Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas for flute

 

by Anja Weinberger

From “father” Bach there are many sonatas for us flutists and you can sort them in different ways.

In any case, the following is a very practical division:

3 sonatas for flute and b.c. [1] – 4 sonatas for flute and obbligato [2] harpsichord – 4 trio sonatas for flute, violin and b.c. or 2 flutes and b.c. – one partita for flute alone.

Or one distinguishes between “quite certainly” by Bach and “perhaps or perhaps not” by him – that is already more complicated.

Or – the third variant – one weighs between “I like” and “I don’t like”. In my case this is quite simple, because then the score is 12:0.

Bach’s sonatas for flute are very different; in terms of playing technique, they lie between “can also be played by students” and “a challenge every time”. Accordingly, I have been playing some of them since my early days as a flute student and some others have only been in my repertoire for a few years (this includes above all the highly complex trio sonata from the “Musical Offering”).

There is also a lot in terms of keys. There are works in C major, A minor, G major, E minor, B minor, D major, A major, E major, G minor, C minor and E flat major. This is quite a wide field and not necessarily common in the baroque repertoire. And this wonderful variety shall now be examined more closely.

The first Bach sonata I played as a girl was the Sonata in C major for flute and b.c. BWV 1033.

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It consists of four very different movements and is one of the sonatas that was almost certainly not written by Johann Sebastian Bach himself. The attribution goes back to the son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the work can be found in a copy by him in the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin. In terms of content, the little sonata hardly seems adequate to the “great” Bach, but it is very grateful for us flutists. Conjectures as to how the work might have been composed vary widely. Some think that it is actually a solo work without accompaniment (perhaps by Carl Philipp or some composer from the area) and that Bach commissioned one of his students to play a b.c. accompaniment for practice purposes. Others suspect that Bach or one of his pupils or he together with a pupil tried to imitate Albinoni’s style. Bach had studied Albinoni’s compositional style. This would also explain the unusual number of continuous semiquavers. The first movement Andante – Presto is a harmonically not very varied, but flutistically and melodically interesting and virtuosic set piece. In the second movement Allegro the flutist can show what fluency means: 48 measures (plus repetition) full of semiquavers. The third movement Adagio is also reminiscent of an Italian Adagio with its beautiful written-out ornaments. The fourth movement, a Minuet, unlike the first three movements, has a written-out harpsichord part, i.e., no basso continuo part, which is really peculiar. To my mind, this also points to a pedagogical approach to the composition. In the end, however, it is simply a beautiful work that I enjoy playing – sometimes as a solo sonata, but mostly with accompaniment.

The next sonata I came across is the Sonata in E major BWV 1035.

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I played its first and second movements as a young girl at “Jugend musiziert” and since then E major has been my favorite key. [3] Bach wrote this work for the “Privy Chamberlain Fredersdorff” who was employed at the court of Frederick the Great. The E major sonata was written between 1741 and 1747, when Johann Sebastian visited the Potsdam royal court more frequently to see his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was earning his living there as a harpsichordist. It is thus a rather late work of the baroque genius and expresses for me a broad spectrum from melancholy to pathos to genuine sadness. The first movement Adagio ma non tanto is as ravishingly beautiful as the second movement Allegro is idiosyncratic.

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The third movement, Siciliano, is a tenderly melancholy (faux) canon between flute and bass in C-sharp minor, and the fourth movement is again an Allegro, even more startling than the previous, even more brittle, never really joyous but rather restrainedly brisk. All four movements are technically difficult, not necessarily fingering-wise, but intonationally and tonally. [4] The movements are not very long and so perhaps show a borrowing from the gallant style prevalent at court.

Quite different is the Sonata in E minor for flute and b.c. BWV 1034.

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It was probably composed after 1720 in Köthen or at the beginning of Bach’s Leipzig period. It is not certain for whom this highly virtuosic work was composed. It is conceivable that Bach had Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin in mind, the then famous flutist of the Dresden court orchestra. All four movements (Adagio man non tanto, Allegro, Andante, Allegro) are expansive, forceful, with large arches and full of deep seriousness. To me, this sonata shows itself most clearly of all in its German late Baroque guise. The Adagio ma non tanto is reminiscent of Crucifixus movements, but at the same time offers comfort and confidence. Not easy to interpret for a younger person, who of course perceives the technical difficulties and perhaps often chooses too slow a tempo. The two fast movements are tightly woven, the flute and basso continuo playing off each other and swinging up into sometimes longer, sometimes shorter intense arcs. It is by no means an accompaniment to the flute part contributed by harpsichord and cello, but partners at eye level. It is a pity that in all recordings that can be found on the net, the flute part pushes into the foreground. A jewel is the third movement. A single almost infinite melody is sung there. It spreads out, amazingly, in G major, over a six-bar basso ostinato, and has something comforting, sometimes upbeat, and always contemplative. Very demanding is this sonata, and it demands a great deal of the player. The movements are long, few pauses only allow time to catch one’s breath, the many low passages consume energy, and many and long sixteenth note passages until the very end in the fourth movement require concentration throughout. It took many years of practicing before I felt I could put the E minor Sonata on the program.

The same applies, of course, to the Partita in A minor for flute alone BWV 1013.

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This extraordinary work of flute literature is probably one of Bach’s first works for flute and was composed after 1718 in Köthen. Only by chance was this work discovered in 1917 by the then Thomaskantor Karl Straube at the end of a copy of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin. A “partita” differs from a sonata in its sequence of movements. As in the suite, dance movements are strung together in the partita. In the case of the A minor Partita, these are an Allemande, followed by a Corrente, a Sarabande and a Bourrée Angloise.

In the first movement, the challenge is apparent at first sight. Sixteenths as far as the eye can see. Where to breathe, can you breathe more often than you actually want to phrase, do you breathe up-beat or rather full-beat?

Our Allemande is notated in 4/4 time, which, in contrast to 2/2 time, indicates slower execution. But this refers to the quarters to be imagined and then the sixteenths are just fast or even faster. All not so simple. But once you have seen land, you can’t get away from the Allemande. Probably every flutist has experienced that amazing and addictive moment when you think you are creating harmonies and not just single notes. The second movement is simply difficult if one wants to play it at a tempo appropriate to a corrente. Lots of big intervals, lots of broken chords, and an opening motif where you don’t quite know where it’s going. But once you get a handle on it, this movement, you feel like you’re in a big, flowing stream. Then the third movement, the only really slow one. Care must be taken here not to miss the Sarabande character, for our Sarabande has neither dotted rhythms to offer nor many leaps. Quite the opposite – it is rather linear, with many scale elements and lovely turns. It quickly becomes too slow, because one wants so much to savor this glorious melody. And then the fourth movement, a real bouncer. It should sound cheerful, uncomplicated and cheerful. One suspects it already, one or two things stand in the way, but in spite of everything, this Bourrée is the easiest of all four movements to master. In many other partitas, the Bourrée is followed by a Gigue. Unfortunately, there is none here, what a pity!

Four sonatas for flute and obbligato harpsichord are more or less certainly attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach. This form with obbligato harpsichord is a new development of the time, probably originating from the trio sonata and promoted by the desire to give the harpsichord more life of its own. In most cases, Bach rewrote his own trio sonatas for this purpose, integrating one of the solo parts into the harpsichord part and thus giving the harmonic instrument a new, more important role. Two of the sonatas, the one in G minor (BWV 1020) and the one in E-flat major (BWV 1031), were probably written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and not by his father (and teacher) Johann Sebastian, because stylistically they point to the new era of the galant and sensitive style. It was not unusual for students to seek advice from their teacher and then, out of deference, not to publish the work under their own name. Both sonatas are in three movements, each with a particularly beautiful slow middle movement and corner movements, all of which are catchy. Interestingly, in the first movement of the G minor sonata, the harpsichord and flute sound their own thematic material, which the other instrument does not adopt.

The (authentic) A major Sonata for flute and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1032 is presumably based on a trio for flute, violin and b.c. in C major. Its first movement is unfortunately missing a large part and this fact complicates the overall presentation of the work. For presumably the first movement was intended to be in a three-part form similar to the third. A light, clear frame is filled by a darker, more complex middle section. This structure is not representable in the opening movement, one would like to play only original notes and so the movement balance gets a little confused. But ultimately, through this very abbreviated first movement, one more quickly has the pleasure of making acquaintance with another of Johann Sebastian Bach’s slow marvels. The Largo e dolce is one such, and it is not uncommon for this slow movement of all things to be requested as an encore.

And then there is the Sonata in B minor for flute and obbligato harpsichord

BWV 1030. The autograph fair copy of the sonata, one of the most beautiful from Bach’s pen, dates from the late 1730s. The forms of the three movements seem like a compendium of late Baroque compositional art.

The first movement Andante is a mixture of a concerto movement and a sonata movement – highly complex in voice leading and powerful in sound and harmony. In the middle movement Largo e dolce Bach imitates a Siciliano, i.e. an aria type of Italian opera. And the third movement Presto adds something more. It begins as a three-part fugue in 2/2 time and ends in a highly virtuosic 3/8 guigue. Only Bach can summarize all the major forms of his time within just under 20 minutes and still not give the impression of a textbook. The B minor Sonata is a marvel – with high demands on the condition of the musicians, because it not only demands strength and condition in principle, but is also unusually long.

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The Trio Sonata in C minor BWV 1079 from the “Musical Offering also fits into this series. Bach’s collection of the most diverse ricercare and canons belong to his late contrapuntal work and contains a trio sonata for flute, violin and b.c. at the end. This sonata, like the entire collection, is based on a theme suggested – presumably – by Frederick II. In the four movements of the sonata, Bach, who was already old at the time, paid homage to the king’s taste in a sophisticated manner. He combined in an inimitable way the gallant style of the Berlin school of composition with his own contrapuntal art. In the first movement, Largo, one hears a close-knit dialogue between flute and violin over a steady bass in which one can only glimpse the royal theme. The melodic writing is interspersed and exaggerated with trills, sliders and other ornamentation, Bach thoroughly supplying the flute king’s penchant for such flourishes with beauty. The second movement Allegro is a monumental elaboration of the royal theme in triple counterpoint. Highly complex in voice leading, melody and harmony, one would prefer to hold one’s breath as a listener so as not to miss anything. The third movement, Andante, was inspired by the exalted melodic style of the Berlin court composers around Frederick II, one of whose main representatives was Bach’s own son Carl Philipp Emanuel. However, Bach senior does not seem to take this manner entirely seriously, for the sighing figures come across as all too exaggerated. But even a perhaps caricaturing Bach is a great Bach. The finale, an Allegro, shows us the Royal theme once again, wrapped in a Gigue. Rhythmically full of pitfalls and playfully highly complex, the flautist Frederick II probably failed at this movement. He was said to have difficulty keeping the tempo and was not quite as rhythmically saddle-fast as he was on the battlefield. We flutists don’t care, because the Royal Theme has given us a trio sonata that is second to none – and not to be found.

Johann Sebastian Bach composed quite a bit more for flute. There are another three trio sonatas BWV 1037 – 1039, all very different and with flexible instrumentation, as was common in the Baroque period. They can be played with 2 flutes, or with 2 violins, or with flute and violin. Also in Bach’s cantata works, the flute often appears as an obbligato instrument. And of course there are the Brandenburg Concertos and the Triple Concerto in A minor with their diverse instrumentations, which also include the transverse flute of the time. The last work mentioned here is the Ouverture [5] in B minor BWV 1067 for flute, strings and b.c.. From it comes the so famous Badinerie.

Bach’s literature for flute was written over a long period of time, and one must always keep this in mind when holding today’s editions of the sonatas in one’s hands. There usually follows in one volume the E major sonata directly after the E minor sonata and one is surprised again and again and again how differently one and the same composer can write. We can consider ourselves lucky that Johann Sebastian Bach always found an occasion to compose for flute.

Footnotes
1 … From “Cultural Stories – Not Only for Flutists”: The continuo or basso continuo (b.c.) forms the foundation and harmonic framework beneath the melody line. It is notated in single notes with one or more numbers placed underneath, indicating to the skilled player which chord is to be played. The basso continuo can be played, for example, by an organ, spinet, lute, harpsichord, guitar or harp, in short, by a harmony instrument. Normally, the bass line, i.e. the harpsichordist’s left hand, is amplified by a bassoon or a cello. Thus we find ourselves in this peculiar situation of a duo of three. It is the same with trio sonatas with b.c.: four musicians play three voices here.

2 … Ibid: “What is an “obbligato instrument”?

Usually such instruments appear together with the vocal part. An obbligato instrument takes on a second solo voice for a set period of time, playing around the vocal, competing with it, and supporting it. “Obligate,” meaning “indispensable” or “independent,” also means that the voice cannot be omitted under any circumstances. For with the other accompanying instruments, one was more flexible there in the Baroque – just depending on the situation and available musicians.”

In the case of the harpsichord, it should be added that an obbligato voice is a “finished” voice, i.e., it should not be further embellished or harmonically altered.

3 … For non-flutists: E major has four accidentals, the last one added in the circle of fifths in E major is the “D sharp”. On the flute, there are fingers that close keys and fingers that open keys via a lever. The latter is the D sharp key. In E major, we can therefore leave the right little finger – a technical relief. Many flutists find A major more awkward, although there is one less accidental to consider.

4 … Naturally, the e occurs frequently, especially the e². This note is a dull note on the Boehm flute; it lies at the beginning of the overblown second octave and no longer has the tonal assistance of an open C-sharp key, which acts as an octave key on these two aforementioned notes, as D and D-sharp did previously.

5 … Bach simply titled his four works in this genre with the title of the opening movement, “Ouverture,” with no title for the entire composition. Actually, they are orchestral suites.

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