There have been composers who absorbed everything they could find of their predecessors and contemporaries, often making diverse and unique rearrangements of the originals. Some composers when young visited aged mentors at some sacrifice and risk. Some were born of musical families and passed that knowledge and inspiration to their offspring. More than a few took older forms and retranslated them into something new. Some looked at instrumentation and the tonal nature of audio representation and made an evolutionary step in how we express music. Some were prolific in a vast variety of genres. A handful has produced tunes many can whistle, as well as universally acclaimed titanic masterpieces. A couple has had their music shot into space as a calling card for other civilizations that there may be in the vastness of the universe. But only one person is all of those things, and so much more, and that is Johann Sebastian Bach.
For Haskell Small, coming once again to Bach makes elegant and perfect sense. Like so many composers and performers from the past, a return to Bach is no different than going back to a once-visited trail leading to a natural wonder: the sight has not changed, only the seer. Between Haskell’s previous account of the Goldberg Variations (released on 4-Tay Records CD 4028) and a semi-finalist spot in the J.S. Bach International Piano Competition, then on to his arrival at this decision to perform and record the Bach Partitas, a world has intervened. In that time and space, Haskell himself has explored alternate lands that illuminate his newest effort.
Whether it is his meditations on Japanese art and culture that harmonize with his own mastery of the ancient game of Go, his exploration of music that illustrates children’s stories, his synesthetic evocations of art by Renoir or Rothko, his expression of outrage at the ever-looming shadow of war; or indeed his longtime study of silence, how it was expressed in the mind and creativity of Federico Mompou, how one “sees” that silence in a Rothko painting, or “hears” it in poetry, as in his own Reflections on the Book of Hours; each of these, all of these, can only add another candle toward the illumination of Bach.
Haskell chose the Partitas for keyboard because they are “more extensive and more interesting” than some of the earlier keyboard works. They are the works of a mature composer – Bach was in his forties – and they were most remarkably published by him (this was very common for the typical working composer of the time, unique to Bach). He had put them out separately as Clavier-Übung, or “Keyboard Practice” (and that they are), and when they were collected together, he called it his Opus 1. To put this in context, by this 1731 publication, he had written hundreds of works in all forms: 150 cantatas alone.
So – what’s a partita? It’s best if we think of the evolution of the whole era we call “Baroque” (a miserable term that is insulting and inaccurate, but that’s a different essay) as an explosion of creativity and fun. Rebellious spirits like Monteverdi were creating entirely new artistic expressions, and basic ideas we associate with the time – moving our emotions through “affect” as we hear the notes in new combinations, a fountain and whirlwind of creators out of Italy across Europe (and composers and other artists coming on pilgrimage back to Italian capitals to study), extremes of drama, and color, and light, and grandeur in all the arts – only remind us we can unburden ourselves from the academic weight heaped on our acquired understanding of the time. Some modern commentators compare the musical kaleidoscope of that era to how jazz reached out to us in the 20 th century. There are many roots, many lights, many experiments that were worthy but failed, many creators, many detractors, and many exponents.
Let’s think about the basic clumps of material out there in those early decades of the 17 th century. There were things we sing, and they had names that evoked the voice: cantata, oratorio, even canzona, which means “song,” and is a term now associated with Gabrieli’s wondrous antiphonal instrumental works performed at San Marco in Venice. There are endless versions of variations on a theme, and those themes have continued to inspire over centuries. Like the L’homme armé tune gave us the basis for nearly 40 mass settings over a couple hundred years, and the Spanish tune La folia (which they now think is Portuguese, but never mind) has more than 150 different versions as of today, including some by composers who are still with us. A sonata (from “to sound”) was supposed to be anything not sung; it evolved into the catch-all description of a free composition not necessarily based on something else, but like everything else in the time there were no fixed standards and rules, despite what 19 th century German commentators most lamentably asserted.
Other things pop up: pieces that evoke animal sounds, long-form tributes to battles and hunts, elaborate party scenes with appropriate carnival merriment. Somber occasions, tributes to those who had passed, and religious events both tragic and joyous were recreated instrumentally. And, like so much music in the centuries before and the centuries since, there was dance. The fast and slow, sometimes romantic sometimes silly, happy and profound dances that came from the courts and from the country, were woven into those early musical works. Dances could be named for jumping or running, for the countries they may have come from, or even from how they spread to other lands as well. Is the jig English or Irish? Was the earliest sarabande we have actually notated in the New World, in what is now Panama? What we are sure of is that people danced, and everyone of every class loved dance music.
But now let us give a nod to one of those characters that gets some deserved credit for giving us an organizing principle: the Stuttgart-born Johann Jakob Froberger, born in 1616, who was a fine composer and keyboard artist. He was given a kind of scholarship to go to Italy to sit at the feet of the great Girolamo Frescobaldi in Rome, and spent years absorbing the effervescent Italian musical scene. For us, he is given credit for the arranging of dances in a pattern that he called Suites, and that became a kind of template for the form ever after. As always, there were others doing this work, but his many efforts were studied by generations of composers after him, so why not let him be the inventor here? And, as Stephen Johnson noted, with Froberger’s 1696 publication Diverse curiose e rare partite musicale there was a received realization that this thing was made up of “parts”, and “you can understand how a buyer, or user, might conclude that ‘partite’ were any kind of instrumental piece made up of connected sections or movements, and that the singular must – surely? – be ‘partita’.”
Not only did other Austrian and German composers embrace the idea – Heinrich Biber, wonderfully, or Johann Pachelbel, who knew Bach’s family well and was good friends with his elder brother – by the time Bach took the form as his own, it was a collection of fast and slow dances that was different from a sonata. The partita (or partia or parthia as the Germans had it) kept close to the key signature it was written in; the sonata took us on a journey through other keys and back. This is most evident in those solo violin works Bach wrote for Prince Leopold which he separated out into either partitas or sonatas.
For the keyboard works, it is a reminder of how Bach was a master of all notes and all keys. We range from the clarity of the first partita in the so-called Bach “home key” of B-flat, using that initial of his name, to the profundity of the last partita in the key of E minor, which Haskell Small suggests is not only the weightiest of the set, but is among Bach’s greatest keyboard pieces. So why another recording of these works? Going back to Wanda Landowksa in the mid-1930s (on that giant Pleyel harpsichord) or Rosalyn Turek more than 70 years ago, these two extraordinary Bach scholars and champions inspired the scores of keyboard artists after them to venture into these pieces.
There are unique challenges to each of the partitas, and there are many articles to that point. Artistic decisions have to be made: that “tempo di gavotte” in the last E minor partita has very tricky interplay in tempo between the right and left hand for example. Some have said it derives from Froberger himself, who would give us the same piece in different rhythms in different sources. Maybe some complexity comes from having some of the dances evolve from lute tablature (Froberger was exposed to many lute manuscripts as a young student, and Bach famously wrote for that instrument in his maturity). Whatever the cause, the decision has to be made by the performer: as an artist, whether to over-paint an earlier work.
In some cases, it can be a travesty. In Haskell’s case, it is a gentle brushwork that brings out the light and color from what was first on a printed page nearly three centuries ago. As with all great art, whether a stationary painting or sculpture, or a collection of delicately-interrelated musical ideas, there is a journey involved. If you know these works, welcome back. If they are not so familiar, this is an unusual pilgrimage through things that seem familiar, but come at us in surprising ways. Haskell Small is taking us to a once-visited trail leading to a natural wonder: the sound has not changed, only the listener.
Robert Aubry Davis