand. Perhaps you will one day see a performance of the work in this configuration—or even in a configuration for flute and keyboard.
The Trio Sonata in A Major begins with a moderately fast opening movement marked “Allegretto,” followed by a slow movement marked “Andante,” and concludes with a fast movement marked “Vivace.” The opening and closing fast movements are in binary form: they consist of an A section, which is repeated, followed by a B section, which is also repeated. In both movements, as you will hear, material from the A section returns in the B section, giving these movements qualities we associate with the rounded binary form.
Like many of Bach’s works, the Trio Sonata in A Major is stylish and witty in a manner that’s unique to Bach. In the fast outer movements, the flute and violin frequently engage in imitation, exchanging charming, playful melodies enlivened on occasion by triplet figures. In the slow middle movement, the interplay involves enticing, beguiling melodies, and throughout Bach weaves compelling polyphonic textures, inviting you to glimpse the world of his musical imagination.
Thank you for listening, and now please enjoy the lovely performance of this work by Infusion Baroque.