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Aisslinn Nosky's Bach Partita

Aisslinn Nosky leading the Handel and Haydn Society
Courtesy of the Artist
Handel and Haydn Society
Aisslinn Nosky leading the Handel and Haydn Society

On The Bach Hour, the Concertmaster of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society talks about her journey to period instrument performance and the centrality of Bach’s music in her artistic life.

On the program:

Missa Brevis in A, BWV 234 - Cantus Cölln, Konrad Junghänel

Partita No. 3 in E, BWV 1006, for Solo Violin - Aisslinn Nosky, violin



Aisslinn Nosky: They all seemed like they were really relaxed, and free, and having a party while they were playing.  And I thought, what’s that about, why do they look so happy?  I mean I love music, and so do my friends in the quartet, but why are they all smiling all the time in that baroque group?

Brian McCreath: And now the party that is baroque music includes that voice. It’s Aisslinn Nosky, the concertmaster of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. You’ll hear from Aisslinn Nosky in words and music, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Welcome to The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. I’m Brian McCreath. J.S. Bach’s music comes from a time and place so distant that it might as well be a different planet. The technology, medicine, and transportation of the day made daily life a radically different undertaking from our own 21st century reality. But Bach’s music is just as vital today as it was then. And for that we can thank not only Bach himself, but also the musicians who bring it to us. Like Aisslinn Nosky. After blazing an early music trail across her native Canada, Aisslinn Nosky now shares some of her time with audiences in Boston. Later in this hour, you’ll hear her performance of Bach’s Partita No. 3, recorded in WCRB’s Fraser Performance Studio.

First, though, we’ll turn to a mass setting by Bach. In the 1730’s he created four settings of the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the Latin mass text, calling each of them a Missa Brevis, or “short mass.” Bach created them in large part by carefully choosing individual movements from the hundreds of sacred cantatas he had written over the previous 10 or so years.

And while it may sound at first like Bach was just taking a shortcut, keep in mind that, to do this, he first had to sift through around 300 cantatas to find those movements. Then, there was the task of re-writing the music itself to account for the change from the German language of the cantatas to the Latin of the mass, with its completely different sounds and rhythms.

Let’s take a look at just one example of how that worked.

For the Gloria of the Missa Brevis in A, Bach re-cast a movement from the Cantata No. 67. In that piece, a soloist and choir alternate singing about joy and peace, beginning with an exuberant instrumental introduction before the entrance of that soloist on the words, “Peace be unto you.” Here’s that sequence:


This was, not surprisingly, a well-chosen movement for the text of the Gloria section of the mass, as it also alludes to both joy and peace. But in the mass, the first expression is the joy, unlike the cantata setting, which begins with peace. Bach’s solution? Re-create that instrumental introduction as a choral outburst, which you’ll hear in the equivalent sequence from the mass:


Another particular highlight from this mass is a gorgeous, meditative soprano aria on “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” or “Who takest away the sins of the world.”


Once again, Bach chose an aria with a similar theme, this time from the Cantata No. 179, in which the text translates as, “Beloved God, have mercy, let your comfort and grace appear to me!”

Here is a performance of the Missa Brevis in A major. Konrad Junghänel conducts Cantus Köln, with soloists drawn from the choir.


The Missa Brevis, or “short mass,” in A major, by Johann Sebastian Bach, in a performance by Cantus Köln with conductor Konrad Junghänel. That’s one of four such settings Bach wrote of the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the Latin mass.

As violinist Aisslinn Nosky began pursuing a life in music while growing up in British Columbia, she followed the route of many other young musicians, studying the great masterpieces and heading off to a conservatory. But the path that’s resulted in her present role of concertmaster with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society took an unexpected turn in those formative years. It all had to do with … fun!

Aisslinn Nosky: I was at conservatory and I was playing in a string quartet, a very serious student quartet. We imagined that we would go on together and study and possibly make a go of it. But we were very much in the modern sound world, traditional conservatory training. And I became friends with the people playing in the Baroque ensemble, and they all seemed like they were really relaxed and free and having a party while they were playing. And I thought, what's that about? Why do they look so happy? I mean, I love music and so do my friends and my quartet. Why are they all smiling all the time in that Baroque group? And I just started hanging around with them. And then someone said, lo and behold, "Hey, we need a violinist for this concert. Here's a baroque violin. We just, come on, we just need somebody." And I said, "Well, I don't know what I'm doing." "Well, we'll fix that along the way. Just just play." And then I got really interested in the aesthetic beliefs that I found among those people, who really pursue historical performance practice.

Brian McCreath: Here is Aisslinn Nosky in Classical New England’s Fraser Performance Studio, with the Partita No. 3 for solo violin, by J.S. Bach.

[MUSIC – BWV 1006]

Aisslinn Nosky: Courtly dances were already a little bit old fashioned when Bach was at the height of his creative powers. And it's, most academics are pretty sure now that although this partita is filled with dance movements, with names like "Loure" and "Gigue" and "Gavotte," that they were not, these pieces were not meant to be danced to. But actually I found out that it's quite likely that Bach himself had training in courtly dances as a youngster. So he would have been, even though these weren't meant to be accompanying formal dances, these particular pieces, he would have very much had knowledge of the steps that were required. And I think that really comes across in the music.

Brian McCreath: Violinist Aisslinn Nosky, the concertmaster of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, on the Partita No. 3 for solo violin she performed in our Fraser Performance Studio.

That performance is available for download when you subscribe to WCRB’s Classical Performance Podcast. For more information, and to hear this entire program again on-demand, visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros and producer Alan McLellan. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.