BACH FLUTE WORKS
Some of Bach’s most beautiful and fascinating music involves the flute as a prominent soloist, yet much of this has been the source of disputes about its original purpose, instrumentation and, in some cases, authenticity. Perhaps this was not surprising, given that the transverse flute was new to Bach’s area of Germany and he did not write for it until he was well into his thirties. But no instrument became more fashionable with professionals and amateurs alike, the ideal medium for the modish galant idiom. It allowed a greater range of expression, dynamic and projection than the standard ‘flute’ (what we would call ‘recorder’), which still remained a major member of the baroque instrumentarium. Much of the popularity of the transverse flute must have lain in the enthusiasm of royal patrons, trying to emulate the latest fads of the French court, and Bach’s earliest surviving work for it is probably the cantata in honour of ‘his’ prince at Cöthen, ‘Durchlauster Leopold’ (c.1717). This was closely followed by the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which also featured solo violin and an elaborate harpsichord part (another ‘first’ for its time). Given the degree of variety that the Brandenburg manuscript seems intended to display, the flute sonority was clearly seen as a special treat, something distinct from the recorder that is used in two of the other concertos. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that all the surviving flute parts that are unequivocally written for Cöthen are relatively modest, as if the players concerned were new to the instrument. It seems clear that the majority of his flute music in the more elaborate sonata and concerted styles is for far more advanced players and therefore from rather later in his career.
Once Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 he became ever more closely associated with the Saxon court at Dresden, finally achieving the status of honorary, non-resident Capellmeister by 1736. It was here that the great French flautist, Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, had arrived in 1715 and remained for over thirty years. Not only was he the single most important figure in introducing the French fashion for the transverse
flute to German courts, he was also the teacher of the most significant flautist of the age, Johann Joachim Quantz, who was soon to dominate the flute culture of the Berlin court. Here Fredrick II (‘The Great’) acceded to the Prussian throne in 1740; he was the most avid amateur flautist of the era and became a magnet for the most celebrated professionals. Even Bach paid tribute in the last years of his life, performing in front of the king and then presenting The Musical Offering, which included a trio sonata in modern style including a demanding part for flute. It is perhaps not surprising that Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel – who features strongly in the sources of his father’s flute sonatas – was already an employee at Fredrick’s court.
It is difficult to dispute Bach’s authorship of the sonatas with obbligato keyboard part (originally harpsichord), in B Minor (BWV 1030) and A Major (BWV 1032). But even these undisputed works are not without their questions. The A major Sonata, BWV 1032, which Bach strangely copied on the spare staves in the autograph of a double harpsichord concerto, lacks a substantial part of its first movement (it may well be that the composer excised it, intending to replace and improve it), so it is necessary to reconstruct this from musical materials elsewhere in the piece. The sequence of keys (all in A, with the minor mode for the central movement) is highly unusual, implying that the outer movements were originally in C (for a different melody instrument?). The work exemplifies the ‘sonata in the concerted manner’, in which the modular style of Vivaldi’s concertos is applied to just two instruments to evoke a much grander, public sort of music. The concerto’s distinction between full orchestra and soloist is translated into a stimulating dialogue between the two instruments, working as equal partners (and with the harpsichord additionally providing the bass line, which supports the entire texture).
The B minor Sonata, BWV 1030, preserved in a beautiful manuscript from the 1730s, derives from a work in G minor (transposition mistakes in the manuscript give the game away). Although this may well have been a violin sonata, it works supremely well for flute, with close-knit figuration that invites subtle tonguing patterns. The harpsichord again acts as an equal partner in what is one of Bach’s most complex developments of the concerto idiom: the range of melodic material and associated effect in the first movement is highly unusual and beguiling, yet the musical ideas are always supremely integrated. The central movement, based around the lilting siciliano style, has been lavishly ornamented with a sense of spontaneity that still sounds fresh in modern performance; it is as if something of Bach’s own performances comes alive in the present. The final movement is in two parts, the first rather solemn and fugal (‘church style’?), the second an extremely energetic gigue. In its combination of concerto elements with dance, lyricism and intimate detail, this sonata is very much the partner of the orchestral suite in B minor and may perhaps have been conceived with the same performers in mind.
The ‘Ouverture’ (Orchestral Suite) II in B Minor has traditionally been assigned to Bach’s Cöthen years 1717–23, but both the sources and the style of the music suggest that it was composed in the mid-Leipzig years. Joshua Rifkin has suggested that, together with the early version of the B Minor Flute Sonata, it shows something of the influence of Bach’s cousin, Johann Bernhard, in the years closely following his taking over of the direction of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum in 1729. Some of the movements show traces of an earlier version from around this time, most likely in a different key (probably A minor) with a different solo instrument (probably violin), but certain features – the solo flute, the most popular royal instrument, and the inclusion of a Polonaise – have led at least one commentator to affirm that the work in its present state was compiled in honour of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony. He like his father became King of Poland (a position that he did not acquire automatically on his accession in 1733, but for which he had to be elected, as ‘Augustus III’). Thus, all things Polish were popular in Saxony as a whole and it is likely that Bach, as honorary Capellmeister, was keen to pay tribute with a suite that involved a prominent concerted flute part. If this hypothesis (for which there is nothing more than circumstantial evidence) is correct, it would date in its current form from after 1736 (manuscript evidence points to 1738–9). It is certainly possible that Bach had the Dresden flautist Buffardin in mind, but the evidence of the flute writing in Bach’s cantatas from around 1730 onwards suggests that the indigenous Leipzig players were achieving remarkable results on the new instrument.
Nowhere else in his four overture-suites did Bach achieve such a subtle blend of styles and genres: the opening movement combines the traditional French overture with the Italianate concerto idiom. The dance movements achieve the necessary lightness and grace required of practical dance music without ever forsaking musical quality. Indeed it is a particular feature of Bach’s genius that he managed to achieve such simple and inevitable movements with the most complex of musical language: the graceful Sarabande employs a strict canon between soprano and bass lines; the melody of the Polonaise forms the bass line of the Double. Even the Badinerie (spelled ‘Battinerie’ in the original sources), the nearest Bach ever came to composing a musical soufflé, has a complex texture and a subtle phrasing; every note plays its part in the sophisticated motivic argument.
If the canon of music that Bach wrote from the outset for flute is surprisingly small, the Solo Partita in A minor seems to be an original composition for solo flute. While it is possible that it was written in the Cöthen years, its sources date to the early Leipzig period. It seems to belong together with the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and the suites for solo cello, as if part of a pedagogical library of works designed to stretch the technique of a range of instrumentalists (the ClavierÜbung for keyboard may show the same impulse). Certainly, many of Bach’s Leipzig musicians were expected to be masters of more than one instrumental family. The municipal musicians (the Stadtpfeifer) were more than ‘town pipers’, often playing woodwind and strings too, and Bach’s testimonial for the university student, F.G. Wild, shows that the boy was expert in composition, flute and harpsichord. In all, then, it is probably fatuous to assume that a work of this difficulty was specifically intended for a virtuoso at the level of Buffardin and Quantz, although they were certainly an inspiration to many of the younger players of the time. Right from the opening Allemande, the Partita (merely named ‘Solo’ in the sources) seems to challenge the very basis of flute playing by allowing virtually no breathing-space in a continuous flow of notes. Yet the various melodic nuances seem extremely well suited to the tuning and tonal spectrum of the instrument. The Corrente takes the sense of perpetual motion a stage further while also challenging the performer with its leaping character. After this, the Sarabande capitalises on the flute’s affettuoso character, with its ability to shade sighing gestures, which could equally be suited to love or sorrow. Finally, the Bourrée angloise provides one of Bach’s rare attempts at imitating an English style that he probably never knew at first hand. But there is no doubting that Bach has somehow grasped the character of a country-dance style, rounding off a remarkable collection that seems to traverse much of western Europe yet uniting them within the one remarkable style.
In all, this collection of flute music provides a fascinating insight into Bach’s activity as musician, composer and commentator on the fashions of his age. While most of the music represents his ‘standard’ compositional attitudes at the highest possible levels – and regardless of instrumental medium – there is also strong evidence here of his working with a range of local performers, providing music that suited several levels of technique and style. Even if much of this music was not originally written for flute, it seems designed to capitalise on the very efforts that any instrumentalist would be required to bring to it and virtually all of it seems to suit the flute perfectly. He probably did not insist on the same level of musical uniqueness that we often like to attribute to him and, in adapting his style to the popular fashions of his age, he was clearly open to new influences, particularly the new galant style. Yet his music never lacks rigour or panders to passing fads; we always sense that all the components have been experienced or at least anticipated by the composer as part of a real act of musical listening and participation in the sounds of the day.