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Tower + Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D, BWV 1050

I. Allegro

           On the patchwork map of the late Holy Roman Empire, Anhalt-Cöthen was one of the tiniest principalities, but, under its young prince Leopold, early in the eighteenth century, musically illustrious. Leopold had eighteen instrumentalists at his court; he also, between 1717 and 1723, had Bach to compose for them. Prince and composer seem to have enjoyed excellent relations – at least until the former got married and had less time for music. However, Bach evidently had an eye open for other prospects. Early in 1721 he prepared a splendid presentation copy of six concertos and sent it to a nobleman he had met a couple of years before: Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. This might have made some sense if the margrave had supported a superior musical establishment, but he did not, and probably had no opportunity to hear the music that has kept his name alive. Bach’s gesture seems particularly quixotic in view of the fact that Christian Ludwig’s great-nephew Friedrich Wilhelm had disbanded the court orchestra in Berlin, the family’s principal residence, and many of the players had come to Cöthen.

            In assembling the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach was probably drawing on works he had written before. This fifth piece of the set, with its important harpsichord part alongside solo flute and solo violin, may have been written to display the powers of an instrument the Cöthen court acquired in 1719 from the outstanding Berlin maker Michael Mietke. An alternative theory, prompted by the presence in the slow movement of a theme by the French organist-composer Louis Marchand, is that Bach wrote it in 1717, when he was due to take part in a contest of skills with Marchand in Dresden. (Marchand left town ahead of time.)

            Another intriguing speculation has come recently from the British scholar-performer Philip Pickett, in suggesting that the Brandenburg Concertos make a set of allegorical tableaux, the subject of No. 5 being the choice of Hercules between Virtue and Vice. Hercules, on this theory, is represented by the harpsichord, rapidly rotating ideas throughout the first movement and going into a long aria of consideration before dismissing Vice (the flute) in favor of Virtue (the violin). The hero’s decision is perhaps made difficult for him by the fact that Vice and Virtue so often say the same things, but such is life.

Joan Tower (b. 1938)

Big Sky

Tower wrote this piece in 2000 for the La Jolla Chamber Music Society. Her own note follows:

            “This slow seven-minute trio for violin, cello, and piano was intended as a companion piece to a short and fast trio entitled And… They’re Off (1997). The common subject of these two works is horses – namely racehorses. As a young girl – and like many young girls – I had an obsession with horses. When I was growing up in South America, my father bought me a racehorse. This was in Bolivia, where horses, even racehorses, were very cheap. I loved this horse and took very good care of it in our makeshift garage/stable. My obsession with horses continued into my teens when I learned to jump. More recently (and many years later), I found a partner whose main love is playing the horses!

            “Big Sky is a piece based on a memory of riding my horse ‘Aymara’ around in the deep valley of La Paz, Bolivia. The valley was surrounded by the huge and high mountains of the Andes range, and as I rode I looked into a vast and enormous sky. It was very peaceful and extraordinarily beautiful. We never went over one of these mountains, but if we had, it might have felt like what I wrote in this piece.”

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

II. Affettuoso

           Another slow trio follows, for, in the slow movement of his concerto, Bach lets the rest of the ensemble listen while the soloists play chamber music together.

In Memory

           Of this twelve-minute piece for strings – solo quartet or larger ensemble – Tower has noted: “The Tokyo String Quartet in 2001 commissioned this one-movement piece about death and loss, written in memory of one of my friends, and later, of those who died in the September 11th terrorist attacks.”

String Quartet No. 5 “White Water”

           Tower was one of four composers commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay to contribute to its “Arc of Life” project, for which the stimulus came from Bill Viola’s video installation Going Forth by Day, of 2002. Her piece was first performed by the Daedalus Quartet in April 2012.

            “When I saw Viola’s work,” she has remarked, “I was quite fascinated with how he used water as an encompassing image which influenced everything I saw about the ‘person’ inside the water. My piece is not directly associated with what he specifically did, but it does have a strong connection to the image of water as a powerful basic idea and action. The man glissandos hopefully create a ‘fluid’ environment that connects the various ideas and registers together, while ‘white water’ somehow implies more rapid ‘cascading’ types of action which occur throughout the piece.”

            Playing continuously for twenty minutes, the quartet starts with the viola slowly introducing one of the main motifs: a rising scale. This grows as it is repeated, until it careers upwards in glissandos. The entry of the first violin brings a faster pace and a dynamic rhythm, short-long-short-long, soon broken by more glissandos and a return of the scale motif, with cascades. A short passage of calm for the two middle instruments (almost “white-note” music) is followed by a rush of activity into a cello solo that restores the scale idea and lifts to a D on which everyone can agree. However, the short-long-short-long rhythm is soon reintroduced, and its energy moves the music into racing triplets, punctuated by and eventually combined with glissandos. When a new resting place has been found on E, the first violin lifts away on the scale idea to a super-high solo that builds tension released in another race, at first with the instruments in rhythmic unison. This texture disintegrates into a long rush of trills, small circlings, and tremolos that slow down into the work’s most sustained stretch of smooth water, though with urgent flow implicit. Falling out of euphony, the instruments are then set racing again. Another slowing brings back the scale, rising in broad octaves to a last bubbling torrent and a spacious close.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

III. Allegro

Finally, Virtue, as it might be, leads everyone in a gigue, a kind of lively dance that commonly provided the last number of a suite.